Boating destination: Gippsland Lakes

By: Angelo San Giorgio

Riviera life is only three hours’ drive east of Melbourne in the Gippsland Lakes.

Boating destination: Gippsland Lakes
DESTINATION - Gippsland Lakes

Trying to sum-up the entire Gippsland Lakes region in five pages is like sitting down to a seven-course banquet and only being allowed to lick the spoons. This region is so vast and encompasses so many idyllic options that I decided to exercise portion control and divvied up each course to be sampled in its own right.

A leisurely three-hour drive east of Melbourne, Paynesville is an ideal holiday destination for boating families of all persuasions. Whether you’re the skipper of a 60-foot cruiser or cartopping a 10-foot punt, Paynesville and the surrounding waterways offers an escape from the chaos of suburban life, in an environment that can still offer all the comforts of home and then some.

Bordered by Lake King in the north and Lake Victoria to the south, Paynesville is part of the vast Gippsland Lakes system and provides a central jump-off point to access the more than 400km² of navigable waterways that extends from Sale to the west across to Lakes Entrance in the east. The Lakes are fed by the Mitchell, Tambo, Nicholson, Thompson, Avon and Latrobe rivers, and each one is worthy of exploration in their own right I might add. The rivers and streams that flow through the surrounding hinterland spill into a naturally occurring delta that flows to sea via the region’s only open-water access at Lakes Entrance.

The landscape seems comfortably familiar, rather reminiscent of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, with a large proportion of the local population also residing alongside in an extensive manmade canal system. However, the pace here is decidedly more laidback and the only high-rises are those populated by koalas. This ambitious project first broke ground in 1984 and now encompasses a network of more than 7km of canals that complement the natural landscape and provides visitors with a waterfront experience without having to win Lotto. Not to mention a haven for the southern black bream that thrive among the moorings, levees and rock banks studding the area.

This part of the world is very special to me as it was the destination of my family’s very first holiday after our arrival in Australia more than 30 years ago. Years later, my wife and I courted on the banks of McMillan Strait getting to know it and each other, while reducing the local mullet population. What a women! McMillan Strait divides Paynesville from neighbouring Raymond Island. Only accessible by boat or vehicular ferry, the latter is a destination in itself renowned for its birdlife and koala population, which has thrived ever since their introduction in 1953.

Over the years, we’ve stayed in all manner of accommodation from unpowered tent sites to private holiday rentals. This time round, we availed ourselves of the hospitality of Captain’s Cove. These luxury waterfront apartments, each with their own private jetties are set among private residences on Burrabogie Island.

My neighbours for the week owned Rivieras, old timber cruisers and ocean-going yachts. The little Crestliner Super Hawk I’d brought along might’ve looked big on the back of my car, but was positively minnow-like in this company. Yet, despite the size difference, we were all in the same club, united against those who don’t boat.

And then there’s Notorious. Looking for all-the-world like an escapee from the latest Pirates of the Caribbean flick, this handmade caravel, inspired by 15th century ships like those employed by Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan, is a floating testament to seaworthy design.

Man, this is the life. Nothing beats getting up in the wee hours, hopping aboard your waiting boat and tootling off for a morning’s adventure, or even just sitting back on the timber deck munching on the barbecued fillets of the morning’s catch, glass of wine in hand as the last rays of the setting sun caresses your moored boat’s hull.

In fact, things got so laid back, on the last day I didn’t even bother casting off, I just drowned a couple of sandworm off the back, while daughter number one flicked a vibe and lured a couple of feisty bream. All the while ducks, pelicans and black swans honed in on us, drawn by my three-year-old son Kristian’s offering of half a vegemite sandwich. Surreal! I’ve found my happy place.

If something bigger than average is more to your liking, or if you’ve always hankered to play Captain Stubing at the wheel of your very own Love Boat, this option could be for you.

Making the leap from a trailerboat to a large motorised cruiser may seem like natural progression for some, but the transition can be daunting. Bulls Cruisers, now owned by Peter Blainey of Dockside Marine, offers the perfect solution to ease you into the cruising lifestyle. Bulls have a range of self-drive big-boat experiences that could see you at the helm of a 40ft cruiser with the family as crew. Expert tuition is provided prior to your departure and then it’s up to you to set your agenda.

Alternatively, for those of you just sneaking down for a cheeky weekend, or God forbid don’t own a boat, Peter has a couple of gorgeous classically styled Terrara 18s that serve as dayboats to fish or cruise the surrounding waterways with, the soothing putt-putt of their Nanni diesels serving as your soundtrack. Or for a real change of pace, there’s the Classic Fishing Boat, a diesel-powered, tiller-steered 25ft dinghy that is remarkably seaworthy. I can personally attest to this as we stretched our luck during a building storm front several weeks back and got caught out in 30kts of wind-swept slop. Sure, not the driest ride in the world but since we were only capable of a 3kts top-end speed, it gave us a real impression of what the old pros put up with back in the day.

Dockside also has the only fuel bowsers on the water and is a handy spot to whack into the GPS. Rest assured, help is always close at hand should a sandbank or other impediment cross your path.

Paynesville is just plain good for the soul. The locals were awesome, the weather mild and calm, and the fish — ah well two out of three ain’t bad. The relaxed pace of life in this town is infectious and I even scored a lunch invitation from the local Lions Club within two hours of hitting town — must’ve been the Trader hat.

After 24 hours, you literally feel the shroud of everyday life lifting from your shoulders. It’s relaxed, family friendly and inviting and always feels safe. There are a couple of well-maintained free boat ramps, with plenty of free parking everywhere. There seems to be a concerted effort on everyone’s part to make visitors welcome. The region also boasts some of the most fertile pastureland and wineries in the State and is deserving of another feature of its own.

Big thanks go to Tamara Cook of Captain’s Cove, who really made us feel welcome. Also Chris and the staff at the Boathouse Restaurant, they squeezed us in despite being fully booked. Those were some of the best steaks we’ve ever had and the view of the water lapping against the shore provided a spectacular background. We bothered the team again for breakfast, although this time they’d relocated to Fisherman’s Wharf Café right on the main boardwalk in the heart of town.

I don’t want to go home. However, unlike the French Riviera, I can always afford to come back again next month.


Paynesville’s major drawcard, at least initially, was the fishing, which is always consistent despite the season. The options are many and varied and should you be unlucky enough to score a bout of severe weather, most locations can also be accessed by road and or a short walk. Or why not hit the local jetties that almost always hold resident fish.

The entire Gippsland Lake system is estuarine and tidal and holds some phenomenal populations of southern black bream, dusky flathead, mullet, gars, luderick, tailor and occasionally marauding schools of Australian salmon. Not as common, but still worth targeting are King George whiting and juvenile snapper. All species mentioned are suckers for local sandworm, with prawns an excellent standby. Soft plastic lures, metal vibes and small hard-bodied minnows and poppers can all be deadly at times.


Within a short boat trip from town, the big three: the Tambo, Mitchell and Nicholson rivers are a lure fisherman’s wet dream. Littered with drowned timber, rock walls, weed beds and sand flats these systems are home to some of the biggest bream and estuary perch in the country. Bruising bream to 2kg and estuary perch with shoulders to rival a quarterback will test anglers and their tackle to the nth degree… when they’re on. When shutdown every ounce of fishing guile is needed to convince them to open their jaws. All techniques employed above will stand you in good stead.

Of particular mention are the silt jetties that fringe the lower Mitchell. These are a naturally occurring levee formed by sediment deposited over millennia, extending out into Lake King and are an ideal starting point for the mobile bream spinner. The upper reaches of these systems also support healthy populations of trout and natives including bass.

Who hasn’t heard of the Ninety Mile Beach? This pristine stretch of coastline is littered with deep and productive gutters that act as highways for opportunistic feeders such as salmon, mullet, flathead, tailor and a variety of shark species. Sea-run bream and trevally are also relatively common as are snapper and whiting in season. Lures, flies as well as whole or cut-fish baits and pippies are sure to tempt.

All the usual offshore reef species are on offer for the more adventurous anglers, however, this February’s capture of a 104kg striped marlin and 210kg blue have raised the bar of what is possible. The only access other than dragging a small tinny across the dunes and launching straight into the surf is the Lakes Entrance bar that forms at the entrance to the Gippsland Lakes system, and has a fearsome reputation. Yes it can be hairy, but truth be told it’s really no more or less treacherous than any other entrance along our coastline and should always be treated with respect. As a major commercial fishing fleet calls the Gippsland Lakes home, vessels of all sizes navigate the bar on a daily basis to earn their keep. Here’s a little gem… if the pros aren’t heading out, then take the hint and hit the estuary or lakes instead.

Imagine having to wake up to this every morning… man, the sacrifices I make.

For lovers of classic boats, Paynesville is an absolute perv fest.

How appropriate. This dude’s feathered mates have a bad habit of thieving your fish.

Captain Jack Sparrow must’ve taken a wrong turn at Barbados.

Public and private berths fringe the waterfront. Slip Bight Marina offers a range of options, either BYO or hire-a-cruiser from the Bulls crew.

From Trade-a-Boat Issue 433, Nov-Dec 2012. Photos: Angelo San Giorgio.


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