I WATCHED the rhythmic sway of the rods in the holders over a lazy glass-like ocean. A message on the phone broke the ambience and I looked away to check it. However the unmistakable sound of creaking graphite and braid sizzling through the guides quickly had me scrambling to wrestle a bent rod from its holder with a serious fish connected to the other end.
These early moments of a battle with a big red will keep you coming back time and again. Landing the prize only breeds an addiction that’s hard to shake. The aesthetic appeal of a solid “red” as I prefer to call them is impressive, as I’m sure most would agree.
A snapper’s attributes have made them a perennial favourite along the eastern seaboard for many generations. They inhabit coastal estuaries and harbours, right out to the continental shelf, making them top target for boat or land based fishing. Did I mention they’re also pretty good on the table?
Snapper fishing has a few tacts of play depending on the purpose and goal for your fishing trip. There’s the numbers game, chasing a good wholesome feed of fresh fish with the hope of one day finding a better one, or the trophy hunter game chasing just those few bigger bites. Around the Sydney region and nearby Illawarra, I rate any snapper above 70cm as pretty damn good fish and on lighter gear will give you a good battle that is never won until they’re in the net. I will note most above this size are not the greatest table fare as opposed to the smaller 45-60cm size and I personally choose to release them in the hope I or someone else gets a thrill our of them again someday.
To most that crimson big knobby red is a dream fish and that dream might not be too far from reality once you grasp some important fundamentals. You might even catch a couple and get a nice meal or two from the smaller ones along the way.
Where to fish?
It’s the million dollar question and everyone wants to know that secret spot for the big snapper. However, how you fish can be just as important as where you fish.
That said, there’s no substitute for finding those preferred hangouts and feeding locations. Snapper are creatures of habit and like to reside in similar areas year after year and building a dossier of fish catching areas will only make your fishing better with experience and time on the water.
The two largest factors driving a snapper’s everyday life, besides spawning or reproduction, is food and structure in no particular order. They are not too dissimilar to you or I. If we have food in our nice cosy home (structure) where we are comfortable then we won’t stray too far from our structure, so to speak.
If that cosy home or structure has no food then we will go and find it. I bet you don’t go far to get this food, too. Unlike us were we go shopping to get food, while snapper rely on current or tides to bring food to their preferred structure. If over time this does not happen they will move onto greener pastures were food is more prevalent on another structure.
This is an important factor as to why you need a dossier of waypoints or spots to fish, preferably in a wide depth range as on any season, month, week or day currents and bait can change and subsequently move the snapper.
This is where a good sounder with GPS capabilities becomes an invaluable tool for identifying fish holding terrain, plus fish themselves, bait, and the ability to waypoint the area for future fishing trips. Take the time to find areas of hard terrain holding good bait concentrations, pike, yellowtail, slimey mackeral, squid and prawns these are the most sought after food items for Snapper. Spots not need to be dramatic pinnacles or bommies either; actually these are usually not so productive for snapper anyways. Hard ground rising only a few metres that holds bait regularly is perfect, combined with some sponge or kelp beds and even better.
Now you want at least one spot or even more in the following depth ranges: 15-30m, 30-40m, 40-50m, 50-60m, and 60-80m. If fishing early morning begin shallower and progress deeper and vice versa if fishing into the afternoon unless a good bite is found then lock down on the area and fish it hard.
Large snapper certainly can test your gear so everything needs to be up to the task. Quality and well maintained reels in 3000-5000 size is perfect with 4000 size being optimum, and a smooth drag is essential. Match this to a 7’-7’6” graphite rod in 3-6kg or 4-8kg range. I prefer the lighter of the two as this gives good action when placed in the holder. The reel needs to be loaded with 10-15lb quality braid. Recently I have much preferred using 10lb Power Pro in a dark green colour. I’m not 100 per cent sure if this has helped increase bites in deeper water (above 40m) vs coloured or multi-coloured braid, but in shallower water (under 40m) there seems to be significantly more bites. In the deeper water the darker colour does have the advantage of not being snipped by those pesky leatherjackets which can be nothing short of a fisherman’s nightmare at times. Fluorocarbon leader can significantly increase bites; 16-25lb is all I use with 20lb being the norm for most situations. Try to run close to two rod lengths of this joined to the braid with an FG knot or Uni to Uni knot. The extra length might seem odd but it’s a great shock absorber for those big head knocks and tail kicks from a bumpy headed snapper, plus after a few sergeant bakers you will thank me. Preferably you will need two outfits, this will increase your catch rate in deeper water situations as it allows more off the water column to be covered.
A variety of Jig head weights will be required as snapper can exist from the washes well out to 100 metres of water. Personal preference is for the Nitro saltwater ones from ¼ – 1 ½ oz. in a 5/0 sized hook. Strength is very important and these hooks seemed to be more resilient to rusting then some other brands.
There are no rules when it comes to what works and what doesn’t. It is quite surprising what they will eat when in a feeding mood. At times plastics have been chewed in half by leather jackets and a hungry snapper has come in and snaffled the rest. It’s when they are not so willing to eat that certain types and styles begin proving as must have snapper lures. Berkley Gulps in 7 inch Jerkshads and 5-inch grub tail configurations seem to consistently catch great fish time and again for me, so much so I rarely throw anything else. Generally it will be a mate who will throw other types of plastics and some models definitely hold their own. Berkley Squid Vicious, Berkley Nemesis, Berkley King Prawn, Squidgy Wriggler, Squidgy Whip Bait, Squidgy Prawns, Savage Gear Eel and Z- Man Grubz are standout snapper plastics. Make sure to have a few brighter colours and natural colours as it is very evident they will be biting on one or other on any given day and even on the same day if the bite has waned.
Vibes and metal jigs are other types of lures which work well and best used in the deeper water above 50 metres, when starting out stick with plastics as they have proven just too consistent on big fish.
A sea anchor or drogue can change a whole days fishing. The ability to control the drift in current or wind and at times both can mean catching fish and not catching fish. Worse case if you leave it behind a bucket and rope can get you out of trouble. Not only does it slow the drift to allow better fishing and a more natural presentation it keeps the boat running true which makes fishing multiple rods in deeper water that much easier.
Simply just chuck it out there! Well not quite but on some days it can be not far from that if in the right spot and the fish are fanging. The actual technique to the retrieve is very basic the fish almost always eat it while the plastic is sinking to the bottom or when it is being wafted by the boat in the rod holder. That’s right, the boat does most the work, simply cast it out ahead of the drift and give it some slack and place in the rod holder. You only want the line to come tight when the plastic is about 2/3 to the bottom. Then the boat will rock the plastic while it continually moves down the water column to very near the bottom when it is directly under the boat. Most bites will be just as the slack takes up or directly under the boat.
In water above 30m when the slack just takes up on the first rod this is when you should be looking to fire out the second rod and repeat the process. This covers much more water and fish; it also cuts down time spent in area that may be inactive.
The idea is to cover as much water in multiple locations until you start catching fish or at very least seeing bait and snapper and the sounder. Bait is very important when it comes to snapper fishing. They love shadowing schools of yellowtail, pike, pilchards, slimy mackerel and squid. The more you fish for them it becomes very obvious these fish are ruled by bait and structure and love having both very close. As mentioned finding these areas is the key, and then there will be certain times of the year spots will fire up as the bait and fish stack up. Time will be your friend in this divine detail but take the time to find the bait and fish each time out with your electronics and you will shortcut a lot of the hard work by being already around prime fish.
I try to avoid any motor noise if possible but on some days off high boat traffic it does not seem to play as major role as most people including myself believed. If it’s early morning minimal boat traffic and I’m aware the spot has fish I will dummy drift away from the area then work out a drift over the prime location without driving over it.
Typically I’ll give it a few drifts then move on. If it looked okay I’ll return later maybe around a tide change. Keep moving around trying different areas and depths, even mix up the plastics as well until you get one of those screaming rod buckling runs and lock down on that technique and area to reveal its full potential.
Few fish are more rewarding from an inshore reef than a big knobby headed snapper. They really are an amazing fish with great fighting qualities and a look magnificent and it’s time you chased what could be only a cast away.