How to catch Big Fish
Every fisho worth his/her salt wants to bag a knobby-headed monster reddie. JAMIE CRAWFORD reveals a few secrets to help you in your quest for a big snapper.
MOST of our popularly targeted species have a prized benchmark size that separates the middling class from the trophies. For barra it’s the magical metre, for KG whiting it’s the kilo-sized “kidney slapper”, and for snapper it’s cracking 20 old fashioned pounds.
Cracking the 20 (or 9.1kg for us modern-metric fishos) is a milestone that most snapper fishers seek. It’s at this point the snapper starts to grow broad shoulders, develops a prominent hump head and sometimes grows a hideously grotesque nose. It’s now that the snapper achieves the rank of “knobber”, “old man”, “slob” or simply “big red”, depending on where you’re from.
Colloquialism may differ between states, but the standing of a big red remains the same … highly coveted. For some anglers that trophy red is fulfilled early on, while for others it becomes a time consuming hunt that can take many years to achieve.
The countless hours of effort seem insignificant when that first hump-headed 20 pound red comes into view. I clearly remember my first 20 pounder. I was fishing wide of Whyalla over an artificial reef in about 25m of water. We had been getting some neat fish to about 15lb throughout the morning, plus the usual pan-sized fish.
I managed to catch a yakka, so I sent the little fella down live and it got smashed. Straight away I knew it was the big knobber I was after, and several minutes later we had a solid 25lb red slapping on the deck of the boat.
Of course, where you’re fishing in Australia will boost your likelihood of bagging a trophy red. Some areas freakishly produce mega-reds on a consistent basis, while in other regions boating a 20lb snap will be a near-impossible mission. There are several regions around Oz recognised for producing above average sized reds.
South Australia is regarded as the big snapper hub of the country, in particular Gulf St Vincent and Spencer Gulf. These two Gulfs see more trophy snapper caught than anywhere else in Australia, so if you’re serious about landing a plus 20 pounder, then SA is the best place to start the hunt. October through until April is the best time frame to target SA’s mega-reds, remembering that November in SA is closed to snapper fishing to protect spawning aggregations of large fish.
Locations regarded for mega-reds in Spencer Gulf include Whyalla, Arno Bay and Port Broughton, while in Gulf St. Vincent the little township of Ardrossan is the famed big red locale.
If you’re looking at bagging a trophy red along the east coast, then Port Stephens and Coffs Harbour in northern NSW are the east coast capitals of snapper fishing. Some great reds are taken on the deeper reefs in the region, but genuine 20 pounders are few and far between.
From all accounts, most of the bigger reds slot in the 10 – 15lb bracket (5 to 7kg) – tidy fish in their own right. However, a handful of big snapper raise their heads each season. A mate of mine recently bagged a 23 pounder at Coffs – a great fish. Definitely the best east coast locale to try if a big red is on your hit-list.
On the west coast of Oz, Shark Bay on the Pilbara coastline offers the best western fishery for large reds. It’s a remote stretch of coast, and a long way to tow a trailer boat if you come from interstate, but some great reds are taken from the region to make the travelling worthwhile. Some big fish to 20lb and above are caught in Sharks, with June to September the prime months.
Unfortunately the area has been prone to overfishing, with both commercial and recreational fishers hitting the schooling aggregations heavily in the past. The calm waters of Shark Bay offer the perfect haven for small boat fishers, however the snapper fishery is now strictly governed so check up-to-date regulations if you are planning to visit this remote area.
In Victoria, Port Phillip Bay and Westernport are the two known grounds where large reds are caught. There are a lot of small fish in between the big slobs, so a lot of on-water time is required for the illustrious 20 pounder in Victoria. September to November is the snapper season in Vicco, and each year there are some quality reds over 20lb caught in these two shallow bodies of water.
Irrespective of location, there are a few extra steps we can take while on the water to improve our chances of landing that trophy 20 pound red. Locating big snapper real estate is obviously the No.1 priority. In SA, the majority of our thumper reds are taken around the wrecks and scattered reefs in the deeper sections of our Gulf waters. By deep water we are only talking 18 – 25m, but by Gulf standards, that’s almost at the max. The shallower inshore drops and channels are consistent for producing smaller fish up to around 15lb (7kg), but the big slobs reside on the deeper drops.
Once we’ve located our structure, we will position the boat up-current from the wreck or reef, but usually no further than 50m from the site. It’s common to locate schools of snapper over these offshore drops, but the truly big fish rarely school up as a tight mass on the sounder; more often than not they will be scattered in the background.
The majority of big fish are caught around the peak feeding times of sunrise, sunset, and after dark. I know this is revisiting basic stuff, but fishing around these low light and night time periods will greatly increase your chances of pulling that nomadic big fish.
A lot of the smaller schooling fish will actively feed in bursts throughout the day, but the larger reds travel in smaller pods, so feeding competition isn’t as high. They’ve reached a ripe old age for a reason, and are often selective and cagey in their feeding habits.
Concentrating your fishing time around the best tides of the month will make a difference. If it’s going to be slow tides or a dodge, then it’s worth saving the bait, berley and fuel and waiting until water movements return. Study the tide chart and select blocks of good tides in advance.
If I was going to hit the water for only a few hours, I’d aim to arrive on location at the turn of the tide, then fish the run in or run out period, preferably coinciding with sunrise or sunset. By vigilantly selecting the location, tides and time of day, you’ve already put yourself in the box seat for some snapper action.
Laying a berley trail is an important step that is often ignored by anglers fishing these deeper drops. Throwing loose handfuls of chopped berley isn’t the best idea, as it will often settle hundreds of metres away from the boat, and will do more harm than good. When contending with tidal flow in deep water, getting the berley to the bottom is important.
We use a swing-door berley cage which dumps the berley contents on the seafloor – where it’s needed for snapper. We also lower a weighted oyster-mesh cage filled with berley to the bottom where it sits – slowly releasing scent in the direction of tidal flow. By doing this we have a loose trail of chopped berley that feeding fish have direct access to, as well as a caged amount to hold the fish in the area.
However, this berley doesn’t just attract the XOS snapper. During these peak feeding periods, this berley will attract small snapper, which can be problematic when targeting larger fish. Although these small fish can be a nuisance, by consciously fishing around them you can still pull a big old red from amongst the little tackers.
You often find that the larger fish will sit a distance away from the hive of smaller fish, cruising around the perimeter of activity waiting for loose items of berley to waft past. By using larger baits, larger hooks and casting away from the boat to position the bait further along the berley trail, you greatly increase your chances of pinning that big fish.
It’s easy to differentiate the bite of smaller fish compared to a big trophy red. Small snapper will consistently knock and tug at a bait, which is easily felt when using braided line. When you know small fish are attacking your bait, resist the hesitation to strike as many of these small fish suffer barotrauma and do not release well from these deeper waters. Instead, slowly retrieve, check your bait and re-cast to a different possie.
Larger fish will lack the short sharp tugs as felt by the smaller fish, and you will often just feel heavy weight as a large fish slowly swims off with your bait in tow. Quite often it is a slow take until the fish feels the sting of the hook, and then the fun begins.
Using large baits such as whole squid, herring, red mullet, silver whiting or trumpeters helps to withstand the entourage of smaller picking fish, so too using the heads of larger whiting, salmon and squid. Live baits such as trumpeter, yakka, herring, mackerel and small squid are dynamite on larger fish, and often curb the interest of small snapper. By using large or live baits, you don’t get as much action, but the action you get is from better fish.
Targeting the big slobs in deep water requires beefed-up tackle compared to targeting the smaller reds in shallow water. You can still persevere with light threadline outfits, but big snapper can be tough dogged fish in deep water – especially when there is a stiff tide running.
When chasing the bigger fish in deep water, a 6000 sized threadline coupled to an 8 – 10kg rod of about 6’4” to 6’8” length is ideal, and provides a bit more grunt should that 20 pound plus monster slam your bait. For overhead devotees, an 8 – 10kg outfit comprising of a 400 – 600 sized reel is ideal for the big fish.
Braided line is definitely the best option in these deeper waters, giving you direct contact with your bait and allowing you to decipher the smaller picking bites from the solid knocks. 30lb braid is a good size, and considering the comparable diameter in mono would be around 8kg, you can pack oodles of thinner diameter braid on these mid-sized spools.
I also run a 3m length of 40lb supple mono to act as the shock leader to cushion the braid. I connect this to the braid double via an improved Albright – a super handy knot. Because these larger reds can be fickle feeders, I use a long leader of around 4ft running from the swivel down to the hooks. I use 40lb supple mono for the trace line as well, separated from the shock leader with a quality barrel swivel (no clip).
I have a pair of snelled 6/0 Octopus hooks at the business end, and above the swivel I use an Ezi Rig running sinker clip. Three ounces of lead is a fairly standard weight for use in these deeper waters, but as the tide slows the sinker size can be dropped accordingly.
On the right equipment, big snapper are awesome sportfish. However, these bigger fish are important breeders so target them using common sense. There’s nothing wrong with keeping one for the table, but don’t go overboard – look ahead to tomorrow.