How to

Rock Reds!

Nothing prepares you for the hit when a decent snapper intercepts a lightly weighted bait drifting through the wash. It’s a kind of perfect chaos that I never tire of.

Somehow, it always seems to happen just at that moment your mind begins to wander …

These days I sometimes go for long periods without fishing for snapper, but when the urge hits, they are the only fish I’m interested in – nothing else will do!

I learnt to fish for snapper as a kid on the inshore reefs of Broken Bay in Sydney’s north. These days I do most of my fishing from the rocks, but have found that much of what I learnt on the boat translates when chasing reddies from the stones.

Snapper are one of those species that have been chased hard for generations and have had a fair amount of pressure put on their stocks in heavily populated areas like Sydney.

There are, however, still plenty of fish around if you know when and where to look. The average size of fish caught may not be as large as in the past or in less heavily fished areas, but if you fish smart it is certainly possible to get into some good numbers of one and two kilo fish with the odd larger specimen mixed in.

Chasing snapper from the rocks is a time-honoured practice around Sydney rock ledges and indeed much of the east coast. The cooler water of winter and spring sees many rock fishos switch their focus from pelagics to reds.

As is the case with all highly sought after species, most land-based snapper specialists are very cagey when it comes to locations.

Productive snapper spots are not given up lightly, but if you do your research and are willing to put in a few recon trips, it’s not too difficult to figure out a couple of productive spots of your own.

When I was first getting into chasing snapper from the rocks, the best piece of advice I got was from an old bloke I met in a local tackle store who told me: “Just about every headland in Sydney will hold snapper at the right time. The trick is to find the spots with deep water and a rubbly bottom.”

He added to “keep an eye out for rod holders carved into the rock. Some of these snapper spots haven’t been fished for years so the rod holders may be full of sand and shells. If you find the rod holders, there’s a good chance that you’ve found someone’s old snapper spot”.

The trick to finding land-based snapper locations is to find deep water that you can cast to.

When fishing from a boat you can use a depth sounder to track down likely looking spots, whereas when fishing from the shore you have to fish smarter as you don’t have the luxury of electronics.

One of the best clues signalling deep water is the presence of steep cliffs directly behind the rock ledge. The landscape directly behind the platform will often continue below the waterline. If you look for rock ledges backed by cliffs at least 10m high, chances are you will be able to cast to water at least 10m deep.

Snapper are known to be strongly associated with reefy structure. You will very rarely find snapper over a sandy or muddy bottom.

If you’ve spent much time fishing for them out of a boat, you’ll know that fishing directly over hard reef comes with its own set of problems.

For a start, hard reef is often covered in kelp and will result in a lot of snags when your rig reaches the bottom.

On top of this, the kelp beds are home to a number of undesirable species including wirrah, red rock cod and the much maligned sergeant baker – all very happy to pilfer your nicely presented snapper baits!

The best results, when targeting snapper, seem to come when you fish the sections of rubbly bottom that separate the fringes of the reef from the sand.

School-sized snapper will patrol these areas in search of an easy feed. If you’re lucky, you will eventually encounter some of the larger reds that pass through, although generally they seem to hunt solo or in pairs.

On most headlands throughout the Sydney region, the hard, kelp-covered reef extends a fair way out into the deeper water.

The gravelly edges of the reef are generally at least 50m from shore, and casts of 100m or more are sometimes needed to reach prime reddie territory.

For this reason, it’s essential that you practice your casting and get hold of a good distance-casting outfit.

The traditional set-up involves an overhead reel loaded with 20lb mono on a 13-14ft stiff fibreglass rod with a flicky tip. These days most anglers are using 20lb braid on mid sized threadlines and getting ample casting distance.

In the world of snapper fishing, timing is everything. Choosing the right time to fish is at least as important as picking the right spot.

While snapper are essentially a deep-water fish, they are willing to come into shallower water close to shore – but they need a reason to do so.

The only incentive for snapper to move in close to the headlands is the opportunity for an easy feed. This opportunity is presented when a big southerly swell comes through and stirs up the inshore waters.

I’ve caught the vast majority of my land-based reds on the tail end of a big southerly swell. You want to be fishing the rocks as soon as the swell subsides to a safe level to be in with the best chance of hooking some bigger snapper.

Snapper definitely feed more freely in low light conditions, at least in shallow inshore waters. The best times to fish for snapper are dawn and dusk. In fact, almost every decent snapper I’ve caught from the rocks has been taken within an hour of these times.

I like to be on the rocks at least half an hour before sunrise so I’ve got plenty of time to rig up and get a berley trail started before the sun begins to peek over the horizon.

If fishing the afternoon session, keep fishing until it gets dark as I’ve picked up a couple of my biggest land-based snapper just at the point when it becomes completely dark.

The most popular technique used for snapper from the rocks is to fish the bottom using a sliding paternoster rig.

A four-ounce snapper lead on the longer dropper of your rig will help give you the casting distance necessary to reach the gravel beds out wide.

A 3/0 or 4/0 Octopus or Suicide pattern hook on your short dropper is about right for most fish you are likely to encounter in Sydney.

Most headlands from Sydney north to the Central Coast that have a long rock platform, backed by steep cliffs will generally have good gravel beds around 80 to 100m from shore.

Long casts are necessary and it is important not to move your rig around once it has hit the bottom to decrease your chances of getting snagged.

Once a fish hits your bait, you need to strike hard and start winding immediately to get the rig up and away from the bottom.

It is a good idea to use slightly lighter line on the dropper to your sinker, so that if it does get snagged up you can simply break it off and keep the majority of your rig.

A trick to keep your bait slightly up off the bottom is to use a small piece of foam on your rig. Cut a piece of styrofoam with a diameter of around 1cm and push it onto your hook above the bait. While this rig may look strange to us, it does not seem to deter snapper from eating the bait and it certainly makes the bait more visible and less likely to get snagged.

My favourite technique when chasing reds from the rocks is to fish very lightly weighted “floater” baits in the wash.

This is a really simple technique that can yield some great results and means a lot less snags and wasted time.

The key to catching snapper in the wash is to fish spots that drop away suddenly into very deep water. Berley the wash heavily and the fish will come up higher in the water column and will eventually feed close to the surface.

I usually dice up a two-kilogram block of pilchards and throw a handful of pieces into the wash every minute or two.

The rig for this style of fishing couldn’t be simpler. I use 20lb braid mainline with a rod length of 20lb leader.

Tie a 3/0 Octopus or Suicide hook on with a pea sized sinker sitting directly on the hook. In very calm conditions you can get away with fishing your baits completely unweighted.

When snapper hit floater baits, they don’t mess around! They seem to hit at full speed and will go on several hard, lunging runs. You will know straight away if you have hooked a snapper by the pronounced headshakes.

You can mix this technique up by using soft plastics instead of bait. Soft stickbaits and wriggler tail plastics around 15cm long are quite effective.

Rig your plastics on relatively light quarter ounce jigheads so that they float through the wash rather than plummet straight to the bottom.

Wriggler tail plastics are particularly effective for this style of fishing as their inbuilt action means they are likely to get hit on the drop.

We’re taught to use fresh bait for quality fish. Snapper, I believe, are something of an exception to this rule.

You need to use high quality bait, but I think that toughness is equally important. Some of the best snapper I’ve caught have been on strips of month-old salted bonito.

My favourite baits for snapper are fresh squid heads and strip baits and strips of salted bonito, tuna and slimy mackerel. All of these baits are very attractive to snapper and are tough enough to withstand the attacks of smaller fish.

Hook the bait lightly in one corner so that the gape of the hook is fully exposed. An exposed hook does not seem to deter snapper and will result in a more solid hook-up.

If you don’t have access to squid or salted tuna, most flesh baits will work. Fresh frigate and slimy mackerel make great bait, as does yellowtail and even pilchards.

Fishing larger baits will put you in with a chance of a bigger fish, so don’t be afraid to cut baits up to about 15cm long.

Catching a feed of snapper from the rocks is a great winter/spring fishing option in Sydney and is surprisingly achievable if you’re willing to put in a little bit of time to figure out a couple of local spots.

The technique remains very much the same along much of the east coast, from southeast Queensland down to Victoria, and there are often better numbers of big fish to be had once you get away from the denser population centres.

Snapper pull hard and look and taste great, so get out there and give it a go before the water warms up too much!

This story was first published in the Fishing World October 2013 issue.

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