How toTips & Techniques

Snapper basics

IT’S hard to believe snapper were once considered a bait only proposition. You only need to walk through the local tackle shop or flick through a few fishing mags to appreciate the enormity of the shift to artificials that has occurred over the past decade or so. The reasons are completely understandable as there’s a significant enticement and challenge associated with fooling snapper on artificial offerings. Bait is even considered “cheating” by some. The downside however is that lures rely heavily on good numbers of fish to be around in order to work effectively. For this reason they are slowly losing their appeal in various locations with snapper numbers generally on the decline. The South Australian scene once heralded as a snapper mecca is a prime example of this and with the fishery now in disarray and large closure areas in place, anglers need to be adaptable.

A notable rebound back to bait fishing methods was gaining momentum prior to the main closure being announced and this has continued to occur in the remaining zones open for snapper fishing. I probably speak for many recreational fishos feeling the squeeze that the odds of coming home with a feed of big snapper is now a far cry from what it used to be. Call me a pessimist, but sadly it’s hard to see the fishery reverting back to the good old days; even once these closures have run their course. More specifically the chance of rolling with the lure craze and regularly hooking into big reds on artificials is a significantly less likely prospect as well.

With similar stock concerns echoing around the country, bait fishing for snapper continues to sell itself as a sensible back-up option and the advantages are certainly there in comparison to lures when trying to pick-off individual or scattered fish. Bait fishing is also the preferred option for introducing kids to chasing snapper due to the basic fishing fundamentals involved. It also certainly produces better results than lures in low light conditions or under darkness. The problem is, however, that this broad technique could almost be considered a lost art given that fishos have been so caught up in the lure hype for so long. Modern day anglers could easily be excused for being ignorant and lacking knowledge in this particular department. But in order to re-ignite the fire for many and bring some of the lure nuts back up to speed let’s take a further look into successfully applying bait fishing methods for snapper and what has worked well for me over the past decade amidst the decline of my own local fishery.

Correct Application

Consideration must be paid to the surrounding environment and influencing factors such as water depths, tide and location to name a few,. Determining whether to fish on the drift or at anchor is one decision that often needs to be made. Drift fishing with baits, for example, works exceptionally well over widespread areas where you will either likely encounter snapper or where you’ve already had some form of confirmation on your sounder that fish are roaming the area. This sometimes relies heavily on your ability to accurately use and interpret your sounder, especially side imaging if available, in order to fish this style with confidence. Drifting basically allows you to keep a bait offering in the water at all times and if you happen to drag it past a fish at the right moment then there’s a fair chance it’ll get scoffed. If fishing lures in a similar manner you could easily miss that exact same chance if the lure is sitting somewhere out of the strike zone or back in the boat ready to be flicked out again. This same outcome would be further amplified when fish numbers in the area were marginal to begin with and it really could make or break the trip. Drifting is a technique that can be applied to both shallow and deep water, although it is more commonly applied to the latter due to the complexities and safety concerns involved when dropping the pick in deep offshore waters.

Fishing at anchor on the other hand is perfectly suited to scenarios where you’re aiming to fish tight to structure where snapper are holding or if you’re planning to run a stream of berley out the back in an attempt to attract a few reds to the boat. It’s a great method to utilise when you really are struggling to find any reasonable fish numbers. Provided there’s some tide running, with a bit of patience you can sit it out and wait for things to happen, as opposed to fruitlessly foaming the water with lure after lure. In this scenario it’s possible to run quite a few different baits on various outfits across the back of the boat in hope that something will inevitably unlock the code. And similarly to drift fishing, the advantage remains that a bait offering will remain present for when or if the fish do make a quick fire raid through the berley trail. Sure you can flick around a soft plastic or dangle a small jig in the meantime to cover bases and this can certainly still account for the odd fish. But from a pure numbers perspective and the manner in which fish will make their quick passes it really is hard to go past bait as the more reliable option.

The Business End

Bait rigging for reds commands simple yet thoughtful application. In deep offshore water my preference is to run a two dropper paternoster rig and usually a sinker of at 6oz or thereabouts depending on tide and depth. It’s a long way down to only deploy a single baited rig so a two dropper system provides some back-up if one of the baits are picked off or a bite is missed. Relative to where you fish a wide variety of by-catch is possible in the deep water reef environment so don’t be afraid to rig up with a heavier trace than usual for extra reassurance. The reef can also be quite harsh and unforgiving at times and for this very reason a running-sinker style rig is not desirable as you’ll not only snag up very quickly but the thought of leader or braid being wrapped up on the reef is not a very comforting one. J-hooks are my preference in the deep as you’re often feeling for or striking at bites so they can be swiftly set when needed. 

Back in the shallow water environment is where running-sinker rigs really shine and they’re probably one of my favourite snapper rigs to use when fishing with baits. The addition of an ezy-rig onto the mainline is the ultimate way to build this rig as it allows sinkers to easily be changed within respect to varying tide conditions throughout the duration of a session. The ezy-rig is governed by a snap swivel which will stop it sliding all the way down to your bait. Instead a 1-1.5m length of fluorocarbon, say 40-60lb in nature, will run from the swivel to the terminal hook and bait. Fluorocarbon is great for abrasion resistance but it will also help keep spooky fish in check which is often required if they’ve copped some serious fishing pressure in recent times and numbers have dwindled. Circle hooks are perfectly suited to this style of bait fishing as you can comfortably leave your rod in the holder with a decent strike drag and the fish will pretty much hook itself. Just avoid the temptation of picking up your rod too early as you could easily miss the bite.

For rigging up circles, avoid a simple blood or uni knot. This can cause the hook to work ineffectively resulting in missed bites or gut-hooked fish. Instead, aim to snell the hook onto your trace and feed it back through the hook eyelet from the back side which will help the hook to turn around on itself and work in true circle fashion. A solid strike drag is undeniably required for these hooks to find their mark in the hard mouth of a snapper and I’ve seen plenty of dropped fish and missed takes due to very lightly set drags over the years. Standard octopus J-hooks can also work well but my preference would always be to run two snelled together for extra reassurance, despite the bait you’re using. I’ll happily run a single circle hook in a firm bait like a whiting head, but with softer or longer baits my preference changes to a two hook rig.

Variety is Best

As with most forms of fishing, fresh bait is always best but variety is probably the key for better snapper success. One particular instance stands out to me to highlight this. We had been fishing for a couple of hours without success with fresh whiting heads and frames soaking down below on three different rod/reel outfits. My mate had just caught a fresh slimy mackerel on the bait collecting rod so he cut it in half and lobbed it out on another outfit. Within minutes his reel was singing as a solid red shot off with the bait. After that fish was landed he repeated the same thing using the other half of the mackerel bait and he was hooked up yet again in no time. It was obvious these fish weren’t at all interested in the whiting baits that we had been persisting with and the decision to mix it up certainly paid dividends.

Squid heads/strips, tommies and pilchards have been other noteworthy baits for us over the years and most of these are easily sourced by either catching them or finding them in your local tackle shop freezer. Beyond this we’ve also had success with snook chunks/fillets, whole mullet or silver whiting, trevally fillets and half a yakka or salmon trout. And although I’ve never given them a crack I’m sure rock crabs would make a great bait variation for something different as we regularly find them in the gut contents of a lot of big snapper that we encounter. Options are endless as such is the scavenger nature of these fish although it really depends on what mood they’re in on the day. You’ll still need to work hard for results as chasing snapper on bait is by no means a “cheats” form of fishing. But with snapper numbers unarguably on a slow decline around the country it’s obvious why this old school technique is making a strong case for itself amongst many recreational fishos, particularly those in the more southern parts of Australia.

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