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Snapper FAQ (frequently asked questions)
  |  First Published: October 2011



It’s the start of October and that means two things in Melbourne. The footy is over for another year and the snapper will have started!

Let’s hope for light winds and tight lines this season, even the old timers who have seen 20 or more snapper seasons under their belts are getting excited!

Old red can be caught year round in Port Phillip and Western Port but spring and early summer is the period where every man and his dog gets in on the action and for good reason; the fish are usually plentiful and bite hard as spring blends into early summer.

LOCAL LEGENDS – WHY DO THE SNAPPER COME IN?

Local snapper environmental science is well understood and relatively accepted by most as fact although there will always be some alternate views. A bit of debate is a good thing, we don’t want our fishing to be too predictable!

Both Western Port and Port Phillip are exceptional snapper producers however they are vastly different waterways. Western Port is dominated by deep tidal scours and shallow mud flats while Port Phillip is regarded as a relatively broad but shallow basin with an average depth of just 13m. Both inlets hold good numbers of resident fish; those that never left after spawning the previous summer.

In late winter and into spring a significant body of snapper move into both basins. This migration will last several months from the early arrivals to the stragglers and it’s widely accepted that the movements inside coincide with the moon phases.

On the whole the big move inshore is to feed up and prepare to spawn when the water temperature rises to favourable levels.

From an anglers’ perspective, from the time the first fish arrive inside the bays they spread out in varying sized schools seeking to hold on structure. Over time they steadily increase their need to feed. Initially when the water is still quite cold feeding is spasmodic, their metabolisms are slow and they can be lethargic only feeding every other day or so.

This is the frustrating period where fish are sounded up but often won’t ‘go’. Usually light takes are the norm where rod tips load a little before springing back and many experienced anglers fish in free spool or baitrunner mode to try and get a hook up. As the water temperature in the bays equalise with the outside ocean, the bite starts to heat up to the point (usually in November) when it seems like there is not a time in the day when they won’t bite!

This is the ideal time to try some new techniques as it’s a fair chance the reds will be obliging when they really start competing for food - I can’t wait and feel a dose of red fever coming on!

SNAPPER FISHING FAQ’S

If you have been snapper fishing for any length of time a lot of what I am about to say will be old news or you will have your own theories on how things work.

For anglers just starting out on their Melbourne snapper quest, here are my views on a few FAQs that regularly pop up and their relevance to both bays.

HOW DO I FIND SNAPPER?

Snapper are largely found in two ways, and no it’s not by heading to where all the other boats are!

The first is returning to known areas and GPS marks where you know the action has been. Many then choose to anchor up regardless of obvious fish presence. The usual drill then involves putting out a spread of popular baits and adding some berley into the mix and waiting to bring the fish in.

This method works fine in both Port Phillip and Western Port and when the fish are thick will certainly put you odds-on at getting in on some action. Popular areas in each Port like Lysaghts, Silver Leaves, the Outer Artificial and the Hospital area among many others are structure-rich stretches of water where many adopt this approach and do quite well.

The second snapper finding method that has gained enormous popularity over recent years is using your sounder to actively locate the fish prior to dropping a line.

This change in approach has been bought about by the average angler realising a couple of key things – that their electronics are capable of much more than just telling you how deep it is combined with the realisation that there are significant areas of both bays that at any given time may be devoid of fish. Consequently it does make sense to narrow things down a little.

While not everyone has the inclination to get too technical, some simple tips to get more from your sounder include turning off auto modes and learning how to interpret what the sonar image means. Additional fine-tuning can include dialling up the sensitivity so you can see more detail or down to block out pre-dawn clutter or floating weed, using bottom lock and simply sounding with the wind chop to reduce the confused readings that you can get when bouncing around.

When some nice healthy arches or blobs appear on the screen (depending upon what brand gear you are running) set yourself up at anchor so your baits will be on the spot, not your anchor! This is a much more active method of snapper fishing and many astute anglers will not drop the pick until fish are found.

WHERE DO I LOOK?

For snapper, look everywhere! As you leave the mouth of the Hastings Channel or the Patterson River, or for that matter any ramp, you should keep one eye on your sounder as the red fish can turn up in pretty surprising places.

Sure, if you have a mark in mind that you are determined to fish then blast off and go but consider for a moment that snapper are where you find them. At different times the fish will favour open mud, shell banks, scallop beds, structure marks and reef or cunje beds so beware wherever you go that you may be driving over fish.

While they can be found shallow, in both bays the water between 8-20m holds the majority of the schools, so it’s where you should concentrate your efforts. This is still quite a lot of water but get out there, use your sounder and find some fish or fish holding ground for yourself, it is very satisfying.

DO I ANCHOR OR DRIFT?

It’s no secret that most fish the bays at anchor and there are some pretty sound reasons for doing so. In Western Port the strength and speed of the tide makes it all but impractical to drift however on slack water it is definitely worth a go until the tide turns and begins to run again. If nothing else you are a chance at picking up some fresh bait from ‘couta schools and the like.

In Port Phillip, due to the much smaller tidal influence, you could drift fish on all but the windiest days if you are using a drogue however you are better off locating the fish first and drifting over them rather then randomly and nomadically drifting in hope.

Drifting in targeted areas is my favoured method of lure fishing Port Phillip and if you decide to give it a go make sure you give Black Magic Snapper Snatchers a try as they have proven themselves to be solid fish catchers and are well suited to drifting where you are in close contact with your terminal rig.

DO LURES WORK ON REDS?

My word they do. While not being overly regarded as a predatory species, snapper are opportunistic, which means if food appears in front of them they will have a go at it, and this includes bait fish so lures are right in the mix.

Many good reddies are taken on a variety of artificial offerings that are fished in different ways. Soft plastics, blades, vibes, hardbodied lures and Octo jigs have all been getting good results from anglers who are brave enough to leave the bait rods at home for the day and have a good go at working lures down deep in locations where they know fish are found.

Lures of all types go great guns at anchor in a berley trail, casting in a fan like pattern across the berley or better still by keeping the anchor in the boat and setting a drift line over the top of fish you have sounded casting ahead of the boat and retrieving in a hop, wind, hop motion along the bottom 1-2m of water. I’d be surprised if you persist with lures and don’t score a red or two.

Make sure you match your tackle to this style fishing and leave the bait fishing gear in the shed otherwise you are sure to lose patience and go back to what you know.

Seven foot carbon fibre/graphite fast action rods in the 3-5kg class, and 2000-3000 sized spin reels and light gelspun lines give you the best chance at actively working lures, staying in contact with your presentation and being able to cast all day if required.

WHAT IS THE BEST BAIT AND BERLEY?

There is no single best, but it’s pretty hard to go past anything you can catch yourself and either use fresh or at least ensure it is fresh frozen. Squid can be caught at the end of a session and frozen for the next. If you are out and about early enough, squid can be caught and used immediately – they are even better live.

Garfish are similarly easy to gather most of the time and often cowanyong, ‘couta and slimy mackerel can all turn up in your berley trail. On the frozen front, pilchards, silver whiting and sauries all make convenient alternatives.

For a berley trail if you know you are staying put, then I can’t go past a block of pilchards cubed up and initially applied liberally early on and then sparingly as the session draws to a conclusion. If this sounds like hard work then try a commercially available pre-made berley block or the fantastic local Snapper Snacks from Zealcol Berley.

If you are fishing during bigger tides in Western Port or southern Port Phillip berley is pretty ineffective.

DO I NEED TO BE OUT EARLY?

Well yes and no. Early in spring, first and last light are crucial times to be on fish and the bite times can be pretty short as the fish are slow initially and you need to give yourself the best chance.

As the season progresses the bite times increase and then tide changes in the middle of the day can really produce in both waterways. As the days get long, balmy evenings are a great way to wind down after work and the fish can really fire in the last couple of hours leading up to dark. When the reds go truly mad it doesn’t matter when you are out, they will bite mid-tide in the middle of the day when in the mood.

DO I NEED A BOAT?

If you have a boat you will catch more snapper. This is largely because you can go and find the fish while the land-based anglers are stuck with what is in front of them with little scope to explore wider grounds.

Having said that, plenty of good snapper get caught from the shore every year to the disciplined anglers who put in the time. On both the eastern and western seaboard of Port Phillip there are good opportunities primarily after dark and especially during or after poor weather with the piers and breakwaters the most reliable option.

In Western Port more extensive land-based options exist such as Settlement Point, Stock Yard Point and Sandy Point to name but a few popular and productive spots.

THE FINAL WORD

My final word is that with snapper madness set in, please take a moment to check your safety gear before heading out. Remember that our local waters get really busy this time of year so take a chill pill before going to the ramp and be on the lookout for other water users including yak fishers who can be hard to spot.

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