With the onset of Winter and its plummeting temperatures, pounding seas and driving rain, it can be a hard get excited about fishing. The thought of having to don a beanie and multi layers of warm clothing can cause many fishos to switch off until the warm months and pelagic fish return.
But for dedicated rock fishers, especially those on the South Coast, the ‘season’ has only just begun.
For the past two decades May has always heralded the start of the snapper season off the rocks for me. For the following four or five months, the calendar will be scribed with many cryptic notations revolving around tides, moons and past successes.
Last season we steered away from conventional land-based bait techniques and had a decent crack at trying to nail a few reds on plastics off the stones. And wee came up with some reasonable results.
This season I am setting myself the challenge of expanding on a few minor discoveries that have really opened up the land-based possibilities for consistently scoring quality snapper on softies.
Over the years I have caught snapper to 6.9kg on plastics from boats. Often it would be in the shallow bays close to where I’d be hurling baits rigged with 4oz snapper leads from the nearby rocks using the standard long rod/overhead outfit.
But to emulate such results with plastics off the rocks has not come easily.
From a boat working the shallows, the odds are clearly stacked in your favour as the lure is generally worked from shallow water to deeper water, so snagging the bottom is less likely.
Fishing with baits off the rocks revolves around putting in big casts to gravel beds and sand edges adjacent to reef patches 50m to 100m out.
And therein lies the dilemma for the land-based plastic fisho. You need to achieve a long cast, slowly work the lure down relatively deep and not get snagged throughout the retrieve as the water depth gradually diminishes.
Here’s an outline of a typical favourite location that has been the scene of many of my best snapper captures from the shore with bait and from boats with plastics.
The water depth ranges from about 2m at your feet, stepping down to 8m where the gravel gutter is, then continues to step down to about 12m beyond casting distance.
Fishing this spot from the boat I would be using a 1/4oz jig head and working the gutter from a depth of 8m back to 12m.
From the shore, it is normally an easy cast with a rigged bait but with a soft plastic it is at the extreme of my casting range, so the urge to up the jig head size felt like an obvious choice. In reality, this resulted only in having to work the lure too fast or get snagged almost every time.
We discovered that the opposite direction was the solution, and dropping to a 1/8oz jig head brought instant success.
But what about casting distance, you say?
This is where you are forced into a small choice of plastics. They have to be big and weighty, otherwise you will be simply fishing for salmon in the washes.
Berkley’s Gulp Jerkshads, large Squidgy Flick Baits and big Slug-Go stickbaits are all I use.
I also employ a drop of superglue to keep the Squidgies and Slug-Gos on the jig heads because the constant abuse of trying to extract every metre out of every cast tends to result in the plastic falling off the hook pretty quickly.
Gulps really hold well onto a jig head and need no other assistance.
Jig heads of 1/8oz with 5/0 hooks are my favourites and suit the shallow terrain we generally fish. Deep ledges like those at Jervis Bay may require a heavier approach.
Wind strength and direction play a huge role, too. We plan trips to make the most of what the weather offers.
Fortunately the Winter months heavily feature generally westerly winds so any wind at your back will be a huge advantage.
Remember, casting distance is everything. If the winds are onshore I revert to bait fishing and bide my time for the right conditions to align.
A common misconception of rough seas and snapper fishing has resulted in far too many rock-fisher fatalities over the years.
Steer clear of the rocks when the seas are angry. The best time to fish is after it has died down from a stir-up.
I actually prefer to fish for snapper when it is relatively calm, particularly with lightly weighted plastics.
Providing the water has some clarity without being gin-clear, the snapper will bite freely, sometimes throughout the middle of the day.
The retrieve we have adopted is probably the most crucial point that influences success in catching more fish.
Generally if there is fish on the prowl you will get a bite either on the drop immediately after making the cast or within the first 10m of the retrieve.
As a result, I no longer bother working the lure to my feet because this is only tempting the Snag Gods and rarely produces fish other than salmon or smelly pike.
After I’ve made the cast I take a good 20 seconds to let the lure sink and with a 1/8oz jig head, the lure will basically achieve a near-neutral buoyancy in mid-water.
I then simply try to impart as much action into the plastic without actually trying to retrieve any line at all, but still incorporate plenty of long pauses into the retrieve.
The idea is to try to keep the lure in the strike zone as long as possible.
After tempting snagging the bottom as long as I can, I simply crank the plastic in at full steam and repeat the process.
Land based soft plastics for snapper is no different from fishing from a boat in approach.
Being mobile and keenly seeking out fish is far more effective than simply fishing one spot for hours on end.
Twenty minutes of casting is plenty of time to expect a bite from a given patch of gravel or reef.
A light backpack is all we need for the minimal gear we take.
Often we approach a day’s snapper plastic fishing the same as we would as a big day bass fishing on the rivers.
We use a two-car system and fish from point A to point B, covering several kilometres of coastline, actively targeting feeding fish rather than simply hoping for them to come to us.
At worst we get a good day’s fitness in, even if we don’t catch any fish.
The Winter inshore snapper aggregation is time for spawning.
Most of the big reds encountered tend to be females in roe, so please exercise some restraint in what you decide to keep for a feed.
The message seems to be getting through to the greater fishing community about releasing big breeding flathead, but the poor old snapper rarely receives the same treatment.
These days we prefer to release the majority of big snapper we are catching, opting to keep one or two fish around 2kg to 3kg to eat. It is a pretty special feeling watching a big snapper swim off after release and is something that all anglers need to adopt if we are serious about our fisheries sustainability.
Tackle needs to be lightweight but gutsy enough to deal with the possibility of a fish that could easily weigh 8kg. It also should be up to dealing with the outside chance of a big kingfish that occasionally gets in on the act, particularly on the crank part of the retrieve.
Quality threadline reels in 4000 to 6000 size loaded with 300m of braid fit the bill nicely. A big snapper hooked in the shallows can easily strip 100m of line so a full spool is mandatory. Braid from 5kg to 10kg (10lb to 20lb) is best suited to a compromise between casting distance and strength. I use 20lb to 40lb fluorocarbon leader, depending on conditions and location.
We have been basically using the same kinds of rods as you would in a boat. I am still searching for the ultimate land-based rod for this kind of work. Long rods in theory are better casting tools but they don’t necessarily equate to a good tool for actually working the lure. My local tackle store has a few interesting rods that look like they might fit the mould, in particular the NS Hurricane Seabass range looks like an interesting series of rods with 2.7m, 3m and 3.3m versions. – DD
This 4kg snapper was released after a short and torrid fight. Fish of this size are prolific breeders and respond well to catch and release, especially in the rocky shallows.
Early morning is prime time to fish for snapper, particularly if it coincides with a tide change.
Boat based rod and reel combos are all that are needed to get into land-based snapper on plastics.
Ben Roberts releases 6kg of prime breeding snapper. It’s not just big flathead that deserve to fight another day.
Boat rods work a treat off the stones and the same techniques apply to targeting snapper –keep mobile and fish actively.
Ray Smith with more than 5kg of South Coast snapper. Fish of this size are common throughout the Winter.