It’s snapper time on the north and mid north coast of New South Wales, and in this article Glen Booth offers a handy A to Z guide to scoring a feed of these handsome and tasty sportfish.
For spinning off a metre of line to a timidly biting fish, to enabling a bait to drift down unimpeded in a strong current, it’s hard to beat an Alvey sidecast. And then there’s the indescribable joy an angler feels as line starts rapidly flicking off the spool while in sidecast mode, as this means you’ve ticked all the right boxes in regards to location, sinker weight and bait choice.
A 600 (6”) size is perfect for reddie fishing, either an A5 (stainless sideplate) or B (graphite), the latter being a better option if you’re hand-holding the outfit. There’s no drag to speak of on either reel, just fingers and the skin of the palm, so every big red is a fish well earned. Not only are Alveys more effective than spin and overhead reels, they’re simply more fun to use.
Team it up with a 2.4m (8ft) ‘wash’ rod with a low reel mount and you’re good to go.
The only downside is hooking a stray tuna or kingfish; they stop being enjoyable a long time before they’re at the boat.
The Baitrunner function on a spin reel allows a fish to freely swim off with the bait before the angler engages the drag and sets the hook. This makes Baitrunner-style reels ideal for snapper fishing wherever the species is found. The Baitrunner was actually an Australian development, formulated by Shimano Australia’s John Dunphy way back in 1988. From concept to the finished product hitting the shops took an incredibly short four months. Now everyone makes them, but the Shimano Baitrunner in its many forms is still the best.
Dead cuttlefish floating on the surface are a free, hardwearing and effective bait for a number of species. Snapper just love them, but before rushing in and scooping up a cuttlefish, approach carefully and check to make sure there’s not a big red lurking directly underneath. Even if no one’s at home, those mysterious peg-like bite marks in the cuttlie’s body are now explained.
Learn to love your sounder. Turn the auto settings off and drive it manually. Play around with the sensitivity (gain) and all of a sudden you’ll twig as to what snapper look like on the sounder. This can save many hours of fruitless fishing barren reefs hoping to lure the fish in with berley.
If you’re hitting inshore shallows, being on site before dawn can have a huge bearing on success. When you’re fishing in just a few fathoms, stealth is the key, especially on still mornings. There should be no rattling anchor chain, no splashing anchor, and no dropping big sinkers on the floor of the boat. With not much water depth under the keel and often a thick bed of kelp on the bottom, this is sudden death fishing, so tighten those drag knobs up an extra turn and be ready to go hard.
The snapper usually go off the bite and drift into deeper water as the sun rises, maybe lingering a little longer if it’s an overcast day. When spawning is in full swing though, they may throw caution to the wind and bite throughout the day.
If getting up in the chilly darkness is not your cup of tea, these same spots often fire just as well at dusk.
A lightly-weighted or un-weighted pilchard, tuna strip or squid head being fed down a sparse berley trail while at anchor is the name of the game here. It’s miles of fun and on the days when the snapper move up off the bottom and into the berley, it’s literally a fish a cast.
Gelspun or braided line in their many forms have made such a difference to all aspects of fishing. Thanks to their fine diameter and zero stretch for better bite detection, they’re the ideal main line for floater or bottom bait fishing. The other good aspect of braid is that it lasts seemingly forever.
Snapper will swallow any hook that fits in their mouths, but some designs are better than others. Two or three hooks ganged together, or suicide or octopus hooks fished singly or snelled in pairs onto a leader have been a standard since snapper fishing was invented.
For a more flexible presentation, it’s hard to beat two hooks linked by a swivel though. A number 10 barrel swivel will slip over the barb of a 3/0 Mustad 542 Viking hook (you may need to pinch the swivel eye slightly closed afterwards though), and then open the eye of the 4/0 with side cutters to take the other end of the swivel.
Since this is an unabashed meat gathering exercise, you’re best off dispatching any keepers with iki jime (brain spiking), promptly bleeding them and then putting them into an ice slurry consisting of three parts freshwater ice to one part seawater. Making up saltwater ice blocks is also an option, but make sure the slurry doesn’t get too cold or the fish will actually freeze before reaching the filleting bench.
Fortunately, Chinaman leatherjackets are more of a scourge in deeper water, where they can steal every hook, sinker and swivel thrown at them, not to mention metres and metres of expensive braid. While excellent eating, the associated terminal tackle losses make them a less than welcome catch. According to south coast reports, dark green braid like Berkley Whiplash tends to fly under their radar a little bit, while they absolutely love munching on multi-coloured stuff.
Those big, knobby, often grotesquely deformed beasts we all like to catch and have onlookers ooh-ing and ah-ing back at the filleting table are also known in some circles as ‘old man’ snapper (although this can be contradictory as even quite small fish periodically sport substantial protuberances).
There’s a lot of folklore about how snapper get their head bumps (in NSW and Queensland waters at least), but about a dozen years back a mate commented that all the knobby headed ones were males. I’d never joined the dots before, but having kept an eye on the sex of the fish when cleaning them ever since (based on the presence of milt or roe), he’s been 99% right.
Water depth and current strength can have a huge bearing on the success of this enterprise, and on some days an adjustment up or down of just one sinker size can make all the difference to results. Is your mate out-fishing you? Notwithstanding the fact that he might be a better fisho than yourself (perish the thought!), it’s worth checking to see that the sinker sizes are exactly the same.
You should carry a range of ball sinkers, from half peas up to wrecking balls, as well as a variety of snapper leads. Even on the heavier bottom gear, a lighter sinker can make all the difference when the current is light or non-existent.
A hard wearing yet limp monofilament nylon main line has long been first choice for traditional floater fishing. Go for a neutral colour like grey, clear, green or pink in 6-10kg breaking strains, depending on the terrain being fished. For my money it’s hard to beat pink Ande. For Alveys, nylon is still king if you want to keep skin on your fingertips.
Invest in the biggest net you can find. When that much sought after 20lb snapper is lying beaten boatside, there’s nothing worse than trying to get it to fit in a net better suited to scooping yakkas out of the bait tank. A big net also helps with boating lengthy species like cobia, kingfish and mulloway.
The joy of bait fishing for snapper is that other awesome table species such as pearl perch, tuskfish, big Moses perch and teraglin come into play. Snapper may be excellent tablefish, but pearlies and tuskies are close to culinary ambrosia.
The traditional ‘up and downer’ approach of two short droppers above a snapper sinker is still a viable snapper catching rig. Pimp it up with gelspun main line, fluorocarbon, glow beads and offset semi-circle hooks like the Black Magic KL in 5/0 or 6/0 for largely set-and-forget fishing while you attend to the floater rods.
It’s one of the great mysteries of snappering as to why on some days – particularly early in the season – the bottom rods produce all the fish, when the floaters, which should be a more natural, attractive option, hardly score a bite. Then, as the season wears on, it’s the floaters that do all the damage. Weird.
The mackerel and marlin are nearly all gone, so in northern NSW the long weekend is traditionally the time that snapper become the prime offshore focus. It’s also when the Dave Irvine Memorial Snapper Comp is held out of Coffs Harbour, and the catches are somewhat of a litmus test for the upcoming season.
Snapper are a species that attract a lot of nicknames – red bream, cockney bream, reds, pinkies, squire, knobbies, old man snapper, even the somewhat derogatory ‘pinks’ from over west. I’ve never heard of anyone refer to them as a squirefish, but that’s what IGFA list them as. What the hell, from an estuary bait stealer to a giant reef prize, they’re all snapper.
Prawn, crab, bug and crayfish shells make excellent berley, possibly the best. Start stockpiling these over the summer months (get the neighbours to pitch in) and come winter there’ll be bags full of succulent berley ready to go.
Salted tuna, whether it be striped, mackerel tuna, frigate mackerel or even bonito, is perfect for use on the bottom outfit, or cut into long strips as a floater bait. Fillet the fish, sprinkle coarse salt on the flesh side, individually wrap the fillets in a sheet of newspaper, and pop them in the freezer. (Curse the day Fairfax went from broadsheet to tabloid, because the fillets are now so much harder to wrap. Salted tuna fans live in fear when news goes completely on-line, because it’s just about impossible to wrap tuna fillets in an iPad.)
Just be mindful of the salty tuna flavoured puddle that will form in the freezer as the moisture leaches out. Bag them to be safe.
And this is the downside of bait fishing as opposed to using soft plastics and octo jigs – mados, sweep, leatherjackets, wobbegongs, cat sharks, green eels and red rock cod can really ruin the day. It’s also a sign that there’s little or no current, or not many of the target species around, hence the trash fish getting to the bait first.
Red rockies can be a serial pest, especially on the bottom rod, but if it’s any consolation at least you know you’re fishing over hard reef. They supposedly taste like lobster, but few anglers can be bothered filleting the spiky little mongrels and anyone that’s been stung by one knows they’re best handled at arm’s length and flicked off over the side with a pair of long-nose pliers.
The downside of catching a big snapper is that the meat recovery in the form of usable fillets is relatively low, somewhere in the order of 33% depending on the size of the fish. However, that doesn’t mean what remains is useless. Boil the head (or heads) for an hour to make stock for snapper chowder (only do this outside though!). You can also scrape the frames to recover a tasty fish ‘mince’ for fish cakes, and then bury whatever’s left in the vegie garden for a free soil tonic. Some Dutch people I remember from my childhood used to eat the roe, which is considered a delicacy in some communities.
Quick and convenient, although not as cheap as they once were, it’s hard to remember a time when West Australian pilchards, pillies or mulies weren’t available as snapper bait. It’s fair to say that more snapper around the country have fallen to WA pilchards than any other bait. If possible, try to source local pillies from the bait netters if they ever become available – they’re an excellent, somewhat cheaper alternative. A 4kg box of individually quick frozen (IQF) pillies will cover a number of trips, with less waste than with block pillies.
When you’re fishing two floater rods, try a pilchard on one and a tuna strip or squid on the other to see if there’s any preference being shown by the fish.
This is pretty obvious really. Snapper can be found lurking in a range of environments, from bommies to kelp beds to broken ground of rock and sand, but the pick of them is generally a high peak grading to gravelly structure behind it, not affected by too much current.
The foot soldier of the offshore world, the yellowtail or yakka is a great bait live, dead, butterflied or as fillets. To tempt a really big fish and/or if the pickers are bad, try a head split down the middle. It won’t go off every time, but when it does, the red will be a cracker. The same approach works equally well with slimy mackerel and pike heads.
The sound that reel will be making if you follow all of the above!Reads: 1373