Now I know the feeling. You wait all winter and then spring arrives. You hit the water, start picking up a few snapper during late September and early October, then in November things start to go nuts. It seems that most anglers fishing Port Phillip Bay are getting their quota of reds. Then, as quickly as they came on the boil, these little Houdini’s do the great disappearing act. But don’t leave your seats yet. Stick around for the encore performance when the big reds come back out to play.
Last season was a great example of how the snapper cycle works in the bay. Things started to quieten down in late December then really ground to a halt in January and February. Anglers got discouraged, put their boats away and began to look for other leisure time activities.
It was late in the season last year that the rewards arrived for the few anglers who persisted – and the rewards were big! This is the time of year that the chances of nailing a 6kg-plus fish are greatly improved. Fish in the right areas and you can avoid catching plagues of pinkies and instead, get a big dose of scarlet fever.
Finding a good location to fish late in the season in Port Phillip Bay is all about playing the numbers. As with any fishing there is little point in being where the fish aren’t. During early autumn, snapper start to leave the bay, the same way they came in, via the deep channels. This is probably the only time of the year that I fish out wide for snapper. Generally, the most productive area is the deep water off Mornington and Mount Martha, anywhere between 18 and 22m. This is where the fish gather in the biggest concentrations just prior to exiting the bay.
The snapper will be moving around in this fairly large area for a few weeks, so you’ll need a sounder to find them each time you venture out. Using the zoom function, lock in on the bottom 3 or 4m of water and look for arches. When you come across some fish, gently and I mean gently, lower the anchor. Notice how I use the word ‘lower’ as opposed to ‘chuck’. Large snapper are sensitive to noise and disturbance so be like Elmer Fudd and ‘be verwi, verwi quiet’. The fish tend to school up as opposed to simply moving through during the day; so spend about 45 minutes in each spot before moving on if you don’t get any interest.
There is an exception to the deep water rule though. Last season, there were some great fish taken in April, but they were in much closer to shore. From Mount Eliza down to Mount Martha and beyond, there are a heap of inshore reefs that some big fish will head to early and late in the day to feed. If things are proving fruitless out wide, then try in close at dawn or dusk, but don’t move around. The plan here is to trip up a big red as it moves back out to deeper water during business hours after scavenging for food on the shallower broken ground.
Let’s go back to playing the numbers rule; the expression ‘window of opportunity’ applies here. You need to be on the water when the snapper are feeding. Out wide early and late in the day are best, but it’s worth fishing during the day on either tide change. If the fish are about and there is a tide change at dawn or dusk, do yourself a favour and get out on the water pronto. If there was ever anything that turns snapper on, it’s these two things in unison.
Moon phases are important, but not as vital. Each year I think I have the moon phases sorted regarding snapper; then the rules change. Regardless, consult an almanac for the best time, but use it as a guide not a hard and fast rule. A westerly blow will stir things up a bit for the reds, but is more relevant to fishing conditions in close to shore.
When looking for snapper in close to shore it pays to be there at dawn, or if you prefer sleeping to catching a big snapper, try dusk. At this time of the year, it really isn’t worth fishing in close during the day. When fishing out wide, a tide change at either end of the day and a good moon phase will see you in with the best shot at a good fish.
Early on last season, smaller squid baits, gars and silver whiting were all dynamite. However, the fish weren’t all that big.
Late in the season the only bait that I got good fish on was whole calamari. I remember a few seasons back, Paul Worsteling from Cranbourne Fishing Tackle, landed a fish of around 8kg on a 1kg calamari. My partner Lisa loves calamari so if I sent a 1kg squid back down to the bottom with a couple of 8/0’s in it I would be in the doghouse immediately. I do, however, use whole medium to large squid as bait for reds at this time of year; I just play down the baits I use whenever Lisa is in earshot.
Each season and fishing session is different, so a variety of baits need to be employed. I’ll fish four rods at this time of year, two with whole squid on them, one with a fish head and a whole fish bait on the other. This way I can hedge my bets and offer the fish a selection of baits.
I rig every bait with a two-hook set up with the second hook either sliding or snelled above the first. As the fish are bigger at this time of year, larger baits are used and so bigger hooks are needed. Gamakatsu Octopus pattern 6/0 to 8/0 are the preferred sizes.
Good leader material, such as the Black Magic Tough Trace in the 20kg range, is needed to reduce the likelihood of bust offs. Match it to a rolling swivel below a running pea sinker and you’re in business. Fish reels in gear with up to a couple of kilos of drag and let the fish hook themselves.
Berley is effective in increasing the number of runs you get in a session. A berley bucket on the sea floor containing pellets mixed with some tuna oil is a good way to create a trail. Pilchards or retrieved bait that need changing can be cubed up and released into the water progressively.
Snapper are an elegant looking fish that provide good sport. They’re also delicious on the table. No wonder they’re so popular! However, as recreational anglers, it’s a good idea to preserve our fish stocks and release fish when you can. Caning fish, exceeding bag limits and keeping undersized snapper is an antiquated mindset. Recreational anglers complaining about long liners desecrating snapper stocks must ensure they do their bit to sustain the species. Political correctness irritates me as much as the next person but there is a difference between doing the right and wrong thing.
Snapper can also be relatively slow growing; a 7kg fish may be between 8 and 20 years old. Once they get to this size they aren’t as nice to eat, so it’s probably better to keep smaller fish for the dinner table and if the hooks can be easily extracted from the big ones, then settle for a photo and let them go. This isn’t always possible as some of these old reds have a tendency to expire after a drawn out fight.
I get more satisfaction from seeing a big snapper revived in the water than I do from eating it. After a while you, like me, might also develop an admiration and respect for big snapper.
In 2005, Fishcare released an A4 colour brochure about snapper. The free publication describes their lifecycle, migration, age and growth patterns, reproduction, post release survival and recreational catch history. Individual requests for a brochure should be directed by email to --e-mail address hidden--
Use only the freshest baits.
Have a variety of baits available for each session.
Fish dusk or dawn.
Tide changes around dawn and dusk are ideal but a tide change at any time is worth fishing, particularly in the deeper water.
Use your sounder’s zoom function to look for arches.
6.Be as quiet as you can and always place the anchor gently into the water.