The search for big red
  |  First Published: November 2004

Without thinking, I found myself in the tackle room digging out the snapper rods, checking guides for wear and tear from the previous season, giving the Baitrunner reels the once over and re-spooling them with fresh line in anticipation of big snapper. It was that time of year again…

They call it the ‘red tide’ – and with good reason. Each year the famous Port Phillip Bay snapper run begins with a trickle of fish, slowly growing into a massive influx of huge schools that enter the bay to spawn. This, in turn, changes thousands of men and women from normal human beings into one-eyed, sleep-deprived anglers who go to extraordinary lengths to succeed in the quest for big red.

Every year it happens at roughly the same time, with reports of a few early season fish being caught in late August and early September by some lucky anglers, although I’m sure that there are several others out there who really know their stuff and catch fish but prefer to keep it quiet.

By late September things really heat up. With the footy finished for another year and the weather fast on the improve, water temperature rises and fish that were already here begin to feed in earnest, with Melbourne Cup weekend often heralding the start of the run.

Over the past couple of seasons the snapper run has been excellent with huge numbers of 2-4kg fish on offer as well as the usual thumpers in among them. This has been great for the fishery with many new anglers purchasing boats and the appropriate gear, heading out and catching a few fish.

Old Ideas ReHashed

Techniques for catching snapper have remained fairly standard over the years, and some of the old ideas are the best. The use of a rubber band around the foregrip of the rod, which was often used in the days before baitrunner style reels, allows you to fish with an open bail with a loop of line tucked under the band to hold it. When the snapper takes the bait, the line pops from the band and the fish takes off with no pressure.

I used this early last season when fish were picking up the bait and running about 2m with it before dropping it as they felt the minimal pressure of the Baitrunners. While the rubber band technique isn’t always necessary, on the super calm days when they are a bit touchy it can make the difference

Line ’Em Up

I find it hard to understand why some anglers fishing Port Phillip Bay find it necessary to fish with 10-12kg line. In general, the bottom is mud with a few small patches of reef and snapper aren’t really fish that try to bust you off on obstacles.

After spending a few years in Sydney, fishing for snapper up there, you quickly realise that for genuine success stay away from anything over 7kg line or your catch rate will fall dramatically. I prefer to fish with 6kg line and the results are there, with better results on those days when the fish are quiet, which is when it really counts. Casting distance and line capacity is also increased and I can honestly say I have never busted-off a fish in PPB on light line. If you’re hesitant about the light stuff, braided lines in 5-8kg work well, but run a 2m length of mono leader to the hook.

Red Rigs

Standard rigs include a small ball sinker running freely to two 4/0 suicide hooks, one of which is sliding freely.

I usually run a sinker to a swivel and a 12kg fluorocarbon leader about a metre long with two hooks, usually a Gamakatsu Octopus in 4/0-5/0 and the other hook a Mustad Penetrator. Both these hooks have a light gauge, which is ideal if you use lighter rods and lines as heavier gauge hooks are hard to drive in on light gear. Similarly they are still strong hooks that won’t straighten on heavier tackle.

Other rigs include a snooded two-hook rig, which is what we use on live squid or gars and is super effective on bigger fish.

Sinker weights should be as light as possible ,with ball or bean sinkers ideal choices.


While there are many great spots around the bay, most of my fishing is done between Mornington and Sandringham where there is a great variety of locations, ranging from the deep areas in about 18-22m to shallow reefs.

Deep water marks such as Ansetts deep, the Hospital and Gasso marks are quite famous. The bottom is made up primarily of mud and shell, however, after viewing the recent ‘Under The Bay’ DVD many people may be surprised to see that the bottom is covered in crab holes, obviously part of the reason that these areas fish so well. I really enjoy fishing these deeper marks during the day as the fish move into the deep water to escape the sun, with some of the best fishing often 11am-3pm.

Around the dawn and dusk periods we tend to fish in closer to shore in water ranging from 8-16m. These sort of areas are made up of hard reef, broken rubble and scallop and mussel beds, which the snapper feed heavily on. Well-known areas such as Mile Bridge off Seaford, the Inner Artificial and Outer Artificial off Carrum are great areas.

As a rough guide, we usually start early in the morning fishing shallower areas and work our way out deeper as the day progresses. That said, snapper make their own rules and it pays to look at where other boats are fishing. The past couple of seasons have seen excellent fishing all day along the 16m line from Frankston to Mordialloc, so keep your ear to the ground for info on where they are biting.

Fresh Is Best

It’s fair to say snapper are scavenger fish, but even scavengers like the freshest food possible. While the humble pilly accounts for thousands of fish each year, I think its more due to the fact that everyone uses them.

Silver whiting is fast making its way up there as the number one bait for PPB snapper. They are hardy and the flathead seem to leave them alone for a bit longer. One thing that may be worth trying, last year when we had some baits hit then dropped only to have the heads crushed, we put whiting without heads on and the snapper ate them properly.

My favourite snapper bait is garfish. Live or dead they are dynamite – snapper just love them! Gars are my number one choice for bigger fish, but for the big fish try putting a live one out. Don’t worry how big it is, they still swallow them.

Other great baits are ’couta heads and tails as well as flathead frames, fillets and heads. Another favourite bait especially early season, is small live or fresh squid, fished on a two hook fixed rig and a small sinker. They sit just off the bottom attracting any hungry snapper in the vicinity.

Snapper on Soft Plastics

I couldn’t do this article without squeezing in a little bit about soft plastics. Over the past few months we fished the winter run of pinkies on the inshore reefs with huge success.

Most trips we averaged 50 pinkies on plastics, with the Berkley 3” Bass Minnows taking the most. Single tail or wriggler style plastics accounted for some of the bigger fish up to 2kg and a few other even bigger fish cleaning us up as they ran over the reef.

Last season we also managed a few 4kg fish while fishing deeper water, however, this season we will hit the bigger fish hard with plastics and hopefully work out a few deadly techniques to sort them out. For anyone interested, it’s definitely worth flicking a plastic around while you are anchored up and waiting for one of the other snapper baits to scream off.

The search continues

With another snapper season upon us I hope everyone gets to catch a few. If you do manage a few good sessions, please take the time and have the commonsense to let some go.

Several anglers I know let their first ever snapper swim free last season after years of keeping all they were allowed. All were quick to say that they wish they had done it years earlier. If you are planning on letting fish go, it is really worth looking into fishing circle hooks. They ensure mouth hook-ups and make releasing fish much easier, for both anglers and fish.

Have a great season!



P1: 37.57.300S 144.55.700E
P2: 37.58.503S 144.52.108E
Fawkner Beacon: 37.56.180S 144.57.630E
Gasso: 38.02.679S 144.58.693E
Inner Artificial Reef: 38.03.044S 145.04.671E
Outer Artificial Reef: 38.04.452S 145.02.329E
Hospital Mark: 38.06.116S 145.02.188E
Ansetts: 38.10.170S 145.01.624E


1.Rex Hunt with a brace of snapper taken off the ‘Hospital’.

4.Putting the finishing touches on a snapper of around 3kg, caught on a nibble-tip rod and 4kg line.

6.A variety of fresh baits, destined to become dinner for a hungry Port Phillip Bay snapper.

2.Byron Carp with his first decent snapper.

8.The author with a solid snapper taken after dark. In good conditions, there’s nothing more enjoyable than a nighttime snapper session.

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