JUNE is the ‘official’ start of the annual Mackay area snapper run, but in fact the fish often migrate to our waters mid-May on their spawning pilgrimage. Where they come from and where they go is unknown, but we know they’re here to spawn because the males invariably lose milt as they are bought on board. It may be that this area is an important spawning ground for snapper throughout Queensland waters, and hopefully we can expect a dedicated tagging program to provide more information on this popular species.
Mackay anglers are certainly glad that these fish seek out our waters! The snapper is a good size bottom fish that’s available to small boat anglers close inshore, and they’re often caught in weights up to 7-8kg here. Snapper of this size are a prize catch anywhere, and provide a succulent top-quality dinner.
Another great thing about snapper chasing up here is that they seem to like the company of golden trevally – a top sportfish that’s also good on the plate. The goldens are often caught at weights approaching 10kg, and at that size they’re a handful on relatively light gear!
You’d think the spawning snapper would be vulnerable to overfishing when close inshore, but good old Mother Nature belts our coastline with strong south-easterly winds at this time of year, providing limited windows of opportunity to fish. If you do get a day with slight winds, the snapper are readily accessible even from a four-metre tinnie with a 25hp outboard. The alternative is to own a very large trailer boat (or know someone who owns one) and be prepared to put to sea in uncomfortable conditions to catch fish. I prefer to wait for the good days and fish in comfort and safety.
You can catch snapper offshore around the islands off Sarina Inlet and Cape Palmerston, and many larger boats venture to these outer spots for good hauls of fish. Again, the weather is a limiting factor for this longer range work. Other offshore hot spots include the Overfall Rocks near Prudhoe Island, east of Mackay harbour.
Closer inshore, and in range of the tinnie brigade, we have the shoal and reef areas near Hay Point and the reefs and rocky areas near Flat and Round Top Islands off the mouth of the Pioneer River. All these spots are less than 30 minutes’ run from the boat ramp and are relatively safe areas to fish from small boats, provided you take the normal precautions and watch the weather. It’s best to have at least one other boat with you for company and safety in the event of a breakdown or accident.
Around Hay Point it’s not unusual to see a couple of boats just sitting at anchor in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. That’s about right, except that these anglers are normally fishing some shale and rubble grounds for snapper. Don’t race over and anchor beside them or you’ll likely cop an ear-full. Motor around slowly and look for signs of low rubble on the bottom and for fish or bait signs on your sounder. If you have a split screen facility use the bottom expansion setup to give a clearer picture for you to interpret.
Once you’ve found a likely area, input waypoints on your GPS (if you have one) or get some onshore marks to line up before doing a drift over the spot. If this doesn’t produce any action, anchor and put some time in. Berleying will greatly increase your chances here. A berley bomb or similar will let you get the berley right to the bottom and should stir up some action. Alternatively, you can berley with chopped pieces of pilchard thrown over and left to drift down. If you do this, check the run – it’s not much help if the berley concentrates the fish a hundred metres away from you!
For working these rubble areas I recommend using just enough lead to get your bait down and have the sinker free-running right to the hooks. Cut pilchards and pilchard fillets work well, and are best fished off a pair of 4/0 or 5/0 hooks. Fish fillets such as whiting, gar and mullet are also worth trying, as is fresh squid. The top snapper bait though is a whole whiting head with the hook passed through the lips. I can’t think of a more unnatural-looking bait, but snapper find these irresistible!
Around the islands, fish the hard rock areas and change your rig slightly. My mate Bill Mc Garry uses a paternoster type rig very successfully, but again keeps the weight to a minimum for the conditions. His excellent results speak for themselves! Bill uses pillies cut in half on ganged hooks, or whiting heads if he has them.
If the weather permits, the best time to be on the water is just on daylight and, if possible, fish the tide change early in the morning. This will cause some hassles if you’re trying to get out of the river at low water, and if you miss the channel you may have to do some walking.
While bait fishing for snapper, I recommend that you give some time over to luring. This is often a good way to pick up the snapper, as well as the goldens that seem to enjoy their company. Deep water jigging is not all that popular here, but it’s certainly effective and accounts for snapper, goldens and other species such as pink jew. Probably the most effective jig and the most widely used here is the 85g Raider in the chrome finish. Large Bumpa Bars also work well, and both of these lures don’t have to be worked super fast to get good results. In fact, the slower you work them close to the bottom in the current, the better the results. I penned an article several years ago on these techniques and they still work just as well.
One area that’s just begging to be explored is the use of large soft plastics, and I reckon these would go off in a big way on the snapper and goldens. Large shad styles – say, 150mm plus – on heavy jigheads with strong hooks would be just the ticket. Large worms, paddle-tails and other similar types should also work well on snapper. One of the big advantages I in this type of jigging is that the lure can be kept in the fish’s face for a long time, and minimal movement or work by the angler will keep the slippery plastic moving around down there.
If the weather gods are kind this winter I’ll put in some serious time on the snapper and will include soft plastics in my arsenal. I resolve to give them plenty of water time too, just after I have a snapper or two (or perhaps a good golden) caught on bait or metal jigs. The moral of the story is to get your take-home fish first and then start the experimenting!
See you at the ramp just before dawn!
1) Norm Rodgers of Eimeo with a brace of 6kg snapper from Flat Top Island.Reads: 7981