SNAPPER aren't a fish you’d normally associate with this part of the world. Their range is generally accepted as being from southern Queensland around the bottom of the continent, with South Australia known as the home of the big ‘knobbies’.
However, snapper do venture into more northern waters, and in surprising numbers at times. These fish are caught as far north as Mackay, with excellent fish taken close inshore at select locations near Sarina – that's over 100 nautical miles north of the Capricorn Coast. Because snapper prefer temperate waters, the best time to chase them up north is during winter.
Readers who have been buying QFM for a number of years will be familiar with my sad tale regarding snapper. You see, despite my best efforts over many years, I still haven't managed to catch a decent knobby – embarrassing to admit! I can catch little tackers in one of my regular haunts around the Keppels almost at will, but I don't count bream-sized snapper in my goal. I did catch my PB just recently, a fish of 42cm, but that still falls way short of the 7kg or better fish I've set my heart on.
You could be forgiven for assuming that I'm just a hopeless snapper fisherman, except that I have consistently put my fishing mates onto big knobbies! For reasons unknown the damned fish seem to miss my bait every time. I use the same bait, same technique, same everything as my deckie, yet he catches the fish. I'm convinced it’s just a matter of perseverance on my part and sooner or later it’ll be my turn – I just wish it would hurry up!
The absolute best time to hunt big snapper in these waters is during the winter months, especially June and into July. You do hear of the odd reasonable snapper being caught in the deep water out wide at other times of the year, but winter is definitely the time when the fish move closer inshore in numbers.
Unlike more southern snapper fishing, where fish right through the size classes can be taken, northern winter snapper only seem to come in one size – BIG! The average snapper you can realistically expect to catch up here is better than 5kg, more likely between 7kg and 8kg. That's a big snapper in anyone’s language, even by South Australian standards.
The best time of day to chase big snapper is definitely late afternoon into the early evening. I usually try to be anchored in place by about 4:30pm, then fish through to about 8:00pm. If you haven't got a fish by them, chances are you're not going to get one on that trip anyway.
I haven't heard any confirmed reports of snapper being taken inside the Keppel Islands, but I guess there's always the chance of places like Findlay’s Reef attracting them. After all, when the Findlay brothers discovered the reef all those years ago, they caught top quality red emperor there – and it's probably been 30 years since the last big red was boated there. So who knows?
To give yourself the best chance of scoring a snapper, try the grounds just east of the Keppel Group. Lisa Jane Shoals and associated areas of scattered bottom towards the southern end of Keppel Bay through to Hummocky Island almost always produce good snapper. Also, the rubbly country east of Outer Rock is fairly reliable. Up to the north, lots of bottom around and to the east of Flat and Perforated Islands holds snapper.
If you're a bit lazy like me and don’t wan to travel too far, there are a few spots near the Keppels themselves that do give up the odd big knobby. The closest is probably Sunken Reef and Conical Rocks near North Keppel Island, and Man and Wife and Barren Islands have been known to deliver a few decent fish from time to time as well.
Snapper stay on the move almost constantly, often swimming in pairs or small groups. If you leave your sounder running while you’re fishing you’ll invariably see large fish moving through the sonar beam from time to time. They will most likely be anywhere from one to five metres up off the bottom. If you see this sort of pattern, it's pretty certain that what you're seeing is snapper coming through.
It's no secret that snapper are suckers for a berley trail. The berley gets their interest and tends to keep them near your boat for longer. I’ve heard they can be enticed just about up to your outboard, but I've never been lucky enough to witness that yet.
Snapper will readily take a live bait, but will also not hesitate to wolf down a well-presented piece of fresh squid or cuttlefish. My deckie has taken them on pillies as well. There's no need to firmly anchor your bait on the bottom; in fact, I think you'll have more success if you keep your rig well up off the bottom where the fish are swimming. You can learn a lot by watching the fish in the big public aquariums like those on the Sunshine Coast and in Sydney.
A set of two or three ganged 5/0s work well, but a dropper rig using single 7/0s will also get results.
The minimum size for snapper has increased this year from 30cm to 35cm, and the bag limit is five fish per person. I can't see you needing to worry about the minimum legal length up here, as the fish you’re most likely to encounter will be 5kg-plus. Catching five big nobbies in a session is also a rarity around here. (I'm going to be over the moon just with my first one.)
I'm no expert about the best moon phase for snapper around here, though I'm sure there is one. I just go when the weather is favourable and when I can escape from work for a couple of hours early on a week day.
Lastly, remember to take warm clothes, as the temperature plummets over the last couple of kilometres as you come back in after dark. Even so, I reckon there’s not much better than skimming over a flat ocean on a dark, cold winter’s night.
1) June and July are the prime months for snapper up here.Reads: 3838