Many keen Melbourne anglers start fishing for snapper around late September and finish a week or so before Christmas. They then either pack the boat away or start fishing for whiting – and these days we can confidently say tuna and kings as well. You can’t get offshore every day and on those days that you want to tangle with a fish that can pull some drag, snapper are still a viable option after spring. Somewhere along the line the spring period became the season, but it’s more of a tradition – or a habit – than a true time for the snapper season. The snapper keep biting right through and past Christmas, until the water temp reaches about 20 degrees and they shut down for a while.
After the snapper finish spawning, a lot of fish remain in the bay before heading back offshore. While those fish are still in Port Phillip Bay, they do get a bit harder to catch throughout summer with its high water temperature; they’re not impossible to catch, but targeting these fish is a whole different story.
One of the bay’s biggest secrets that I and Hooked Up are trying to reveal is the second run of snapper starting in late February/early March. Some years this second run will carry on all the way through to early June. This second run happens every year, but how long it happens for is dependent on the weather and the bay’s water temperature. Ideal temperatures for snapper to really come on the chew are between 17 and 19 degrees and, judging by the way summer is cooling off this year, it should be a nice gradual drop that will give us a good second run. Some years, such as the 2022 autumn season, the fishing was arguably better than in spring.
Even if the fish aren’t firing with triple hook-ups and a frantic bite, it’s always worth targeting snapper in autumn as you have a genuine chance of catching that monster snapper you’ve been chasing. In autumn if you only want to fish a few times, a general rule of thumb would be to fish just before and after the full moon of Easter; past experience has shown that’s generally when they go the best. If you are land-based, try from around mid-April as you have a decent shot of a big red from the piers or rocks around Mornington and Mount Martha.
When it comes to bait choice the usual offerings you use in snapper season work well, but if you want to target a big snapper, King George whiting heads are my favourite bait. So, freeze the King George whiting heads you’ve caught over summer as they make an excellent bait. Another great bait for big snapper is freshly caught squid heads. A salmon chunk will also land you big snapper and silver whiting are also good, but those whiting heads and salmon chunks are hard to beat. If you’re extra keen as the water temp cools right down in late April and early June, switching to softer baits such as pilchard and squid gets a better result in my experience.
Autumn also offers some great bycatch with gummy sharks; they respond best to fresh baits so always keep this in mind when you’re fishing through summer collecting bait. I often catch gummies while chasing snapper and you double your chances if you fish a fresh or snap-frozen bait you’ve caught yourself. Placing your bait on a paternoster rig on the bottom hook just off the mud is a great way to entice a gummy.
Berley is imperative at this time of year, and I like to use a berley bucket and fill it up with cut-up pilchards and pellets and lower it down to just a metre off the bottom. I tie it off a cleat towards the bow to prevent any lines tangling with it. The reason I like a berley bucket is because I don’t want to over-feed the fish with cubed pilchard. I just want them to be fired up enough from the scent and small pieces coming from the cage to get them aggressively hitting the baits. When snapper aren’t feeding aggressively, if you use too much berley, they may not take your rigged baits as they’ll be content with the berley. This becomes more likely as the water temp gets colder so keep that in mind and give the berley cage a go.
When I catch a fish, I like to throw a handful of fish pellets up current, so they float back down to the area where my baits are. The pellets hopefully hold the school for a little bit more at this time. Pellets don’t overfeed the fish in the same way as cubed fish, as they break down to basically nothing, so opt for a smaller fish pellet in this situation.
During early autumn, snapper slowly start to leave the bay and generally the most productive areas are deep off Mornington, Mount Martha, St Leonards and Indented Head. Anywhere between 16m and 24m are the areas you should be concentrating on. This is where the fish can gather in big schools on the mud just prior to exiting the bay. But some snapper leave later than others, so as the water cools right down (13-15 degrees) don’t be shy to try those shallow marks where they will seek out warmer water, especially after a blow in the early morning or afternoon. Also keep in mind the bay has resident fish you can target year-round.
While the more southern areas I mentioned do consistently produce fish in autumn, don’t rule out any of the northern areas where you catch snapper in the spring. Some of my best sessions have been around the Gasso [IG1] area, deep off Mordialloc, Frankston, Carrum and Seaford. It’s different every year so check with your local independent tackle shop for where they may have received reports. All you really need to know is the depth and the area, then good use of your sounder should help you find the fish.
If you’re not getting the readings you’re looking for on the sounder, don’t waste your day sounding or the peak tide period driving around. My theory is that while the snapper are exiting the bay, the run-out tides are more productive, so once the flow has switched to the ebb pick a location and drop that berley cage and present some fresh baits on the mud.
On the run-in tide, you might try fishing reef/scallop beds where they may hold up for some time, and if it’s a really good area they can hold there for a few weeks or even months. You never know until you try.
At this time of year, they can also be finicky, feeding for three days then shutting down for a few days. You may think the fish have moved on when in fact you just had bad timing. This happened to me last year, but I knew from experience the fish hadn’t moved. They were still there, just not feeding, and after a few days they came back on the chew where I had been onto them just a few days earlier.
Looking at your chart and focusing on the contour lines that lead to a channel where they may exit past is a good place to focus your efforts. Remember you can’t catch a fish without a bait in the water, so moving all over the place might not be the wise thing to do. Sometimes you need to have confidence in your well-presented fresh bait, your berley trail and play the waiting game.
Try to always fish the maximum rods you can fish, with four rods per person, as each extra rod is an extra chance. If I have two people on my boat, we are fishing eight rods in the spread. I will have two paternoster rigs with circle hooks dropped straight down and the other six will be twin hook snell rigs with octopus/suicide hooks.
Always use quality hooks and leader and use the lightest sinker the depth, wind and current will allow, which in most cases is a size 1 ball sinker.
In autumn I use smaller hooks as there are a lot of school-size fish present around the 2kg mark – so size 5/0 or 4/0, and on the paternoster rigs I use circle hooks from 4/0 to 8/0. You can catch big fish on small hooks, but it’s harder to catch small fish on big hooks and big baits. With all the school fish around, I think 4/0 is the best option as the weather cools around April – whole baked snapper is a great meal.
Autumn I’m hoping that this article has inspired you to get out the snapper gear and give the autumn season a good go, as I think you will be surprised how it fishes. Just because traditionally it’s not a species you target in autumn, it doesn’t mean that that the fish aren’t there to be caught, so get out and give it a red-hot crack!