Words & Images: Al McGlashan
An attractive fish with silvery pink flanks dotted with brilliant iridescent blue spots, the snapper is one of our most sought-after species. In Australia they are plentiful right around the southern half of the country, from Exmouth to Gladstone,, and the species is found sporadically across temperate waters of the Indo-Pacific from Japan to India and New Zealand.
Snapper are closely related to the bream clan and, like the bream, they are a slow-growing species that can live to 30 years old. A 9kg snapper could be anywhere from 16 to 22 years old, according to some studies, but sadly snapper of this size are all too rare nowadays. Interestingly, when it comes to killing fish many anglers seem to have no issue with necking a 25-year-old snapper but will explode if a big swordfish that is lucky to reach 8 years of age is taken for food. This really highlights the lack of understanding of our fisheries.
Finding East Coast Snapper
Mature snapper favour coastal waters and can be found anywhere from the shoreline right out to the Continental Shelf, but are most common in water less than 100m deep. Immature fish are common in sheltered waters, such as estuaries and bays.
A demersal species, they spend most of their time feeding on or near the bottom. The best place to find snapper is over reefs, rubble, gravel patches and broken ground. In New South Wales and New Zealand waters they prefer reefy terrain around islands, bommies, ledges, pinnacles and rocky headlands, as opposed to rubble or broken reef that is so popular in Victoria.
Depth is not a critical factor when it comes to finding snapper and they are just as likely to be in 8m of water off a rocky headland as they are an offshore reef. One basic rule is that after a big storm snapper will move inshore to feed, especially in NSW waters.
Water colour and the direction of the current, which are governed by the East Australian Current, play an essential role in NSW. The speed and direction also influence snapper and for me an uphill current often produces the best bites, again, especially after heavy seas.
Being so widely distributed snapper can be caught on a wide variety of techniques from baits to trolling. Bait traditionally has been the most reliable technique, but fresh is essential. Snapper are fussy buggers and will refuse all but the freshest offering and old smelly bait simply won’t cut the mustard. Make the effort to get fresh bait and you will catch far more snapper. The beauty in NSW is that bait is plentiful and you can usually catch bait like yakkas, slimies and squid on or adjacent to the grounds.
Fish heads, especially slimy mackerel, are a secret weapon for many of the gun anglers, not just because the snapper love them but also because they are tough and can withstand the pickers like wrasse and sweep. A butterflied yakka is also awesome and I should add I have caught a number of decent snapper on live baits too, especially squid and yakkas while targeting kings.
When preparing bait don’t hide the hook, as snapper have tough mouths that are hard to penetrate, so it is important to keep the hook point exposed to get a solid hook-up. Always take the time to rig bait properly so it will appear natural – wary snapper will quickly reject a twisted or bent bait.
Berley is essential, especially if you are anchoring and drifting baits back. Keep the trail fine, don’t feed them too much, then drift lightly weighted baits down the trail. In deep water a berley bomb or similar device should be used to get the berley to the bottom where the fish and your baits are.
Reds on rubbers
Catching snapper on soft plastics was unheard of a decade or so ago yet today it is arguably more popular than bait in NSW. Fishing plastics is not simply a matter of cruising over to a patch of reef and casting about hoping for a bite. Instead, you need to be very targeted in your approach. I like to focus in 10 to 30 metres of water, but shallower water can also be productive. It’s best after a storm, or early morning and late afternoon.
Reef pinnacles that drop away into deeper water tend to be the most reliable for the really big fish, while gravel and rubble grounds tend to produce smaller fish. In Victoria and South Australia, it is often the complete opposite. The key is the presence of bait, and anywhere you find big schools of slimies or yakkas, the chances are there will be snapper lurking around.
Now, we all know there are pelagics around bait schools but it may surprise many anglers to know that bottom dwellers like snapper and even jewfish will also lurk around below the schools. I remember finding a huge school of kings smashing bait on top and if we could get the plastics past them we caught a snapper every cast underneath all the action. It certainly made for some exciting fishing.
Finesse is Best
When you find the right ground don’t rush into the middle and start firing casts in all directions. Instead you need to employ a bit of stealth and plan your attack. A lot of species, in particular snapper, are shy by nature and will quickly spook so you need to drift over the grounds quietly for the best results. As you approach, take note of the wind direction and the current, then zoom in on the GPS plotter screen to give you a clearer picture of your line of drift.
The key to fishing soft plastics is to cast them downwind then work them back up towards the boat. Initially, let the soft plastic sink to the bottom then work it back by lifting the rod right up to 12 o’clock in one action. Let it sink down taking up half the slack line before you start retrieving. It is vaguely similar to fishing for bream except you need to keep it higher in the water column and not on the bottom.
It may surprise many anglers, but often the fish will strike mid-water and not down on the bottom as you would expect for bottom-dwelling snapper. If your soft plastic drifts down to the bottom too quickly, you may find yourself catching too many pest fish like sergeant bakers and wrasse so the key is to keep it higher in the water column. The trick is to employ the correct-sized jig head for the job. Now, there are no set rules and with so many variables the best approach is to have a wide selection of jigs and swap them to suit the depth you are fishing. You also need to take into account the size and strength of the hook because believe me a decent snapper will bend light-gauge hooks on the bite. As a rough guide, start with 12 gram jig head in deeper water, while a 9g or lighter is better in water shallower than 15 metres. The smaller 6g jig would also be good except it only comes with a 1/0, which is too small for snapper.
One thing that is surprising is the huge number of snapper that have smashed the lure on the initial drop. On more than one occasion I have spilt my coffee as a snapper has scoffed the artificial the minute it hits the water. It certainly makes you rethink what you knew about snapper.
To make the most out of every opportunity, always have two outfits rigged and ready. That way if I am working the heavy jig and someone else catches a fish on the lighter jig I can instantly swap over. Alternately, if you happen to snag up you don’t have to worry about re-rigging; instead just grab the other outfit and keep fishing so you don’t miss out on the drift.
It is also a good idea to have a selection of soft plastics out and ready so you can change over swiftly. While on the subject of change I highly recommend you regularly change your soft plastics, both colour and style, until you get action. Soft plastics with built-in scent or those tubes of scent additive are also worth using and seem to improve your strike rate. This is easy if there are a few of you fishing because you can all work different soft plastics and work out quickly if the fish have a particular preference. Basically what I am saying is experiment regularly. Plastics are opening new doors to fishing old grounds, which is very exciting, especially when you hook a big snapper on light tackle!
One technique that is well worth more attention is trolling. Super-deep divers like Laser Pros work a treat over in the west but it’s a technique we have only touched on over here on the east coast and early results have been awesome
Mix it Up
When fishing plastics these days I nearly always have a live bait drifting out the back – and it really does surprise me how many snapper I catch on it. However, it’s the same when drifting baits down the berley trail on anchor; I also regularly throw a plastic about and sometimes it will out-fish the natural baits.
Snapper stocks are getting overfished in NSW and while the government refuses to act, anglers are leading the way in conservation by releasing the big old breeders and never fishing just to fill absurd bag limits. Let’s just hope it’s enough because it would be a shame to end up like some other states where you can’t even fish for snapper any mo