Snapper Bait Fishing Basics

With snapper season here in Victoria, there’s plenty of tactical food for thought, writes Lee Rayner

It was hard not to get excited as the sounder marked up snapper spread out and scattered across the bottom in 14m of water. With first light coming soon it was time to get the anchor in and rods baited up.

While the bulk of the bait was still frozen in the ice box, I’d pulled out enough the night before to thaw and make sure we were ready to get started.

I prefer to bait all the rods then cast them out in different directions around the back of the boat, and with a range of baits on offer I hoped the snapper would find what they were looking for. Now came the waiting game.

Nothing happened for twenty minutes or so it gave me time to chop some berley and disperse it around the boat. Baits were wound in and checked every ten minutes, and with no pickers chewing on the baits it was a good sign snapper were still in the area.

Then it happened – the baitrunner howled as a snapper tore off with a big silver whiting and no matter how many snapper you’ve caught, it still puts your heart in your mouth with excitement. This was no different, and as the reel was clicked into gear the rod tip looped towards the water and the drag groaned as the hooks found their mark. This is what it’s all about.


Snapper are both predators and opportunistic feeders, so with this in mind you can use a range of methods and baits to target them. Snapper are just like a lot of species – and even us humans – in that they don’t want to eat the same thing every day, and having a few different baits can make the difference to your success rate. Overall, however, it always pays to have pilchards and squid on offer, while in places such as Port Phillip Bay silver whiting are also effective.

Another great option, and one method that isn’t used as much these days, is the use of live bait. And anyone who fishes Port Phillip Bay can attest that it’s full of baitfish in the form of whitebait, pilchards, yakkas, slimy mackerel and garfish.

While the pillys and whitebait are tiny and hard to catch, a small sabiki jig dropped into bait schools you mark up on the sounder, or a fine berley trail with a small float on a light rod can have you loaded up with a tank of live baits in no time.

When it comes to using a live bait, you can use a standard running rig with single or twin hooks and a small sinker to get it down towards the bottom. Once there I really like to fish them with a baitrunner reel as it allows the fish to grab the bait, kill it and swallow it with no resistance, even if it gets smashed and nothing happens for a few seconds – leave it, as the fish will often come back. As in so many forms of fishing, live bait is the best and with snapper it’s no different and can really change your day. As a bonus, even if you don’t use them live the next best thing is to get a fresh dead bait out, and I’ve caught some of my best snapper in the bay on either half or whole fresh garfish. Another option is to suspend the live bait just off the bottom on a paternoster rig. The bites on these are quite aggressive and generally see the rod bounce as the bait is grabbed before folding over as the fish takes off.

Another advantage to having live bait is that if you’re in an area with lots of pinkies chewing your baits, they tend to leave the live bait alone, which gives the bigger fish a chance to get in on the action.

Rigging and rigs

It’s a funny thing that Port Phillip and Western Port are separated by only a small finger of land and while the bay is largely non-tidal, Western Port flows like a river. For this reason the rigs used in each are very different, with this in mind I’ll break down the rigs into separate parts.

Port Phillip Bay

With minimal tidal flow, the bay sees most anglers fishing with a running rig comprising a ball sinker in 0, 1 or 2 size to a swivel and a 1m-long leader to either a single hook or in most cases a pair of snelled suicide patterns.

When it comes to leader, I prefer Black Magic 40lb as it has good abrasion resistance when you do half hitches around the tail of the bait. As these pull tight, they lock around the spine of the bait, which can cut through a light leader.

As for hook sizes, it’s personal preference, with most anglers opting for a 4/0 or 5/0, but most importantly you need to match the hook to the bait – as I always say, there’s no point chucking a pair of 4/0 hooks in a giant squid head that needs 8/0s, and in the same way you don’t need 7/0s in a pilchard.

Another great option is to use no sinker and float the bait down through the water column – this method has been a winner for me over several seasons.

Western Port

With the tidal water, Western Port requires a different approach and bigger sinkers, of which you will need a range of sizes from 4oz and above depending on the depth of water you’re fishing. The most popular and successful rig is a running-style rig that uses the plastic slider that sits above the swivel, which come with a clip so you can attach the sinker. Alternatively ditch the clip and add a foot or so of 20lb mono to the slider and put the sinker on that. This serves two purposes, being that it lifts the bait off the bottom and if it gets snapped you just lose the sinker.

The main line is then attached to a swivel – use good quality ones such as a crane pattern as they are much stronger for their size. To this a leader of about 4ft is attached and the strength of this is usually 40, 60 or 80lb.

When it comes to hooks, again it’s a matter of matching the hook to the bait and in these parts you can either run a two-hook snelled rig or – as a lot of anglers are now doing – use a single circle hook, as fishing in the tide makes the circle hook work so well that any snapper which eats the bait then turns away in the current finds itself pinned in the corner of the mouth.

While there are lots of great circles on the market such as the Gamakatsu model I find it hard to go past the Black Magic KLT in the 6/0, 7/0 and 8/0 sizes. They have no offset so sit perfectly in the current, and are strong and deadly sharp. Using this method of a single hook is a simple matter of pinning a strip or ring of squid or a chunk of fish and the bait sits perfectly in the current.  

Let them run or stop them?

It’s an age-old debate – do you let the snapper run with the bait before setting the hook, or have the reel in gear with drag and the fish hooks itself when the rod folds over in the rod holder?

I love fishing baitrunner or an open bail in Port Phillip Bay as it gets your heart racing when it screams off, but it’s best when I’m using bigger and harder baits; as pilchards are soft I prefer a set drag. While I don’t let the fish run for long with the bait, I’ve found the trick to a better hook-up rate is to leave the rod in the holder and simply put the reel in gear and the rod will load up –  doing this allows the hooks to find their mark rather than being ripped out with a wild strike.

Western Port’s tides make it hard to fish free spool as the tide keeps pulling line off the reel, so to stop this you need to tighten the baitrunner to the point there’s enough pressure to hold the line, but when a fish grabs the bait it’s not enough to set the hook and make the fish drop the bait. For this reason strike drag works better in tidal waters.

One more tip: if you’re fishing free spool have it as free as possible so there is no resistance. However, if you’re fishing in gear then use the drag as you would to fight the fish, as this will bury the hooks when the fish eats the bait (a bit of drag or a tighter baitrunner will just see you miss fish).

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