Words & Images: Peter ‘Fergie” Ferguson
Many people think snapper season starts only in mid-November but let me assure you, there are quality snapper to be caught well before then by those anglers willing to put in the hard yards to get what I believe are the most satisfying snapper captures of the season.
Over the years I have caught many quality snapper throughout winter but September heralds the start of warmer waters that tend to get the metabolism moving on the resident and early-arriving snapper in Western Port.
I fondly remember, about 20 years ago, the reaction I got when I showed my mates and the local tackle shop a 5kg snapper I caught in mid-August around the mouth of the Tooradin Channel.
Comments of “fluke” and “yeah, yeah, old pic Fergy” rang out loudly among the non-believers. “Really?”, I thought to myself; I sounded them, I fished for them and I caught them, so this was no fluke.
Determined to prove it wasn’t a fluke, I went back out three days later and caught three more similar-sized fish in the same spot. That shut them up and after doing it again the next year and the one after, the local tackle shops started telling people to fish for them in winter.
This started a serious addiction to winter snapper for me, to the stage where my mates often laughed that I could catch snapper in June to September but that I couldn’t catch one in November.
They were bloody right, too…
(Ed: Now that’s enough drivel, Pete, let’s help the readers catch some too as that’s why they’re here.)
While winter sees water temperatures as low as 10 degrees, by mid-September the waters will be around 13-14 degrees depending on Mother Nature’s moods each year. This slightly warmer water will see a better bite period start to happen.
You may ask, why would you bother putting in the hard yards and long hours instead of simply waiting to November when the fish are easier to catch?
My reasoning is as follows:
A: An early-season fish is worth 10 fish when it’s fully on and anyone can catch one. Go out, put in the hours and earn the fish – it feels so much more rewarding than mid-November.
B: The quality of early season fish is much higher, with 6-7kg fish being the average fish unlike later in the season when 2-3kg fish are more common.
C: The eating quality of an early season colder weather snapper is far superior to later season fish. The fish seems cleaner, less mushy and it simply tastes so much better than a warm-water fish that is in breeding mode.
D: Most importantly, the bragging rights over your mates is so much better and let’s be honest, isn’t that what it’s all about?!
Now let’s talk about the methods for catching these early-season fish and locations.
Early season I recommend you keep your baits much smaller than later in the season, and I find flesh baits very good.
Baits like half pilchards, small strips of fresh couta, fresh salmon strips plus the always-reliable fresh squid work well, but using small strips / tentacles or small rings are best. When the water is cooler, quite simply a fish’s metabolism is much slower so they don’t eat as much and can be very timid on the bite. With larger baits such as squid heads, the fish will just nibble at it and not swallow the whole bait. With the strip baits, when I say small I mean around 12mm wide and 50-60mm long.
What Outfits to Use
One great advantage of early-season snapper is you tend to be fishing shallower, less tidal areas, so you can leave the heavier gear at home and enjoy using a lighter outfit. The only negative about using lighter gear is that old mate, the stingray, is still around and hooking a large ray on light tackle will either take you 30 minutes to get it to the boat, or you will simply just bust it off and have to re-rig your outfit.
The choice is yours but I personally still use my heavier outfits so I can knock that old ray over quickly and get my baits back out for the snapper. For me this is a 10-15kg rod with the trusty Saragosa 10000 with 30lb braid.
If you want to fish light, I would recommend using a rod in the 5-8kg or 6-10kg range matched to a 4000-5000-size reel, 20lb braid, 5m of 30lb shock leader and a pair of snelled 4/0 hooks on 60lb mono leader.
The shock leader is an important part of the set-up as braid has zero stretch, which can result in you pulling the hooks on a fish lightly pinned in the lips.
The five metres of mono shock leader will absorb the heavy knocks of a big snapper’s head shakes and allow you to have mono all the way back onto the reel when the fish is boatside, as this is where you will lose most fish when it takes its last-ditch dive for freedom. Soft hands are a must with early-season snapper boatside.
Rigging – the Pointy End
While I am a huge advocate of the use of circle hooks for snapper, until the water temps have risen above 16 degrees, I will use a pair of snelled 4/0 suicide hooks and strike at any bite I see. The bite of a 7kg snapper in colder water can often look just like a flathead nibbling your bait.
Sometimes, the snapper will simply scream off and be hooked up straight away, but this is far less common early on.
When rigging up, I snell these two very fine gauge hooks about 100mm apart with the top hook on the leading end of the bait and the second hook further towards the bottom of the bait for the fish that just nips at the tail of the bait.
Importantly, always ensure there is some slack in the line between the two hooks or the bait will end up with a bend in it and spin in the current and not be eaten.
As always this is the million-dollar question. The hottest locations early season are always in the top reaches of the port. Why?
Firstly, being shallower means many exposed mud banks that absorb the warmth of the day’s sunlight, which in turn warms the water as it floods over these banks. The water temps up in these areas will often be 1-2 degrees warmer.
Not only is a warm bath nicer for the snapper but the bait fish will also be congregating in these areas enjoying the day spa – and in turn attracting the predators.
Secondly, these areas tend to hold a lot of nutrients, which flow in from the many freshwater creeks that supply the micro-organisms that the smaller baitfish and crabs require to flourish.
Thirdly – and this is just a theory of mine and some others – but we believe that like many other species, snapper head up to the lower salinity of the upper reaches of the bay to rid their bodies of any parasites they may be carrying after living for months in the open ocean.
The same happens in Port Phillip Bay, where early season snapper are caught right up at the mouth of the Yarra River. This same theory applies to many ocean dwellers such as whales that venture inside our bays during the year.
With this in mind, my early snapper hunting is carried out in the top end of Western Port around Boultons, Bouchier and Lyalls channels.
The regular hot spots around Joes Island and an area known as Browns Reserve – which runs along the eastern end of the Tooradin Channel – will often deliver early-season fish.
Another great early area to try is the top end of Corinella from Freeman Point through to Spit Point, often fishing as shallow as 3-5 metres deep on a flood tide.
When fishing these areas, I will sound along the channel edges until I sound some snapper arches. Once I am confident the fish are in the area, I will anchor and spend a whole tide or even two tides on the one spot. This is where your patience will be tested for sure.
It wouldn’t be the first time that I have watched a few episodes of my latest binge series on Netflix whilst waiting for a bite.
Yep, I will sit in the one spot for 6-10 hours without moving. That is the level of patience that is often required to catch an early snapper but when a 6-7kg or possibly even a bigger snapper takes a bait and hits the net, the elation will be heard by every boat within 2km.
You may say that sounds boring, but you will often pick up a few gummy sharks to fill the Esky while waiting for a snapper and no one complains about some fresh flake.
I like to fish the flood tide more than the ebb tide but both work.
Sometimes, we simply don’t have the luxury of fishing when the weather and other factors are perfect, so just get out there and have a crack. You can’t catch them sitting on your couch!
I hope this helps you and encourages you to get out and have a crack – and say g’day when you see me at the ramp, and tight lines.