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How to catch a big snapper

By John DurrantNZ Fishing World
How to catch a big snapper

How do you become one of those fishermen who seems to catch the big fish consistently? It’s a question many fishos will ask themselves and some will immediately dismiss consistent success as pure luck. But that would be completely wrong.

We all accept that luck has a big part to play in most successful days’ fishing but it’s those anglers that do the hard yards that will ultimately reap the rewards. The 20lb snapper has an almost mythical status for many. It’s something almost every saltwater fisherman wants to achieve but not all can conquer.

There’s plenty fishos out there who’ve spent thousands of hours on the water over decades and still haven’t snared the elusive 20lb trophy. This fishing game can be a frustrating one and when you’re hunting out the big boys, it can sometimes be enough to reduce a grown fisher to tears. Just ask the countless anglers who’ve felt the sickening failure of gear just as that fish of a lifetime was brought to the side of the boat. It can be soul destroying.

For some fishos though, these things just don’t present problems. These people seem to go from big snapper to big snapper without any hassle. Taking luck out of the equation, it’s important to look at just why they are the ones who consistently catch big. It might not seem like it, but the guys and girls who’re catching big fish regularly, actually put a lot of work into it.

Do your research

Knowing the area you fish – or at least having someone who knows the area with you – can be crucial. Most 20lb-plus snapper are caught by people who know that there are big fish in that particular area. You don’t often hear of really big fish being caught by people who were fishing the spot that gets hammered every weekend of the year. It does happen but it’s rare.

Spots that consistently produce bigger snapper – those over 6kg – are like gold dust. If you know of one, keep it close to your chest. How often do you hear about people catching huge snapper whilst out catching pannies in a work-up? Almost never.

The really big snapper are more likely to be solitary – they might be away out wide or they could be mooching in close – but it’s unlikely they’ll be there with lots of other snapper. The key here is intelligence. Do your research. Keep an eye on our website reports, talk to your local tackle store, ask your mates what they’ve heard. Targeting trophy fish is difficult at the best of times. Doing it without any prior research makes it almost impossible.

Preparation makes perfect

Once you have a rough idea of where you’re going, you need to have some sort of game plan in place as to how you’re going to approach it. Think logically about the locations you plan to fish at, the times of the tide and conditions.

At NZ Fishing World we usually have a reasonably strict plan as to how the day will go. Lately we’ve been targeting areas around Coromandel and the Happy Jack Islands where bigger fish have been congregating.

Casting softbaits into the wash around those islands has tempted a few good fish up to 16lb and we’ve then used the afternoons to chase work-ups around the Hauraki Gulf.

When you get your inside knowledge of a particular spot, make sure you find out when the fish have been biting there and in what conditions – wind direction is one of the big factors and, as you would expect, tide.

Invariably for NZ Fishing World, the bigger fish almost always seem to hit on softbaits and slowjigs. More can sometimes be less when it comes to baits and gear on the boat. You may think that taking every piece of gear with you will maximize your chances but it can sometimes have the opposite effect.

With a few different options, you’ll tend to be focused on those and work hard to find the fish. With the proverbial sink thrown in, you could get impatient and jump from method to method too hastily without actually giving one a proper chance to work. Decide how you’ll approach the day’s fishing, take a couple of sets and stick to those. Stay focused and you’ll get the rewards.

Methods for magic

Ask any fisho what he or she thinks is the best way to catch those XOS snapper and they’ll likely all have different theories. The truth is, at different times, there’s a huge range of ways to catch a trophy snapper. However, there are some standards that don’t change, regardless of how you like to fish.

Whatever the method, whether it’s conventional baits, slowjigs, softbaits, fly or something completely different, there’s a cardinal rule that must always be obeyed: Get the presentation right. Without proper presentation, your chances of catching glory are dramatically slashed.

Snapper aren’t intelligent contrary to belief but the big ones don’t get to being big and old without at least being wily. They will be naturally flighty and if something is at all alien to them, then the chances are they won’t touch it. Right through the spectrum of fishing, everyone will tell you about the importance of presentation.

From NZ Fishing World’s bait fishing expert Bruce Duncan to the magazine’s freshwater guru Mike Davis, they will all tell you that if the bait doesn’t look the part, you won’t tempt them into the bite.

If using softbaits, one of the prime ways to catch a trophy is by casting softbaits into the wash from a drifting boat. It’s best to use this method in rocky areas that might be difficult for land-based guys to reach.

Areas that have been fished less will, obviously, be more likely to hold big snapper. Those big old moocher snapper seem to find a well-placed softbait in the wash hard to resist. Cast as close to the rocks as you can without snagging and work the lure back to the boat.

Most strikes occur in the first few metres of retrieval as snapper bolt from their hiding places to attack the lure. For bait fishing, many fishos love to anchor, berley up hard in the shallows, and wait for the big boys to come to them.

Summer fishing, especially on hot bright days, can be challenging and a big cut bait – perhaps a whole pilchard – straylined down the berley trail can be a winning combination in dealing to XOS snapper.

Fighting dirty

You’ve done the hard work, you’ve found the spot, you’re fishing well and suddenly that giant snapper completes the story. But first you have to get it to the boat. It’s not always true, but more often than not, big snapper fight hard and they fight dirty and to win the battle, you have to fight just as hard and just as dirty.

Make sure you have quality gear that’s been well maintained. A big, powerful fish will test your tackle to the limit and if it’s not performing the way it should, the fish will make you pay. When the snapper first strikes, it will immediately look for cover. More often than not, razor-sharp rocks or a reef will be the weapon of choice.

In those first few runs, it’s absolutely crucial that you try to stop that momentum or at least turn the snapper’s head a little. You might be over sand when the fish strikes and in that case, you’re living dream. You can let the fish run all day.

Stop that snapper!

But, more often than not, there will be structure nearby and it’s up to you to stop the snapper heading into danger and busting you off. Try to get some line back on the fish. Rely on your drag to help you but be very aware of the strain that you’re inflicting on your line. Don’t be overzealous with it.

There’s a fine line between fighting hard and snapping the line. Stay focused. This writer’s old man has some sage advice when fighting fish: “Calm down. It’s the fish that’s hooked, not you.” Depending on the conditions, you might even get your mate to chase the fish down if it’s looking like you’re not going to get it away from dangerous structure.

You might be surprised to find that the battle is over reasonably quickly. Snapper are explosive fighters to begin with but endurance is not something they possess.

Back of the net

Netting your fish of a lifetime is nerve-racking for all involved. For the fisho, the suspense is awful as the biggest snapper of their fishing career surfaces. For the assigned decky who’s tasked with netting the beast, it’s a responsibility that could go disastrously wrong.

The angler should slowly walk back as the fish surfaces, giving the netter some space to get the fish. Gently drop the net into the water and get the angler to move the fish slowly in the direction of the net.

As it passes over, the net should be firmly lifted to snare the giant and high fives can break out aboard. If you plan to return the snapper – and it would be our recommendation that you do in order to help our fishery – handle it with wet hands or a towel, keep your fingers out of the gills, keep the fish’s weight supported when you lift it and keep it out of the water for as little time as possible.

Don’t forget the photo for the album!

The one that got away

It’s a moment onboard that’s always awkward. It’s the silence that envelops the deck when someone loses a big fish just as it was about to be netted. Even worse is when someone’s mistake with the landing net causes that big fish to be lost.

What can you do or say in that situation? The best advice would be to let the frustrated fisho have their moment to regain their composure. For most, this will entail some choice language and perhaps throwing a few things around.

The bottom line is, there’s nothing you can say to make that fisho feel any better at that moment, so keep your mouth shut. If you’re the one responsible for losing the fish, perhaps you hit the line with the landing net, then apologise… and apologise and make sure the beers are on you back on land.

What works for NZ Fishing World

There’s plenty ways to catch big snapper and what has the most success is a subject of big debate for many fishos. For the NZ Fishing World team artificial lures such as softbaits and slowjigs usually work best.

This must be qualified though: We tend not to use conventional baits all that often. We have found over time on the water that softbaits in particular have a tendency to snare the biggest fish. This does not mean that they’re the best. It simply means that our fishos have been more successful using these methods.

NZ Fishing World writer Bruce Duncan would disagree. He’s a conventional bait wizard and has caught many, many big snapper using all sorts of cut baits and rigs. The fun is in finding a method that works for you. The key is to execute these methods, whatever they are, the best you can.

To catch a monster

  • Know the area you fish or at least have someone who knows the area.
  • Do your research. Keep an eye on our website reports, talk to your local tackle store, ask your mates what they’ve heard.
  • Think logically about the locations you plan to fish at, the times of the tide and conditions.
  • Decide how you’ll approach the day’s fishing, take a couple of sets and stick to those. Stay focused and you’ll get the rewards.
  • Pay close attention to bait presentation.
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