There's a heavy swell rolling in and the skies are hastily darkening, warning us of an impending downpour. But we don’t care.
We’re sitting just metres off the steep cliffs of Tiritiri Island’s Chinaman Bay and a spate of missed bites has us desperate to nail a big snapper from the rocks.
A cast is delivered with precision and lands just short of a steep rock that’s being intermittently covered in the sea’s white wash. A quick retrieve from the kelp takes the 1/2oz jighead away from the dangerzone… the retrieve is slowed… there’s a tentative knock… then another… then a bang and it’s all on. Within milliseconds the line has tightened, the rod has loaded impressively and the adrenalin is pumping. A substantial snapper has fallen prey to a Gulp Lime Tiger softbait and is desperately fighting its way down for the safety of the reef.
The snapper’s efforts are futile though. There’s been too much hard work put in over the last three hours for this specimen to get away. Within five minutes the fight has been won and a beautifully conditioned snapper just shy of 4kg is landed on the NZ Fishing World Fyran.
Big snapper often hang out close to rocks.
Not for the faint hearted
The method is softbaiting but the technique is one that many anglers don’t even bother to try. It’s the art of casting softbaits into rocky areas from a boat or kayak. Those fishos who know the technique inevitably also know it’s a challenging, demanding but, on occasions, ultimately rewarding form of fishing.
At times, it’s not for the faint hearted. Edging a boat in close to razor-sharp rocks as strong swells threaten to push you towards your peril takes a bit of nerve and confident skippering. It’s an extremely active form of angling that requires precision and good judgement – and that’s just the boat part.
When it comes to the actual fishing, equal measures of precision, patience, technique and skill are required when venturing close to rocks for the elusive moocher snapper.
The rewards for this method of fishing can be huge. Big, hungry moocher snapper patrol these rocky posts where strong currents continuously churn up feeding for them. Larger snapper in these environments won’t necessarily be active predators.
Around the dark, kelp covered rocks in close, many snapper adopt hit-run-hide tactics to catch a feed. A well-presented, enticing softbait swimming past the nose of one of these big, powerful fish can often be too good to refuse. Fighting a substantial snapper in these conditions can be exhilarating but demanding.
The key to finding a good spot for a big rock-dwelling snapper is to remember that areas that look inhospitable, harsh and difficult to get to are probably the ideal conditions for these snapper to hang out.
Look for rock ledges and gullies with plenty of kelp and reefs around. These areas are potentially dangerous to be around in a boat so proceed with extreme caution but once you get yourself set, you can sometimes be in for fantastic fishing.
When looking for these spots, use your fishing sixth sense. You know that feeling you get when you find a spot and you think to yourself, ‘this looks fishy’? Well, don’t be afraid to follow that instinct. If a spot looks fishy, give it a go.
Remember that in these spots, your sounder isn’t necessarily going to be much of a fish finder. You’re casting away from the boat towards the rocks so, in terms of fish finding, it may become redundant to an extent. However, it is imperative you keep an eye on it to check the bottom structure and depth.
Because of the nature of this type of fishing, you’re not going to have a huge amount of fishing time on each drift. In rougher conditions, have someone stay at the helm and be ready to reposition the boat as the swell starts to move you closer to rocks.
This isn’t like fishing out deep – you can’t find the spot, turn the motor off, spend 15 minutes setting up and then start fishing. Time is of the essence here so have your rig ready to cast as soon as you move into a fishable spot. Once the skipper has you settled, get that drogue out as fast as you can and start casting.
Typically you’re going to be fishing in depths of between 4m and 5m so a heavy jighead is not needed and you will find 1/2oz to be more than enough, even in heavy swells. The aim here is to present the softbait as naturally as possible bearing in mind that these rock-dwelling snapper are usually timid and easily spooked.
The cast itself can be difficult to master in these spots. The perfect cast is one that falls just short of the rock ledge or cliff face. Once you find the distance, you may well be surprised just how accurate you get.
Bear in mind the water is going to be extremely shallow where the softbait lands so a fast retrieve for the first five or so metres is essential to stop snags (although these will inevitably happen as you experiment with the depth).
Once you’re out of that dangerzone, slow your retrieve down and start to work the softbait with a series of flicks and nods, stops and starts. It’s at this point you will find most hook-ups occur.
Once hooked in these shallow, foul-laden conditions, the snapper’s first instinct is to swim for cover. The first 15 seconds of the fight is crucial. It’s up to you to retrieve as much line as possible here to ensure the fish can’t get to the rocks and bust off. It’s a fine line between fighting with enough authority to keep the snapper from the safety of the rocks and going too hard and snapping the line.
Remember it’s the fish that’s hooked, not you and you need to stay in control without exerting too much pressure on the light gear.
Fishing near the rocks from a boat requires a lot of preparation and patience. The conditions usually dictate that you will only get a short amount of fishing time before having to reset the drift.
The reality is you aren’t going to fill the bin using this technique. However, you may well find that when you do hook-up it will be a substantial fish and, if you’re really lucky, it may just be the fish of a lifetime.
These environments are playgrounds for big snapper and with a bit of practice, they can be playgrounds for you too.
Three top tips for casting into the rocks
1. Maintain your motor. Your motor becomes the single-most important piece of equipment on the boat when you fish in close to rocks. This is the thing that’s going to get you into the ideal spot and out of trouble if things start to go wrong.
You won’t be anchoring if you’re softbaiting so it is absolutely vital that you have an engine that you can absolutely rely on. Fishing just metres from ledges and cliff faces, it doesn’t take long for a heavy swell to push you perilously close to a disaster. Make sure your motor is well maintained and that it will start first pop.
2. Keep a constant eye out for submerged rocks and other foul. Bear in mind that if the terrain on the shoreline is rough and rocky, it’s probably the same under the boat. Watch the bottom structure on the sounder and scan the area for breaking wash over partially submerged reefs.
Always have a good knowledge of the area you’re fishing in. Local charts will give you a lot of information but remember that not all foul will always be marked. Bottom line is keep your eyes peeled at all times!
3. Timing and positioning are everything when fishing close in. Big swells will move you at a surprising rate so try to gauge what the current and swells are doing.
Bear in mind that you want to give yourself a reasonable amount of fishing time when setting your drift, so cut your engine a bit further out on the first one until you have a good understanding of how the boat is going to move in the conditions.
Remember to use your drogue to slow your drift but keep an eye on it in shallow water.