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The insiders guide to snapper - rods, reels, lines and different baits

By Geoff ThomasNZ Fishing World
The insiders guide to snapper - rods, reels, lines and different baits

Whether to use a long trace, a sinker on the bottom, a floating bait or a soft bait; these are the questions facing the snapper fisherman every time he heads out on to the water. Geoff Thomas looks at the different methods and the tackle and when we use them.

The tackle

So how do we catch our snapper?

  • There are three types of rod and reel combinations for boat fishing.
  • An overhead reel, which is used for dropping baits to the bottom.
  • A fixed spool or spin reel with a bait feeder or bait runner mode for stray-lining.
  • A spin reel or baitcaster for fishing lures like soft baits, slow jigs and jigs.

Bottom fishing outfit

There is a wide range of reels available, with star drag and lever drag systems. Some have level-wind mechanisms which automatically feed the line on to the spool from side to side. This saves doing it by hand but it can also be a handicap if a powerful fish like a kingfish takes off and the level-wind can not move fast enough to keep up with the line being pulled from the spool, resulting in a line jam and break-off.

Like all tackle, you get what you pay for and super cheap reels will not stand up to the punishment of fishing in salt water. Get the best quality reel the budget can afford, and look after it by spraying with a protective spray like Inox or CRC and wiping it clean.

If the reel has had a severe dunking in salt water it can be washed lightly with fresh water, but crank the drag up tight to prevent water entering the drag system, then back it off to store the gear.
The important thing is to get a reel which matches the line and rod being used. All three elements should be in balance for the best performance.

The reel can be spooled with new line, or tackle stores will do this from a bulk spool. Line should be changed every few seasons as sunlight, or more correctly ultra violet rays, can damage monofilament; and the terminal section will be nicked or damaged by fish spines or rubbing against rocks or weed.

It is a good idea to strip off the last few metres of line and discard it after every trip anyway. When dropping baits and sinkers first thumb back the spool a few millimetres before flicking the reel into free-spool as the weight will pull the line hard against the release mechanism and it should be forced.

This is particularly relevant when fishing deep water with heavy weights. Then continue to thumb the spool the spool as the line runs out so the spool revolves smoothly and does not over-run itself and create an instant birds-nest.

Rods are rated for different line weights, and the only real difference is how the reel seat and rings are set up. Basic bottom-fishing rods will have the reel seat aligned so the reel sits on top of the rod, and will be strong enough to lift fish. The rod’s length is determined by the size of the boat but usually does not exceed 2m (6ft 6inches). In small boats and kayaks a shorter rod is more practical.

Straylining outfit

Straylining traditionally refers to fishing with unweighted baits in shallow water, usually targeting big fish. But it can also be applied to fishing in deep water with a weight hard up against the bait.
The main difference in tackle with this rig is the reel, which sits under the rod, and is a spin type reel designed for casting.

With the right setup, fishing for snapper can be very productive

Ideally it will also have a lever which controls the bait- feeder, live-liner mode which comes under various names from different manufacturers. Again, the model and size of reel will match the line being used, and the rod.

The rod is longer than a bottom-fishing rod, with a soft tip designed for casting baits and strong middle and butt sections for putting pressure on to big fish. The rings are larger with an extra large first ring for channelling line coming off the face of the reel in curls.

Lure fishing outfit

When jigging with metal jigs first became popular in the 1970s people used their regular bottom-fishing rods. Then, with the advent of light but strong material like carbon fibre and graphite, manufacturers starting designed and producing rods for fishing lures.

These were longer and lighter than traditional rods, with little flex so they could work a lure in deep water without bending too much. Then the soft-bait phenomenon arrived and sparked even more interest in lure fishing.

Now a whole range of rods are available which are ideally suited for this style of fishing. The big question to be considered when selecting tackle for lure fishing is – do I use a spin reel or a baitcaster?

A spin reel is well suited for casting a lure away from the boat, or a soft bait into white water around the rocks. But it is not as good when it comes to dropping a lure to the bottom, A baitcaster, which is a small overhead reel sitting on top of the rod, can be operated with one hand.

A large snapper caught with a new Gulp pilchard soft bait.

These are not as easily cast, and newcomers have problems controlling the spinning spool, often resulting in birds-nest tangles. Serious soft bait fishermen will have a range of rods for different situations, including different rods and lines for fishing heavy weights in deep water.

Rods average 2m for spin reels with the reel seat and rod rings designed to operate a spin reel; while baitcasters are fished from long rods with the reel seat on top and a thumb grip for one-handed operation and smaller rod rings.

Lines

The traditional monofilament line is still the most popular for regular bottom fishing and casting stray-line baits, while braid definitely reigns supreme when it comes to working lures.

The key expression is ‘working lures’. For they have to be worked in the water with jiggles of the wrist and rod tip and braid, with its lack of stretch and resulting more positive transfer of energy down the line to the lure on the end, is the only option.

It has other benefits like less drag through a thinner diameter, and some anglers are finding that if they use their little soft bait outfits for bait fishing in the current they actually catch more fish than with traditional rigs - plus they have a lot more fun.

One thing lure fishing has done is teach fishermen to become better anglers, as the whole outfit from the reel to the drag to the rod have to be operated in unison to handle large fish. People learn to fight a fish correctly with such gear, rather than simply winding it in. Light tackle will also present baits more attractively, resulting in more bites.

The baits

The discussions over baits are endless, and smart anglers are always prepared to learn from others. There are always little tricks which can make a huge difference, and how a bait is presented to the fish is often just as important as which bait is used.

Bottom fishing

There are no rules that are absolute, but most of the time the baits fished on a trace will be longer or larger than those fished on a ledger rig.

This trevally has been filleted, with one side and the backbone removed.

The term ledger is commonly used to describe what is in fact a paternoster rig, but we will stick with the commonly used terms ledger or flasher rig – a trace with a series of loops with hooks on, which sits above a sinker.

Large baits like a whole squid or bait fish are used only when fishing in deep water for big species like hapuka. Otherwise we use chunks of cut bait, which are commonly pilchard, squid or fresh bait taken from a fillet of mackerel, mullet or kahawai.

The chunks are usually small, matching the size of hook which is pushed through once leaving the hook point and barb exposed. With pilchard chunks the hook can be inserted to go around the backbone, giving some security, or through the skull of the head section. The tail section can be hooked twice - through the narrow wrist then reversed and through the thick end.

If targeting trevally or tarakihi the bait might be shellfish like tuatua or mussel, fixed to the hook with bait elastic.

With a trace of varying length the terminal rig can be a single hook, or one with a sliding keeper hook, or two fixed hooks. It is a matter of personal preference more than anything else. Some people feel two hooks will give a better chance of hooking up, while others prefer the simplicity of a single hook which can be quickly rebaited and sent back.

Where it does help to have twin hooks is in places like the Graveyard on the Kaipara Harbour where traces of around 10 metres are often used in powerful currents with seriously large sinkers. A chunk of bait on each of two hooks gives double the chance of hooking up, and is preferred to having a single bait on the two hooks.

Otherwise baits tend to be strips of bait rather than chunks, and can be anything from a whole pilchard to a strip of mullet or kahawai.

Straylining

When casting floating baits down a berley trail it is definitely a situation which calls for big baits. Sometimes a sinker is added, sliding down on to the hook, to take the bait down in strong currents. This may be a quarter-ounce or half-ounce ball sinker.

The bait might be a whole pilchard, a whole jack mackerel or sprat, or a fillet of mullet or kahawai. They will invariably be hooked on two hooks, which can be sliding or fixed. The only time fixed hooks are mandatory is when fishing with the possibility of a record catch being made, as the rules governing records disqualify sliding keeper hooks.

Geoff Thomas's top snapper tips

  • Snapper love oysters (which is understandable!). One trick to keep it on the hook is to empty a tea bag, slip the oyster inside and thread it on the hook.
  • It is a good idea to put a plastic bead above the swivel to protect the tip ring when winding in. A swivel hitting the ring can damage it, leading to weakening of the line.
  • The optimum water temperature for snapper to feed is 18C. This was illustrated at the former snapper hatchery at Pah Farm on Waiheke Island where the temperature was maintained at a steady 18 degrees. When less than that the fish became lethargic.
  • If fish are nipping the tail of soft plastics you can reuse the body by splitting it lengthways and adding it as a replwacement.
  • In strong current when you get bite on trace rig, drop the rod so it gives a little line and you will often get hook up.  
  • Put a Band-Aid on the finger used for lifting fish as monofilament line can cut the skin in the end crease.
  • Light mono line like 15kg used for making up traces will result in more strikes than heavy line. Stiff mono is better than soft line for traces, but be careful lifting fish on to the boat and use a net for big fish.
  • A pillie split along the body makes a juicy bait.

Lure

Soft baits

When the first soft baits arrived a few years ago a lot of Kiwis looked at them and said, ìThese things will never catch fish.î How wrong they were.

The experts who demonstrated how to use the funny looking lures and the appropriate tackle were mainly Aussies, and to them lure fishing is second nature. They have been doing it for generations, whereas we have regarded lures as something you drag for marlin or kahawai or kingfish, or cast at a tropical reef for giant trevally. But that has all changed.

Those skilled at casting a fly rod for trout or dropping a jig took to soft-bait fishing quickly and soon figured out how to use them effectively. It didn’t take long for Kiwis to put their own twist on the system and develop their own style to suit local conditions.

It started with throwing lures into the white water around reefs and islands. This is water which has been large ignored by traditional fishing and opened up a whole new world. What surprised newcomers was the variety of fish which take soft baits, or soft plastics as they are also called although the material used is not strictly plastic.

Then it was not long before innovative snapper fishermen like the late Tiny Coe figured out their own systems for dropping lures into deep water.

Now there is a whole range of options for those wanting to cover everything from the surface layer down to 50 metres or more. It will keep expanding, too.

The key to soft-bait fishing is twofold – firstly to place the lure in front of the fish, and secondly to ‘work’ the lure and impart some action. Softies are designed to simulate a whole range of creatures from anchovies to underwater lizards, and their wiggly bits need to do just that – wiggle.

So the angler needs to approach his business like a hunter; figuring out how heavy a weight or jighead to use, where to cast and how long to let it sink. The parameters are continually changing – the speed of the boat drifting, the depth of water, and of course the weight of the lure.

The basic technique is to motor up-current or upwind of the proposed fishing area which may be determined by surface activity and birds, or sign on the screen of the fish finder, or simply an interesting-looking seabed which may show a little foul or uneven surface or a contour line or drop-off. Or it may be simply shooting blind because ìwe caught some fish here the other day.

There are no real rules.A sea anchor or drogue is handy for slowing the boat’s drift and keeping the bow pointed into the wind so anglers can cast out of the cockpit.

Then the lure is cast ahead of the boat in the direction it is drifting, and allowed to sink with the reel in free-spool. When it hits the seabed the reel is flicked into gear and the slack line taken up before working the lure with short jiggles of the rod tip. Here, the technique varies from a soft jiggle to hard sweeps of the rod.

It is a question of personal taste, and the key is to vary the action.

The other important aspect is to take in loose line as the boat drifts over the lure, so the angler is always in touch with it. This is where a lot of newcomers have difficulty. Like in fy fishing, line control is critical.

Then, as the boat moves away, line can be let out in short increments to keep working the lure until it becomes too far away to be effective, when it is retrieved and the whole process repeated.

There are many instances where a fisherman wants a rest, as this is active fishing compared to the passive approach of sitting with a bait on the bottom waiting for a bite. The rod sits in a rod holder and the lures is slow-trolled behind the boat – and this will catch fish.

Slow jigs, like this Shimano Lucanus, have become a popular lure when targeting snapper

The  softie is always fished with the drag on tight, because this is the other main difference from the traditional approach. The angler has to hook the fish. It won’t hook itself as it will on a chunk of pilchard on a recurve hook on a flasher rig.

This is why keeping in touch with the lure is so important. Bites may be a slight hesitation in the feel of the line, or a soft nibble, or a full-blooded whack. In any event, it is important to wind furiously until the line is tight, then lift the rod to strike.

It is a common sight to see people lift the rod sharply to strike, leaving some slack line in the water, then holding the rod up high and trying to feel if there is a fish there. There won’t be, for it has dropped off.

Wind first, then strike, but keep winding- don’t stop – and strike again, and keep winding, and hit it again to make sure. If you keep winding throughout you will maintain a tight line and you should be in business. Then it becomes a regular fight, although the light tackle used for soft-baiting does teach people to become better anglers. It teaches them how to use the rod and reel in harmony to work a fish in.

If using an overhead bait-caster the reel can be fished in free-spool until a fish is struck, as the thumb can be used to let line slip out or clamp down and keep it right.

Fixed spool spin reels have to be fished in gear as the bail arm system is too unwieldy to fish the lure out of gear. What is a good habit to get into is to keep a finger on the spool where the line is slipping off while the lure is sinking, as fish often pick it up on the drop and you will have no way of knowing unless keeping in touch through a finger.

The tackle

Soft-baiting started with everybody using spin reels and light, stiff carbon fibre rods. This is simply because most Kiwis had to learn to cast, and casting with an overhead bait-caster is a recipe for trouble unless the angler is very experienced.

But it did not take long for people to switch to overheads, which have a lot of advantages when fishing in deep water. It is really a matter of personal preference, and each system has its pros and cons. Some people swear by one rig, while others will have different rigs set up for different situations.

What is important is to use small, light rod-reel combos as you just can’t cast and work the lures effectively on heavy tackle.

Rods

Rods are now designed and made or imported specifically for this style of fishing. They need to be light and long enough to cast effortlessly, with a little tip action to work the lure and plenty of backbone to handle big fish.

A ‘soft ’rod which folds away under pressure is not practical because it is too hard to set the hook, and we have looked at how important this is.

Reels

The standard rig is a small spin reel on a 3m rod, spooled with light braid line.

Those comfortable with casting a baitcaster will use this type of reel also, and both rigs can be used for bottom dunking. The baitcaster is better suited for deep water fishing as it can be operated with one hand.

The rod has a trigger grip handle for solid rod control, and as mentioned the thumb of the rod hand can release the free-spool button and also feather the spool as line runs out.

One big area of discussion is whether to have a left or right-hand wind reel. Most people tend to match this to their predominant hand, but it actually makes more sense to use the strong arm for working the rod and the other hand for winding.

Half pillie rig

But that requires becoming used to winding with the weaker hand – which is not all that difficult. I have been doing it for years.

Otherwise you have to switch the rod when a fish is hooked from one hand to the other, and that can be fatal. It can give a fish a sniff of slack line which can be enough for it to drop off the hook.
Spin reels can be converted to left-hand wind easily, but not so baitcasters.

Hopefully more tackle distributors will bring in left-hand wind overhead reels, not just for left-handers but for those wanting to fish right-handed and wind left-handed.

Line

There are stiff braids and soft braid, all designed for different purposes. They all work, but talk to your tackle store expert when setting up the gear. Braid mostly breaks way higher than the stipulated strength, and the most important this is to use light line.

Braids as light as 3kg breaking strain will catch big fish. The most popular range is around 7kg braid, which is still paper thin. It is the thin diameter and lack of stretch which make braid ideally suited for lure fishing.

The thin line has less resistance in the current, and so the lure sinks more efficiently, and the positive feel through not stretching (mono can move up to 20 per cent when a lot of line is used) makes lures work better, and the energy imparted on the strike is much more direct and effective.

A tippet of monofilament is always added to the end, and it should be long enough to wind on to the reel before casting, as braid is not designed to stand up to the shock of casting at the rod tip. This usually around 7kg breaking strain, and many people like to use fluorescent mono as the fish supposedly can’t see it. Others don’t both and catch just as many fish.

Braid is slippery stuff and not friendly to the common knots like a Blood Knot.

The Surgeon’s Knot is a good one for attaching the tippet to the main line, and the hook is usually connected with a loop knot like a Lefty’s Loop Knot to give plenty of movement.  

Lures

Soft baits come in a bewildering array of shapes, colours and sizes; some with scent as an attractant. They will all catch fish, and prove that you don’t have to imitate exactly what the quarry is eating to catch them. But it does make sense to use a three-inch anchovy look-alike in summer when these bait fish are common.

Hooks with long shanks are favoured, because the lure sits on them better, and some have small spikes to grip the lure. You can use hooks with the weight moulded on – jigheads. Or you can make your own combination with a sliding sinker above the hook. Worm hooks are popular as they present the lure well, but again there are no fixed rules.

The clips like Genie clips are useful for changing hooks without retying knots, and there are all sorts of pre-rigged hook-sinker combos available.
The key is to match the size of lure to the hook size.

When it comes to plastic models and colours, the Nuclear Chicken, Pink Shine and Lime Tiger are old favourites – mainly because they have been around a long time and everybody uses them.
Like all lure fishing, changing the size and colour when fishing slow makes a difference.

But remember – putting the lure in front of the fish is just as important as what lure is used.

Slow jigs

These are the latest type of lure to arrive on the scene, and they are strange looking critters but they catch fish. It has been said they were invented to look like a small octopus or squid, and they have names like Crazy Charlie and Lucanus. But like soft baits, knowing how to use them makes all the difference.

It is almost as if slow jigs were invented for lazy fishermen, for you don’t work them like a soft plastic. It may work, but the best results come from rigging the lure on an extra long leader of mono, letting it out to the bottom, and then winding is very slowly.

Or you can put the rod on the rod holder with the drag up tight and leave it to slow bounce along near the bottom while you work a soft bait on another rod.

On the strike you must wind slowly and keep winding. You don’t need a furious sudden strike, as the fish basically hook themselves on the small, super sharp hooks.

The hooks are small, and very sharp, and they penetrate fingers just as easily as they go into a fish, so care is needed.

The tackle used is the same as for soft baits, apart from the extra long leader.

Sometimes snapper prefer slow jigs to anything else, so they always worth trying.

Jigs

Metal jigs seem to have gone out of fashion, but snapper don’t think so. You will catch them just as well as we used to 30 years ago when there were no alternatives. It is just that people don’t use them much.

When you arrive at a workup with dolphins, birds and everything going on all around the boat it is always a rush to get a lure into the water. The smart money will go ion the old metal jig because it slips through the water and sinks far better than a soft bait or a slow jig.

It is all about being efficient, and putting the lure in front of the fish on the bottom 40 or 50 metres below, and the jig will do that best.

The same tackle can be used for light jigs, but once you get up to 80 or 100 grams or more you have to upsize the rod and line accordingly.

The technique is basically the same as for soft baits, except that a bigger sweep of the rod is used to give the jig some action. The idea is for it jerk up off the bottom, then flutter down erratically.
But line control and keeping in touch with the line is just as important, and the same dynamics are involved.

The strike is the same, with the tight line critical and pressure maintained at all times.

Jig sizes should match the depth of water being fished. In the Rangitoto Channel in 20 metres of water a 40g or 60g lure is fine. Out in deep water the size goes up exponentially as the depth goes down.

Hooks used to be all trebles, but they can be a nuisance with a fish in the net and some people like to change the hook to a single straight-shanked model. The assist hooks which connect to the top of the jig can also be used in place of the traditional hook on the bottom.

The rules are what you make them.

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