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Prime time winter snapper

By Geoff ThomasNZ Fishing World
Prime time winter snapper

When the winter weather arrives many people put their boat in mothballs and store the tackle under the house, waiting for spring to stir their fishing buds. But they are missing out on some great snapper fishing, with everything from pannies among the rocks to big moochers around the outer islands. Geoff Thomas looks at some of the options for putting fish in the bin.

You don’t have to burn a lot of gas to reach your spot. For example, if you fish the Rangitoto Channel in summer all you have to do is switch your attention to the edges. Reconnaissance is the key, and one approach is to study the terrain at low tide. Look for rocks and kelp beds, which show up as dark patches in shallow water, for this is where the resident fish will be holed up over winter.

These are snapper which have elected to remain and feed on crabs and shellfish after the bulk of their brethren have headed out into deep water in search of warmer temperatures when the frosts struck. It may seem contradictory, but deep water holds temperature far longer than the shallows.

Our coasts are rich in such habitat. All the way from Wellington to North Cape there are endless stretches of reefs and rocks. Around Auckland the choice is also varied, from the foreshore along the East Coast Bays to North Head, Bean Rock, Browns Island, St Heliers Bay Reef, Meola Reef, Musick Point and all around the islands.

Look for rocky outcrops, bomb them with heaps of berley and be patient.

Fishing in close

The important factors to look for are rocks, weed and current. Depth is not so critical for you will hook fish in one or two metres of water, but proximity to deep channels does help. Having all your ducks in a row is also necessary, starting with the current flowing on to the area you plan to fish and having the wind and tide holding your boat steady so the stern is facing the fishing zone. If these factors are not lined up it is better to go and find somewhere else.

Start at low tide so you have plenty of time for your berley to take effect, for without berley you are wasting your time. There are not large numbers of fish moving through as there are in summer, and the snapper are not feeding actively as their metabolism slows down in cold water and bite times are shorter. So you have to tempt them into biting, and the answer is plenty of berley. Heaps of berley, with may be two bombs out to start with a big hit.

As well as berley, small pieces of fish, or groundbait, can be tossed out in a semi-circle, to add to the temptation. This can be any old bait that has thawed and is too soft for using on the hook, but cut it into small pieces.

Because the fish are timid on the bite, any weight on the line can deter them, so the hook or hooks can be tied directly to the main line with no trace, swivel or sinker. The higher hook-up rate will more than compensate for the odd fish lost, and line need be no more than 8kg breaking strain. A lot of experienced snapper fishermen use 6kg, and they do well.

A light line allows longer casts, and has less resistance in the current and wind, so you have less belly in the line. The more direct your contact with the bait is, the more effective your strike will be. Rods need to be suitable for casting a light bait some distance, so they will be 2m or 2.5m (6’6” or 7’), equipped with light but good quality spin reels like Rovex, Fin-nor, Daiwa or Shimano.

Baits should be small chunks of pilchard or half squid on 6/0 or 7/0 hooks with the point protruding. The fish will nibble at the bait, and they don’t compete for a bait as they do in summer when a fish will rush in and grab the bait and race away, so what may seem like a small fish picking at the bait is probably a good fish that is just holding the bait in its mouth. Let the fish nibble at the bait and when the line starts to tighten lift the rod and wind at the same time to set the hook.

It is all about feel, and the rod should be fished with the line pointing at the bait – not sitting on a rod holder or with the rod at right angles. In fact holding the rod under the arm with a finger on the line is a good approach, and the reel is set on strike so that the pressure can be applied quickly by winding and raising the rod.

When a fish is hooked it is important to keep pressure on it and hold the rod high to stop the fish getting into the rocks. Don’t let it turn its head and dive, or you may be broken off. The baits should cast out to cover the water behind the boat, at different angles and distances, for the berley will drift around rocks and into holes on the uneven seabed.

While this style of strayline fishing does not usually score large numbers of snapper, you will take home some fat fish in top condition.

Work up's out wide

We always get some lovely calm days over winter and these are the opportunities to head out into deeper water. It is just like the spring fishing when you look for birds in the sky, and binoculars should always accompany the cellphone and lifejackets when it comes to loading the boat.

You can usually find work-ups throughout the year, and the approach is always the same. Stop up-wind and up-current and drift with baits and/or lures. The only downside to fishing in 40 or 50 metres at this time of year is the tooth brigade – the barracouta which move in as water temperatures drop. They can be a real nuisance, slashing at hooked fish or cutting off terminal tackle. 

But soft baiting in these work-ups will produce kahawai, kingfish and snapper; and baits bounced on the bottom will give you plenty of fish to take home. You just to ensure you have heavy enough sinkers to reach the bottom quickly, which means solid 10kg or 15kg outfits to hold the sinkers.

Ledger rigs and flashers with recurve hooks are always popular as the sinker pulls them down quickly and you can feel the bites because the weight is below the baits. This approach is all about picking the day and the weather and being able to head out when all those boxes are ticked.

Targeting big moochers

The wise old heads know that mid-winter is the time to concentrate on quality fish, not quantity. This applies equally to kingfish as it does to snapper. For while the schools of average-sized fish have dispersed to deep water, the occasional big, old specimen will be hanging around the coast. The snapper are most likely residents, and the big kings will cruise the ledges and headlands.

Here we are talking about straylining for big snapper. The principles are the same as when fishing in close, but everything goes up a notch. The tackle is heavier, the terrain is bigger, the currents are stronger and the baits are different.

We are still using floating baits but when up against big teeth and powerful jaws a heavy trace is needed, at least 50kg and often more. It can be a short trace for casting, and in strong currents a small ball sinker can be added above the bait to help get it down.

Hooks are large and strong, 8/0 or 10/0, and a single hook will reduce the chance of getting hooked in the weed. Rods will have soft tips for casting but plenty of power in the middle, and reels with bait-feeder modes are popular so you can allow the fish to run a short distance before striking.

Some keen types will fish 6kg line, but for the majority 10kg is the minimum, even going to 15kg for safety. You have to be able to stop big fish in a tight space.

Baits are whole fillets or whole jack mackerel or slimy mackerel. Blue koheru are ideal if you can get them, and small kahawai or trevally are also fine.

Some people have their own way of rigging the baits. Pressing the ball sinker into the eye socket gives you one weight to cast, rather than having the sinker sliding down and acting like a pendulum at the end of the trace.

Some like to pierce the belly cavity and head of the bait to release juices and blood, or butterfly the bait by removing the tail section of the backbone, or simply slicing a flap off one side.
As with all straylining, having the boat sit straight in the current and wind is important, with no lateral wind or current pushing it sideways. Berley is always used, sometimes both on the surface and on the bottom.

You should be fishing into an area with beds of kelp, channels and rocks with plenty of current. Incoming or outgoing tide – it doesn’t matter; it is what suits the particular location. But a deep reef, or a headland is always better than a quiet bay. Current is the key, and the more the better.

Where a reef or weed beds extend out from the shore, the place to fish is along the edge of the weed, where it meets the sand, for fish will patrol the edge as they hunt for food.
In a large reef system look for channels and fish down these, for they are the underwater highways.

Baits are cast well back from the boat as big fish won’t come close, and then it is important to keep in touch with the bait as it sinks and swirls around in the current. If you just leave it, the chances are it will be pulled into a crevice by small fish or drift into the weed and get stuck.

You continually move the rod until you can feel the bait, and move it in the water, then let it sink again. Fish like a moving bait, and by keeping in touch you can keep it out of the rocks and also will feel a fish picking it up.

Some people like to hold the line with a coil hanging loose so when a fish takes the bait you can let it slip out with no resistance at all, until it comes up against the reel.

Because you will be hooking big, strong fish close to hazards like rocks and kelp you have to be hard on the fish once it is hooked. Hold the rod high to keep an angle on the fish and don’t let it have its head. You can always lower the rod in response to a surge, but maintain a pretty tight drag.

Don’t drop the rod fully to retrieve line, but use short strokes, dropping the tip only a short distance and winding quickly to maintain pressure. A series of sharp strokes like this will keep pressure on the fish and tire it.

If a fish does get into the rocks or the weed, the only answer is to slacken of the line and wait, hoping it will swim out. A straight pull will only break it off. But if you do have to break the line, don’t raise the rod or you could snap it. Wrap a cloth around the line and pull it by hand.

The other important item on the tackle list is a net with a wide gape and a strong handle. If you lift your fish over the side it may drop off, and always net it head first when it is on the surface, not swimming upright. The angler with the rod should be standing up, using the rod held high to lead the fish towards the net.

Take a photo and put it back unless you need a big fish for a special occasion or for mounting, for the old moochers may look impressive but they do not make great eating and it has taken them 40 or so years to reach that size. It is far better to take home a few around four or five kilos for the pan.

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