Let’s face it, winter spearfishing can be hard. Good weather days are fewer and further apart, and the thought of climbing into a cold wetsuit isn’t really the most attractive thought as you lie in bed. However, it’s not all bad…
There are few sights that can compare to a calm winter’s morning as steam rises off the water as you buzz out of the harbour.
The colder temperature means that most of the algae that turns everything green in the summer has died off, making it the best visibility of the year. Also the summer “zoomers” have left, and only the ‘hardier’ few remain fishing. There’s no doubt that there is less fish around, but the ones that are here are usually bigger. Winter is a time of quality over quantity.
The key to enjoying winter diving is keeping warm. The easiest way to do this is to wear more rubber. I personally wear a full 7mm wetsuit throughout the winter months and would certainly recommend it to anyone. If you get the neoprene level right you simply don’t feel the cold. I know some guys like to shiver in thinner suits just to avoid needing more lead weights. While there’s no question a thicker suit means more lead, I’d still take that over the cold any day. What this really means is that you can’t dive as deep, but most of the deep-dive sites will be quiet through the winter anyway. This means focusing on the shallows.
Winter: Season of the snapper
A perfect winter snapper
For any northern based Kiwi spearo, focusing on the shallows is all about one fish, snapper. These wily targets can be incredibly hard to get close to and shoot.
The main way to target snapper is by snooping. This involves silently stalking in the shallows, carefully checking for big mooching snapper snoozing under kelp or quietly finning into the current. It relies on covering large distances checking virtually every rock along the way.
Through the leaner winter months snapper are going to be much thinner on the ground, and it becomes even more important to make the most of your chances.
One of the best ways to maximise your chances in an area is to use ground-baits. While it may not be as glamorous as snooping, and possibly isn’t the best way to find real trophy sized fish; using ground baits will get you closer to more snapper.
Like all systems, ground-baiting effectively requires practice and skill to ensure more success. I’ll try and outline a few of the key points to ground-baiting that should help shorten your own trial and error period.
The biggest benefit to using a ground-baiting technique is that you’re able to place the bait where you want the snapper to be. This gives you a massive advantage over the fish that you wouldn’t usually get while snooping.
What makes a good location?
I’ve found the two best indications of a fishy area to be the presence of demoiselles (or damselfish) and oblique swimming triplefins. These two species are only found in the sweetest part of the reef, and are usually a solid indication that big snapper aren’t too far away.
The other thing to look for is access to deep water. A large snapper is unlikely to swim a long distance in the shallows to get to your bait. We want our prey to feel safe enough to come and feed, so make sure there’s deep water nearby in order to give the fish a false sense of security.
Finding the right rock is an essential element of ground-baiting and there is a couple of things to look out for. The right rock should provide cover from below, making it possible to shoot down upon the fish. A good sniping position should be no more than three or four metres from the bottom.
The depth it’s set at can vary, but it needs to be deep enough that you’re able to lie down in the water, yet shallow enough that you’re not going to be out of air just getting down to it. If there is a surging current, it’s important to set the berley below the water movement.
A rock with significant kelp on top of it can be an ideal place to hide in, and usually provides a clear patch of bare rock at the bottom to set the berley in.
The last piece of the puzzle to finding the right ground-baiting location is sun angle. You want to be approaching the bait with the sun behind you. That way you will have the benefit of seeing clearly, while the fish will be blinded by the sun.
There are two main ingredients for a good berley; kina and fish. Kina by itself works very well, but generally only attracts smaller fish. I’ve seldom seen snapper weighing over a couple of kilos feeding on a kina berley.
How to berley?
A sharp rock like this does the job perfectly
First of all, collect up an armful of kina and put them in a small pile in the middle of the designated ground-baiting area. Then find a long rock to smash them up with. I’ve seen all sorts of devices designed to break up kinas but nothing quite does the job as well as a rock.
With kina juices now floating through the water, it's time to add the second ingredient to the mix; fish. I prefer to use butterfish, but anything handy will do. It’s important not to chop up big chunks, a fine ‘white snow’ in the water should get any close by snapper’s taste buds going. Leave the carcass and kina shells tucked under a rock close by, this means any bigger fish in the area cannot take their dinner with them and swim off.
A waiting game
With the berley in place it’s now a waiting game, it generally takes atleast half an hour so be patient. Before swimming off do a few practice dives to your sniping position, this should give you a clear idea of how to approach the berley once fish show up. I like to mark my approach with a couple of white rocks to act as a pathway to follow.
Time to shoot
The perfect sniping spot. I'm hidden by the kelp and have the sun over my shoulder.
Visualise the approach, and where the fish are going to be. Take a big breath, spit your snorkel out and dive. Pull yourself along the bottom following your markers, hold your gun back and peer through the weed at the berley. Lie still, giving your eyes time to adjust to the surroundings. Look at the berley first and then scan all around it, with any luck some nice winter snapper should be close by. The great thing about ground-baiting is that if a fish does get edgy and drifts off, it’ll most likely come back again.
Not a bad winter snapper
Ground-baiting is a great tool to have in your spearfishing tool box and can be a fantastic way of making things happen on an otherwise slow day. Like any other technique it takes a bit of practice to get it right, and remember the basics of spearfishing still apply.
So don’t let the cold put you off, the fish are still there; you just need to fish a little smarter to find them.