No one knows why, but every year at this time the biggest snapper to be found off the west coast are migrating from the lower reaches of the island up past Whanganui, through the Egmont Bite, past Kawhia then Raglan and Port Waikato and on up to Piha and Muriwai.
Their trip starts in late August, as the waters begin a slow warming from winter lows of 12C up to around 18C. The larger the snapper, the better they seem to be able to handle the colder waters.
On the East Coast moochers of 9.1kg (the old 20lb mark) hang around one territorial area where they are king of the reef, with no predators able to take them. I nabbed one of these on Queen’s Birthday weekend this year, fishing from a dinghy rowed out from Sandy Bay in Northland pre-dawn.
On the West Coast the big fish move around in schools.
I was in Whanganui in August when keen surfcaster Chris Voice pulled in a snapper verging on 9kg from the dirty water at the mouth of the Whanganui River, what the locals call the North Mole. On the last day of that month the Mokau area expert Geoff Preston caught a 7.7kg fish followed by one that was 8.6kg within an hour-and-a-half.
During the first week of September he nailed a 9.2kg fish followed by another of 8.4kg, also in a short time.
On the second Sunday in October last year New Plymouth surfcaster Allan Simons caught a 14.7kg snapper at Waitara, all the more meritable because he landed it on 4kg line. In the second week of November last year I had an experience very similar to Preston’s start to this season, but much quicker.
Fishing after a beach launch from Piha with mate Carl Ruffles, I had an 8.3kg fish on board after the first drop in 40m and followed it up with a 7.8kg fish on drop two – the time elapsed was less than 20 minutes.
On the east coast, berley is commonly used to attract fish. On the west coast it’s a waste of time because the currents move the trail on too quickly and because sharks can smell it from much further away than the snapper can, that’s what you’ll catch.
Geoff Preston with a super trophy-sized Mokau snapper, all 15.7kgs of it.
Keep on moving
On the east coast, moving can often be a good idea if you’re on a bunch of juveniles or a bunch of nothing. On the west coast, it’s best to just sit and wait and let the fish come to you, otherwise you’re using up fuel without a clue where fish might be.
That’s the method Geoff Preston uses. He’s worked out what works best and he doesn’t change the routine much now.
“Straylining is much better than fishing with ledger rigs if you want a really big snapper. Strayline . . . then wait,” he said. Commenting on the annual migration, which he has been fishing for 15-odd years, he said the first sign of action is the arrival of packs of spiny dogfish. “I lost a hell of a lot of gear to them this year.
Then they leave as quickly as they arrived as grey sharks turn up in numbers, and the snapper just after them. They’re here every year from late August, then by the end of November it’s back to pannies.”
Preston hand-makes his own sabiki rigs with small hooks and flasher attractant tied on with trout lure twine and catches koheru, jack mackerel and small kahawai as baits. “Fresh is best, there’s no question about that. And the silver fish are better than the rest.
I’ve caught big snapper on a whole fillet of gurnard but that’s desperado stuff because that’s using up a good eating fish.”
A bloody strip of barracouta is also ideal, he said. Big snapper will take a livebait too, a koheru or mackerel or small kahawai.
Preston and wife Heidi, long-term residents of Mokau, became expert kite fishers over a period of years and that’s how he’s hooked his biggest snapper, 15.7kg, landed in late September. The longline was strung about 1500m from the beach.
Lately, he’s fished from a beach-launched plastic Mac 360. He’s added his own touches - wide scuppers that drain the surf-hurled water that gets in the back of the boat as he’s leaving the beach and convenient rod holders. But sometimes there’s no need for them.
“When the fish come on you can only run one rod anyway, two is one too many. You sit there and wait and wait sometimes but when a big fish hits it’s mayhem and you don’t want other gear in the water. And other times, they are so thick down there that you get multiple rods go off and you have no chance of landing them.
You can literally fish one rod, land a trophy snapper and throw the line back and get another one.”
What about conservation of the big breeders? “I let go more than 50 per cent of the big ones I catch,” he said. He’s worried that anglers generally are not on to the concept of catch-and-release and, more so, how to do it without damaging the fish. “If you bring them on the boat it makes it harder for them to survive. The big ones are surprisingly delicate for their size.”
There is some speculation that taking these big fish from the water is so stressful that they turn toes. It’s been suggested by some marine biologists that their sheer size is the problem - pull a 12kg fish from the water and hang it on
scales and it’s internal organs may well detach from their allotted place and so, no matter how much care you take in handling its externals, it’s a goner anyway.
The baits must be on the bottom. Perhaps only at dawn and dusk will the big fish rise up to feed midstream. Softbaits work because of the added movement. The strike is more likely to be hard and aggressive than the tentative nibbling big fish often do on the east.