Keep on catching through the cold - Winter snapper guide

By John DurrantNZ Fishing World
Keep on catching through the cold - Winter snapper guide

Winter is traditionally a time of the year when fishing slows down and many people put the gear away until the warmer weather returns.

There can be no doubt that fish don’t congregate in huge numbers in our inshore waters like they do in summer but they are out there, in patches. The only problem is finding them and when you do finally seek them out, another problem you might have is tempting them into taking a bait. 

Winter fishing can be slow, frustrating, cold and it times it can turn into an endurance test rather than a pleasurable experience. 

But, as all fishos know, we only need one good fish to completely change the outlook and turn a bad day’s fishing into an epic one that you’ll never forget. The key to achieving that in winter is by trying to stack the odds in your favour as much as possible. 

Troy Caltaux battles a winter snapper.

So where are the fish?

It’s pretty well accepted by most that the big schools of snapper that invade our inshore waters through summer tend to head out to deeper water for the winter. 

But the key thing to remember is that not all of them do this. You’ll find that in certain areas around our coasts there will be pockets of snapper that stay where they are and continue to feed here throughout the year. You have a good chance of snaring these fish on a winter’s day, as long as you approach it correctly.

Moocher hunting

The other snapper that you can snare over winter are known as the moochers – land-based fishos know all about these fullas – and they are the big old fish that have spent their lives foraging in the kelp around rocky areas, usually close to shore. 

These fish are extremely spooky and can prove difficult to catch. They’re also very cunning fish. Remember, they don’t get to be big and old by being stupid. These fish are expert ambush predators and many a fisho has been busted off on reefs by these snapper. 

Catching a big moocher from the rocks in winter can take extreme patience and often hardcore rock fishos will spend entire weekends targeting them as big swells roll in and icy winds grind at their gnarled faces. This form of fishing is most definitely not for everyone but, again, if you’re willing to walk the hard yards, sometimes literally, the rewards can be massive.

Birds are a sign of feeding fish, even in winter.

Make the most of good weather

It doesn’t always have to be hard though. Remember, New Zealand does still get blessed with warm, sunny days during winter from time to time. These are the days that you simply must take advantage of. Weather windows through the chilly months can be brief and rare so it’s imperative to make the most of them when they come along.

It’s during these windows that the chance to go out a little bit wider presents itself. Don’t be surprised to find good patches of snapper a bit further out. The bite is unlikely to be red-hot but with the right coaxing they can be caught.

What methods should I use?

When approaching winter snapper methods, there is one key thing to remember. Snapper are no longer voracious feeding machines at this time of year. In the summer, they eat just about anything that moves in order to pack on extra weight for spawning. In late summer and autumn they’ll again feed hard out to restore some of the weight lost during spawning.

But this all changes in winter. The snapper’s metabolism slows right down and they no longer have the inclination to gorge themselves on food. For the fisho, this is a problem. How can we tempt a lazy snapper into taking a bite at our hook? It all comes down to bait selection and presentation. 

Do I need big baits for big fish? 

Traditional bait fishos will argue all day about bait types, sizes, rigging methods and more but the key thing to remember if you’re trying to entice a snapper into eating a cut bait in winter is size. 

At this time of year, size really does matter and, perhaps surprisingly, most bait fishos will find that smaller baits work best, even on larger snapper. The theory on this goes back to the fish’s winter metabolism.

They’re not particularly interested in feeding hard, or working much for a bite to eat so a small, well-presented cut bait might seem far more appealing than that whole pilchard or kahawai head that you hastily rigged up and sent down to the bottom.

As an example, a chunk of pilchard – perhaps a third of a decent-sized one – should be carefully rigged to a 7/0 circle or recurve hook. Just hook it through once. 

Fresh is best

You always hear people talking about smelly baits but the reality is fish don’t like rotten bait any more than you do. Make sure you buy fresh bait from your local tackle shop. This is more likely to be of good quality. Some other outlets will sell you bait that’s been frozen and re-frozen. This deteriorates the bait and has a negative impact on the integrity of the flesh. Nobody likes old, mushy bait, even snapper. 

Fishing in close to rocks can be productive in winter.

Get them in the mood

Berley is critically important whether you’re bait fishing from the rocks or a boat. It’s a must-have weapon in summer but in winter it becomes even more important. 

If you don’t have enough berley to be pumping it out constantly during your winter fishing session you may as well pack up, slap yourself in the face for being so stupid and go home. It’s that simple. You must have berley if you’re bait fishing from an anchored boat or fishing off the rocks. 

A properly deployed berley pot (ie on its own line, not tied to the anchor chain) is the one tool you have to attract snapper to you. Ideally, you’ll set your boat so the stern is facing the drift. This allows you to cast your baits into the direction of the current. Your bait will then be sitting in the same place as the berley. 

There’s no point in your bait sitting out in an area 50 metres away from the snapper feeding on berley from your pot. Work out the current and wind direction when you’re putting down your anchor and try to think logically about where the contents of your berley pot is going to end up. Once you know that, you’ll know exactly where you want your bait to be.

Softbaits don’t work in winter, right?

For the fishos who like to get out and catch a snapper or two – and that’s the majority of anglers in New Zealand – you’ll probably hear people saying that artificial lures and softbaits don’t work in winter.

These people will tell you that you need big, smelly baits straylined down a berley trail to have any chance of catching. True, this is a great method. 

However, winter is no time to put the softbait or slowjig rod away. Snapper do still take them but, as with bait fishing, the presentation of the softbait is the driving factor in whether you’re successful or not. The secret is a simple one. Go small. It’s the same as the bait principle.

The snapper might not be so keen to make a dash for a 7” jerk shad – this writer’s personal favourite in summer fishing  – but if you give it a bash with a 4” grub for example, you’ll find that snapper are far more inclined to strike at these in the colder months. It presents itself as a far easier meal and if you’re working the softbait properly, using a series of small flicks, you might just get that hookup. 

Catching winter snapper doesn’t always mean fishing in wind and rain.

Be patient and trust your ability

If you’re new to winter fishing, the most important thing to remember is that it’s likely to be slow, and at times, frustrating.But don’t get disheartened. Accept that there will be long periods of monotony. It’s real important that you keep believing in your ability. As long as you’re sticking to the game plan, you won’t go far wrong. 

Of course, there are winter days when all the stars align and you slay it. Cherish those days and take plenty of photos. They’ll keep you in a positive state of mind on those long winter days when the cruel winds and torrid rains stop you from casting a line

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