Pete Lamb’s top tips for catching snapper
April 13, 2020
Editor note: Pete Lamb operates Pete Lamb Fishing Charters, and runs a bait and tackle shop out of Wellington. He’s fished the Wellington region for most of his life and knows just about every place that holds fish in the region like the back of his hand. Pete is a land based and surf casting specialist, but also runs a charter operation that targets the main coastal areas on the south and west coast. He’s learned a hell of a lot over the years, and like all good fishermen is still learning every day. He is most always happy to share information to help you get a better fishing experience if you rock up to his shop in Rongotai. Here’s Pete’s top tips for targeting arguably NZ’s favourite fish, the good old snapper.
Find the fish first
You can throw anything you like at the water, fishing the best moon phase with the best baits, the latest lures, on your favourite gear all means nothing if you are not in the right place.
The single most important factor in catching snapper is finding the right location. The fish have got to be there for a start. Once you nail a location, only then good quality bait, berley, lures, tackle and technique will make a difference to your success.
Where to find fish
There’s no easy answer to this one, as fish move around, have seasonal feeding patterns, and can be there one day and gone the next in exactly the same conditions.
Most areas of the country though, will have known popular spots that make for a good place to start, usually around reef structures, or where inshore conditions are favourable for providing a food source. These places are often highlighted in regional fishing reports such as NZ FISHING WORLD TRIP PLANNER
It also pays to use technology such as available on the Navionics app, that not only identify likely areas of contour, but actually have proven fishing spots marked on them as a starting point.
Electronics on board the boat are also your eyes underwater, and when fish are hard to find, it can pay to invest a lot more time than you want to, cruising around until you finally do identify some sign.
Land based fisho’s have little option but to commit to a spot or move up and down the area a bit. Boaties have the ability to really cover ground in search of action moving from shallow to deep, reef to reef or chasing birds and testing different locations.
With the pressure on fishing locations today, a good spot is often found away from civilization, with minimal commercial and recreational impact. It can mean a long hike or a trip in the car to get away from the crowds, but often the reward is worth the effort. For example, I always feel like a two-hour hike to Boom Rock, mid-week, increases the odds in my favour.
There are occasions where a good food source can mean snapper are easily accessible in a common area for long periods of time, such as the Hauraki Gulf spring workups where pilchards are being driven inshore and carved up by dolphins.
There are also good spots that can produce fish year-round if there is enough food and shelter.
Snapper will often patrol a sandy or shingle bed areas for shellfish, worms and crustaceans or hang out around a rocky location feeding on anything they can including squid, crabs and small fish.
Targeting the edge of a reef can be good, especially where the foul begins to turn to sand, as snapper will pounce on anything that has strayed from cover. Sometimes this means fishing in closer rather than casting well out as far as you can.
Snapper will also travel well out on to the sand too, and often in schools. These fish cannot always be picked up on the sounder, so it is often still worth setting up a drift or anchoring and berleying up to bring fish in or cast ahead of the drift to reach them.
It pays to try fishing an area for thirty to forty minutes with berley, and then move if you haven't seen any action. Once you do find the fish, it can be all on, and a good bite can last anywhere from fifteen minutes to a few hours. Snapper will move around a bit from day to day, and week to week, driven by the search for food or pushed around by temperature changes. When the water goes colder they can often move into deeper water.
Often snapper will come in shallow under cover of darkness and move out deep once the sun is up after only a couple of hours, which is why the alarm clock is sometimes your best friend. It’s easy to motor over good fish when you have had an early start and the sun is coming up, so try fishing shallow a few times first, then heading out deeper where the sun has less effect during the day.
The boom in kayak fishing has shown us that there is a huge ribbon of water from two to twenty metres that hold some massive fish. The advantages these small craft have include being silent and stealthy, and not being worried about fouling props on rocks or cray pot lines. The kayak anglers have accounted for many twenty pound plus snapper, and many keen yak fishermen happily return bigger fish to fight another day as they are not affected by blown swim bladders.
This also shows that smaller boats often overlook fishing in close, an option that may sometimes be better taken in rough weather than braving the elements and being bounced around out at sea.
Watch the water Temperature
Generally, water temp can’t be too cold for snapper. Around fourteen degrees is normally the minimum with sixteen to eighteen degrees the best. Sometimes you can throw the temp gauge away when the fish are really hungry, as is commonly the case during winter.
When we get a period of strong southerly winds, the snapper can go off the bite or go into deeper water where the temperature stays more constant. With strong northerly winds, the snapper move back closer to shore and seem to be much more likely to then feed aggressively.
During spawning time, which is normally when the water temperature reaches around eighteen degrees, the snapper move into an area with the right ground attributes for laying their eggs.
This is normally nutrient rich areas commonly adjacent to large harbours and estuaries. This transpires at different times of the year in different parts of the country normally from October through to March. In Wellington it’s around February to March, whereas up north it kicks off much earlier in January to Feb where snapper can be caught in good numbers right under the Auckland harbour bridge.
This February to March period is normally the peak of the snapper fishery in Wellington, with the west coast firing earlier than the inner harbour, where fish may hold well into May.
In recent years there have been some excellent winter runs of snapper in 50-70 metres off Boom Rock and Hunters Bank, extending down towards Ohau point right in to 20-30 metres.
In winter, baits will often work better than lures, and colder temps force the snapper’s metabolism to slow down. This means fish are on the lookout for a big easy feed, and a bigger bait such as whole pilchard or squid can present an irresistible meal. If you are fishing lures, slow the action right down, or use kabura type jigs that slowly waft around in the current.
In the mid to upper North Island, the snapper are present all year, and can even bite better in the winter, especially the bigger moochers. The mass of snapper population often turns fish into very picky eaters over summer spawning months as their focus changes from eating to breeding.
In the far north, I have fished deep water rock ledges like Cape Brett, Cape Kari Kari, and North Cape through the winter and it’s incredible the amount of really big fish hanging around close to the rocks.
For surfcasters XOS snapper move in close to beaches south of Wanganui and in Hawkes Bay in late October and early November (pre spawning time). Mid-January to late February has seen very nice snapper caught from Paikariki through to Tehoro mainly on the turn of light and after dark.
The lighter your line, smaller your hooks and lighter the sinker, the more fish you will hook up and hopefully land. The problem is that you might bust off or pull the hook out of a fish using the light gear.
On the sand, shingle or mud you can use light tackle and catch some big fish. In the rough ground you will need to gear up to avoid losing too many fish. As you gain experience you will be able to land bigger fish on lighter line.
Braid or nylon?
Braid is the new normal now, because it has little or no stretch, is half to a third of the diameter of nylon and it’s got far less drag in the current. No stretch means you are in perfect touch with your bait or terminal tackle. It’s the favourite choice for lure fishermen wanting to feel every touch and far better for any real deep water fishing. It also means downsizing reels and rods to much sportier models.
When using braid, you need a flexible rod tip to act as a shock absorber and also you may like to use a bit heavier line weight comparable to nylon (eg: I use 50lb braid like I do 35lb nylon).
For XOS snapper in rough ground I use 50 – 80lb braid.
Maintaining knot strength in braid can be tricky but you generally only need one knot that joins the braid to your nylon or fluorocarbon leader. If you double up, such as using a double Albright knot rather than a single, its better, but the ideal is to learn to tie the FG knot, then you can’t go wrong.
Braid is the single most game-changing development in fishing in recent history, and has radically influenced the way we fish, and rod and reel design.
Why use nylon at all then?
Nylon still has its place for many applications. Under pressure, thinner braid can snap very easily when it touches an object, so can be problematic for land based fishing (or on crowded boats where many people are fishing and a kahawai can circle everyone’s line and shear them all off). Where staying in touch with the fish is less important or a bit of stretch is good, such as for game fishing or surf casting nylon still has a place. It’s also far more easy to manage when wet or tangled.
Nylon sells in a thin or thick diameter, supple or hard, low or standard stretch, and in low or high visibility, so it pays to spool up with the right kind for the right job.
Thin diameter is good for fishing deep water off the boat or for distance casting off the shore, hard thicker diameter (hard) is better for gnarly rock locations. Many people start with 10-15kg line and then experiment with lighter or heavier stuff depending on conditions and the size of fish around.
Stray lining is also a good application for nylon, where braid can sometimes sag and snag a bit in low currents, and it works nicely combined with a bait-runner style reel design.
Light tackle is good to catch 'cagey' fish as they don't see the line and it appears more natural. Breaking strain of about 3 – 6kg is classified as light. Medium tackle (6 – 10kg). Heavy tackle for big fishing rough ground is 10 – 15kg or even heavier.
Although there are many shapes and brands, there are two main styles of hook to choose from for modern fishing.
The self-setting hook and the striking hook. Recurve, circle or mutsu hooks are all self-setting and typically hook the fish in the corner of the mouth. It’s important, as the name suggests, not to strike with these hooks, but simply let the tension come on and lean into the fish as the rod loads up. In situations where you are not manning the rod, such as surf casting or when the rod is in a holder, these are the go to. All commercial long line hooks and the like tend to be this pattern.
The other style of hook is the J style, beak, octopus or suicide hook. Hookup rates are good with these more traditional patterns, but sometimes these hooks will gut or gill hook a fish, especially with a two hook rig. If you plan on releasing fish or being more selective, use a recurve.
For smaller snapper I use a 3/0 or 4/O recurve hook and for bigger fish a 6/0 – 8/O recurve.
Traces and Rigs
For making up traces I use good quality nylon or fluorocarbon.
For a standard rig, 40 – 60lb will handle most fish, but I go up to 80lb when targeting really big snapper and drop down to 20 - 30lb for school (smaller) fish.
Fluorocarbon leader is claimed to be more invisible to the fish as it’s got a similar refractive index to water. The downside is that it is expensive, and very stiff so can be quite hard to tie.
Nylon is much easier to work with, and most people that come through the shop use around 50lb trace line such as Black Magic or Sufix supple trace.
Swivels are good to stop line twist and a clip swivel is convenient for replacing traces quickly.
Size - #3 to #5 for small to medium fish, #1 - 2/O for big fish and #6 Ball bearing swivels for XOS snapper.
This is my favourite rig if there is minimal current and/or small 'picker' fish about.
As per the photo below, I'll use a 30 - 50lb flourocarbon leader and a hook snelled onto the end. This is simply a hook at the end of you line and presents a very natural bait.
As an option you can put a swivel to join trace to main line or just join with a uni knot, but the idea is to keep it as natural as possible.
Ledger (dropper) rig
My favourite rig for surfcasting (4-5oz torpedo sinker) and boat fishing (4 – 16oz sinker) in current. This is the classic go-to rig and can either be hand tied, or you can use commercially available rigs such as the Black Magic snapper snatchers or other such pre-fabricated options.
These are truly versatile, and must have accounted for many thousands of recreationally caught snapper over the years, including some real whoppers. For situations where the boat is crowded and you are fishing at anchor, you can’t beat this rig.
It’s easy to fish, and easy to bait with a simple strip or cube of bait (hooked just once through the bait) is all that’s needed.
Also known as the ‘snapper rig’, this traditional setup is still one of the best, as it allows the fish to grab the bait and run with it without being spooked by feeling a lead sinker on the end. The sinker needs to be heavy enough to get the bait down to the bottom, that’s a key factor.
Running rigs can be fished from land and from a boat equally.
I would start with a 1/4oz for rock fishing, and work my way up to a whopping 20oz when the tide is running hard in deeper 40-60 metre zones. The sinker runs up and down the line and can be run down right on top of the hook or on the main line running on top of the swivel.
Trace line can be anything from 20lb up to 80lb depending on how rough the ground is and how big a snapper you want to catch. Hook size can also vary from a 3/O up to a 10/O and be either recurve or beak (octopus) style. My go to running rig is 75cm 50lb trace with a 5/O recurve and a 1oz ball sinker sitting on top of a #1-barrel swivel.
You can have an optional second hook running on top the main hook, or have it fixed with a snood knot an inch or two up from the main hook. This second hook acts as a bait keeper, and an extra point to grab a fish’s mouth in case the main hooks misses the mark.
This is the best ultra-distance rig for surfcasting. It’s designed to provide aerodynamic advantage when casting, to stop the sinker and bait tumbling through the air bleeding off distance.
Instead the pulley allows the bait and sinker to become one streamlined bullet, which releases itself to effectively become a running rig once it hits the water.
Very cunning and effective, this rig sometimes makes all the difference getting a bait across the breakers or into the deeper water where it needs to be.
Attach the hook to the bait clip or impact shield (above the sinker). Impact shields are a good addition if you are using a soft bait such as pilchards or shellfish, and even with a pulley rig it pays to bind these soft baits on with a bit of bait floss.
The bigger snapper will often hang right back and let the smaller fish have a feed first. If you cast back a bit further down the berley trail, away from the rocks, beach or boat, it will sometimes help you hook the big one.
Setting the hook
If you are fishing a recurve or circle hook just let the weight come on solid, then start winding. The hook will set itself generally in the corner of the mouth.
With standard beak hooks you'll need to time your strike to set the hook.
I prefer striking pretty much straight away to 'lip hook' the fish. If you let it run too long before striking, it may feel the hook and spit out the bait.
If you are using a really big bait such as a butterflied mackerel
You need a bit longer for the fish to get the hook in its mouth. Sometimes in the excitement it’s hard to judge time, so count a thousand and one, a thousand and two, a thousand and three, out loud then hit it!
Playing and fighting the fish
Keep the weight on all through the fight (keep it tight) and have the drag set to 1⁄4 to 1/3rd of the breaking strain of the line.
If the fish takes you into the weed or rocks, and you get stuck, it’s usually best to ease up and back the pressure right off. The fish will often think it’s free and then swim out of the foul. If you leave the pressure on with a fish in the rough too long, it will usually end up cutting the line.
Snapper, especially big ones, can have a massive initial run, but tire after a while and then use their weight. If you are in really rough territory sometimes you have to risk it and really lay on some extra pressure to stop that first run or they will reef you. In shallower water from a boat, it pays to get right on top of a good fish as soon as possible. This is where drift fishing is advantageous.
If you can get on top of the fish, line going vertically is much less likely to snag up or be wrapped around obstacles. This is another reason the kayak guys do so well, their boat is immediately pulled up directly over the fish.
Once you get the fish up off the bottom, you can ease up taking the stress off your line and any damaged trace, and it’s a game of patience to work a fish to the surface.
Landing the fish
A large landing net for fish over 3kgs a good ideal, and snapper are easily led to the net and scooped up once at the boat. The new style nets that are rubber mesh are way better for releasing fish, managing them in the net, and not snagging up in stuff.
If you are gaffing the fish, go for the head for a kill shot and just place it up through the lower lip for a release job. Hold the gaff in the water and let the fish swim over it, before one swift jerk on the gaff. A sharp gaff point is imperative as they have a hard nut.
Snapper are scavengers and opportunist feeders, and will take just about anything, but the most consistently successful baits seem to be pilchard, skipjack tuna and squid.
Piper and mullet are good performers especially in the mid to upper North Island, while octopus, mackerel and kahawai all work well at times.
Fresh is best. Whatever you use it must be the best quality available to increase your chances. Many a snapper has been caught on a bit of old manky squid, but as a general rule, nice fresh bait out performs dry or rotten stuff.
My favourite baits for big snapper. BIG. A whole or half skippie head or 4-5 pillies threaded on a hook. Many of the big snapper I've seen and caught have taken pilchards, a big fillet of fresh kahawai has been good as well as mackerel, tuna, spotty and blue cod heads (the later two particularly in the Marlborough Sounds). Big baits equal big fish, and a big mouthful can also stop the smaller fish annoying you as much.
However, it's nice to catch a feed as well, and smaller baits do the business here.
Stray lining dead baits
Whole pilchards, or strips of fresh kahawai or skipjack are great for stray lining. Using the strayline, or running rigs mentioned earlier, I hook a pilchard through the eye socket with a 5 or 6/O hook and throw it out. Sometimes on a big bait, I thread the hook back through the pillie about half way down the body. Just make sure the hook point sits clear and is not turned back into the bait fish.
Also tying the bait on with cotton is good for extra durability in casting.
Having a small running sinker say 1/4 to 1oz is good to assist casting and to get the bait away from the seagulls or mutton birds that often hang around. Occasionally when the fish won’t take a bait try a single cube with a smaller hook and move to a lighter trace.
Stray lining is best done down a berley trail, where the smell of food brings fish in from far away, and the bigger fish have the opportunity to grab a big, naturally fluttering bait and run with it.
If you are setting up for stray lining it’s important to see where the current is going, and position yourself so that your berley drifts into the right place, preferably a gut with visible backwash.
This helps disperse the ground bait and also holds the berley, and snapper, in a more concentrated area where they naturally expect to find food.
Using berley (ground bait)
I always use good berley when fishing at anchor. It really brings the fish on the feed and keeps them feeding. Minced and chunks of tuna, pilchard, flying fish, kina, crab, crayfish body and paua gut are my favourites. As long as we are using at least one of those I am happy.
It is one of the most important things for snapper fishing after finding where the fish are. Use good quality berley and plenty of it.
My preferred method of berleying is making up a bucket brew and ladling out small or large scoops on a regular basis into the water. While doing this I keep a good watch on what is swimming through the trail.
Putting berley into a tough berley bag, tying it onto a rope and dangling it into the water is another good method for rock fishing or boat fishing in shallow water.
It is also a suitable method to use when there’s not much current and works in combination with the bucket brew very well to keep a consistent smell running.
Although I like going heavy if possible, it is important to ration the berley for the day and have a bit spare ion case the fish suddenly turn up.
Sometimes if it is just really quiet and you are out of options or patience, it can be a good tactic to BERLEY UP A STORM! This will sometimes make magic happen when you’ve got nothing to lose.
If you are boat fishing and it’s a bit deep (40 plus metres) with the tide running, berley needs a hand to get down to where you need it.
I use various weighted dispensers to get the berley to the bottom and I also throw large chunks in and let it float down too.
The Nacsan berley cage is my favourite berley dispenser for use in Wellington
We use one with larger holes if there are no blind eels around. I weight the pot with a sash weight or 4 x 30oz sinkers to get the dispenser down to the bottom using 4mm cord.
Placement of the berley pot is vital to catching fish. The tide may not always be running where you expect it too especially if the wind is running a different direction.
I normally wait until the lines are down then check their angle, then deploy the pot from an appropriate position that sets the trail right through the lines.
I like to use a 4 or 10 litre frozen bomb inside an onion sack to get the fish going.
This creates a nice cloud of berley, then dispenses a bit every now and then. If the fish go off the chew, just throw some more berley in.
The chunkier, shelly bits last a bit longer and sink down to where the bigger snapper lurk.
Fishing in Current
Current gets the fish feeding, but it can make it tricky to fish.
When we do manage to get the boat out, I like to be fishing in 30 – 60mtrs of water, with no more than about 1.5knots of tide running.
If the tide is too strong the best option is to either fish on the drift, or move in closer to shore out of the worst of the tidal flow.
I use a dropper (ledger) rigs with 2 – 3 hooks and a 10, 16 or 20oz sinkers depending on the tide.
We normally target fish on the edge of a reef, sometimes moving just out onto the sand a bit. I like to fish the 15 – 25mtr sandy areas by anchoring up and berleying the fish to us. It might be on the edge of a reef or sand bank or hole.
Keeping your baits in touch with the bottom is important at all times.
Setting up to anchor
Like most of you, I have a collection of pre-marked spots on the GPS.
I steam up to the mark, stop the boat, see which way I'm drifting then move up-current or up-wind from the spot and drop the anchor. If I don't catch fish within about 45 minutes, I will let more rope out to alter the position a bit. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to re-anchor the boat or move on.
The Navionics App (AU + NZ) is certainly one of the best pieces of technology I've come across to help put more fish in the boat.
The good spots to fish are illustrated by the contour lines when you select the ‘sonar’ button. This will show you where there are any features such as dips, banks and rises. A lot of black lines or squiggles packed tightly together means steep contour and a likely place for bait and snapper to congregate. Once you are in position it will illustrate where you are, what way you are facing, and you can ‘see’ the terrain you are drift fishing back in to.
You can mark spots, track where you’ve been and even check other people’s top spots they have ‘gifted’ to the public.
For a $35 investment it is the best money you will spend on your fishing, and it’s a very useful tool for exploring new areas.
Anchoring can be tricky when you start your boating career, but it’s worthwhile and safe if you can learn to do it correctly.
Firstly, pick the right anchor for the job - kewene for rock/sand, danforth for sand, grapnel for reef.
You need approximately the same length of chain as your length of boat - 4mm chain, 6mm rope, 6mm grapnel for a 2.5 to 3.5mtr boat - 6mm chain, 8mm rope, 8mm grapnel for a 3.5 - 5mtr boat - 8mm chain, 10mm rope, 10mm grapnel for a 5 to 7mtr boat - 12mm to 16mm chain and rope with a big plough or kewene.
For a seven metre to fifteen metre boat, it's advisable to have twice the anchor rope than the depth you are trying to anchor up in.
Survey the area you think the fish are in (normally on the edge of a reef), go up current of the mark and deploy the anchor.
When it holds tight, dispatch the berley bomb on a separate 4 or 6mm rope, weighted to get it to the bottom.
You can use an ‘easy lift anchor clip system’ when retrieving the anchor, that utilises a sliding buoy.
Be careful anchoring up in windy or tidal conditions.
A Grapnel is the best anchor for hooking into the reef. It bends out if it gets stuck, and the Danforth is the perfect sand anchor.
Prospecting the rocks.
Catching snapper from the rocks is super rewarding, and a good fish off the rocks is worth twice that of one on a boat.
From land, good fish can be found in some very unlikely spots.
Try fishing a gnarly looking location, that you wouldn't normally fish, with lots of rocks and weed.
Fish for about 15-20 minutes, then move 100mtrs along the coast, fish for another 15-20 min and then move along again. Using this method, you will eventually find a 'pocket' of resident snapper in a particular area.
If you want that trophy monster, you will have to work for it and be prepared to forego a lot of other nice eating fish. I use heavier line in deep rocky areas, 50lb nylon or 80lb braid. If that’s too heavy to cast I’ll spool 30-40lb mono for rough ground when a bigger distance is needed.
Off the sand I use 15-25lb line where a bigger cast is an advantage. Tie your sinker on with lighter line so it snaps off if snagged.
Breakaway sinkers are good for the sandy beach with pulley rigs. 4-5oz torpedo/scud or upside down pyramids are good sinkers depending on how rough the bottom is and how much wind or swell you’ve got.
Using a bobby float (running float) for the really snaggy areas you wouldn't normally consider fishing can help keep the hook out of the worst of the snags.
Set a uni knot as a stopper on the leader 3 – 4 metres up from the hook so your bait is held by the float just up out of the weed. Watch you float like a hawk and strick when it dips under.
This technique can be deadly on cagey 'rock mooching' snapper in really shallow water.
Reading the beach
This is critical for good results off the sand, and can be tough for the novice, as a lot is learned from experience.
This is where joining a surf casting club is invaluable, as you will be welcomed into an environment where knowledge, or at least some of it, is shared and you will be around like minded fisho’s. You’ll also find areas to fish you might not get to off your own bat.
Here’s a couple of articles to help with reading the beach:
I always look to see where the waves ease back a bit indicating deeper water.
You will see rips and holes off the beach where there is no wave action, and these are the prime targets to cast your bait at.
Some beaches that are not totally sandy, you can sometimes climb up a bank (or stop on the track down to the beach) and look with your polaroid sunglasses for darker patches particularly pebble or weed patches. Fishing the edge of a weed patch can be very productive at times.
Another good trick is to prospect for a bit by casting just a ball sinker and retrieving it across the bottom, feeling for rough ground.
If you're not catching fish, use a smaller hook and lighter line and try altering your casts with long casts, short casts and casting at different angles. When you find fish mark your location with a cell GPS so you can find the spots next time, particularly when it is dark.
A 12-14ft surf rod is good off the beach and I shorten up to a 8-10ft stiffer action rods off the rocks.
Chasing snapper with lures
Snapper absolutely love lures of most types.
Catching snapper on lures is a heap of fun. It can take a bit more skill but can really produce the goods and it’s well worth leaving the bait at home occasionally and just commit to going lure fishing.
Fishing in the northern part of the country with lures has been very popular and successful for many years now. The snapper population there is far greater and the temps are a bit warmer, so response to lures is very good. Workups, and big schooling snapper pounce on all the modern lure tech, and big moochers are suckers for a well presented soft bait in the shallows.
Top Wellington fishos have been doing well on lures over the last couple of years, where it has been a little slower to catch on as a mainstream option.
The most effective lure patterns on snapper, in no particular order, are soft baits for the shallows, and kabura/slider and Inchiku jigs for the deeper 40 metre plus areas. Slow pitch jigs work well but are better in summer fishing months.
Inshore fishing with soft baits
Snapper love soft baits all through the year, even winter if you are in the right location.
In shallower water (5-20mtrs) softbaits can be very effective on snapper, and they require a specific approach and the right gear and technique to work.
Rather than anchoring up and setting a berley trail to bring fish to you, soft baiting is a bit more hunt-and-seek. You need to find the fish and put a softie in front of them.
Cast your softbaits into or along the rocks along the shoreline or near reefy areas meeting the sand.
Let the bait sink to the bottom and then do a slow, twitching retrieve giving the rod tip the odd flick.
Leave the bait to rest occasionally, and a snapper will often pick it up. Work your way along the shoreline casting into guts, white water and around any rocky headlands. Keep an eye out for submerged rocks as you don’t want to end up hitting one with the boat!
You want to select a jig head that is the lightest you can get away with, right down to even ¼ oz which allows the soft bait to waft around in the strike zone and not jet to the bottom. Start light and move heavier if you have to.
Five inch bodies from Z man and Catch, are buoyant and sink quite slowly which is good for in close. They are pretty light, but you’re fishing braid on spinning gear, and casting down-wind ahead of your drift, so they often hit the water and do the job before the fish are aware you are even there.
If you are fishing from a kayak or small boat, soft baits are a deadly weapon to master.
Deeper water soft bait fishing
Fishing softbaits in open water from 15-40 mtrs is also a very productive method on snapper. Look for bird workups or fish sign on your sounder such as bait schools and fish arches hard up against the bottom.
Set up a drift across good looking ground and cast ahead of your drift line.
Don’t anchor the boat when soft baiting unless your bait and berley fishing and want to try something different using softies.
To help slow the boats drift down you MUST use a sea anchor if the wind is over 7-8 knots. If you havn’t got a sea anchor, try reversing up into the wind or the tide every so often without running over your lines.
Using a bigger sea anchor than is rated for your boat is often the rule of thumb as bigger is better to slow the drift down.
Because of the greater water depths and current you will naturally often need to use heavier jig heads.
I use 1 - 3oz jig heads and make sure the lure is on the bottom in the higher currents we have in Wellington.
If the angle of the line is too great at the back of the boat, retrieve and cast out ahead of your drift again. You are constantly working the softbait along the bottom back to you as the boat drifts towards your cast and then past it. The longer the softbait is worked along the floor, the more strikes you will attract.
If you catch fish or get strikes in an area, drive back up your drift to go over the same line again. You can use your GPS and follow the boat’s snail trail to help determine the path you took. Sometimes the fish will miss the softbait on the first strike, so drop the rod or free-spool it back quickly and they often bite again.
I like larger, bulky softbaits in deeper water such as the Gulp 6” Squid Vicious, 5-6” nuclear chicken jerk shad, or 7” Belly Strips from Gulp.
Fishing with soft baits means you always hook the fish in the mouth and have a good opportunity to release fish easily, and they have a better chance of surviving the encounter.
I've had good success using a soft bait with a bit of pilchard or tuna bait on the same hook. It's out fished standard soft baits for me a few times.
I either run a standard dropper or running rig with the softbait and the appropriate sinker for the current running and water depth. The GULP chartreuse 3” mullet has been my best snapper catcher although most work when the fish are biting.
The snapper come in and nail the pilchard and if you don’t hook up then they often come back a second time to nail the soft bait.
Shore fishing with soft baits
If you’re land based fishing with soft baits you can prospect various spots along the coastline looking for guts and channels and you can also berley up and throw softies into the trail. I have had good fishing using both methods.
One good thing about soft baits from the shore, is that the jig holds the hook positioned facing upwards, which often allows it to bounce over weed and other obstacles without snagging.
Use a light jig head of about ½oz or under with a 3- 5” grub or jerk shad soft bait body. I suggest using 10-15lb braid on a small but powerful 2500-3000 spin reel and a 2-3mtr leader of around 20lb fluorocarbon, with a 6-7ft 5-10kg graphite or nano spin rod.
Check out Joel Westcot's article on soft plastics from the rocks.
Kabura and Inchiku jigs
Kaburas (sliders) and Inchiku jigs. Both are great on snapper.
The method is similar to softbaiting when setting up drifts but with these lures you just drop them down to the bottom and do a slow wind up a few meters, then repeat the process a few times until you’re out of the snapper zone.
As for soft baiting, you need to do drifts with a sea anchor.
These lures sink like a stone and the 120 – 200 gram models can easily be fished in bigger current to 80 metres.
This method has proved successful just inside Hunters bank in 50-60mtrs, at the Wairaka rise in 30-50mtrs and out from Pukerua Bay in 20-40mtrs.
Out from Raumati and Waikanae in 30-50mtrs is another proven location. I’m sure you’ll find these lures will work well up and down the coast and in the harbour in the deeper holes like Point Gordan and south of Somes Island, so if you are new to lure fishing, these are the easiest options to try.
Slow pitch jigs
These jigs are super deadly and sport bigger, stronger hooks on stronger braid so you can afford to be a bit more aggressive on big fish.
There is a key technique change needed in workups to improve hookup rates.
Rather than working the jig actively from the bottom and keeping it moving as you would normally with a slow pitch jig link, the trick in a workup is to stop the lure completely.
Literally leave it on the bottom or hanging static for several seconds and you will find snapper will just smash it.
In the frenzy fish are often just cleaning all the big easy scraps off the bottom and don’t want or need to work too hard chasing a lure.
Light gear is the idea, the best setup being a small medium action spinning rod and small spinning reel; around 2000 – 2500 spooled with 3 – 6 lb braid.
Fish a micro jig much like a soft bait. You are on the drift (with a sea anchor deployed if there is any wind) and casting in the direction you are drifting.
Allow the lure to flutter to the bottom, staying in touch but without dragging on it. This can be done by gently controlling the line coming off the spool with your fingers before engaging the bail arm. Leave the lure on the floor for a few seconds, this is commonly where the strike will happen.
New model tungsten microjigs can be effectively fished in 60 metres plus.
Deadly on snapper, microjigs are also big favourites of trevally, gurnard, kingfish, kahawai, even john dory, so you never quite know what to expect when fishing these.
For more information on current conditions, or for helpful advice, or if you are keen to come out fishing with me, I look forward to catching up.
Pete Lamb Fishing Ltd. Charters, Bait and Tackle - 15 Kingsford Smith St Rongotai, Wellington.
Phone: 027 443 9750
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