Snapper on piper

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Geoff Thomas
March 2011

Live piper is not commonly associated with catching snapper. But as Geoff Thomas recently found out, they are dynamite and worked a treat when taking a familiar Kiwi face out for a bit of fun.

“We put a small live bait hook in front of the tail, just under the back bone,” said Paul Green as he dropped the wriggling silver piper over the side. The sinker was on a sliding short trace above the swivel connecting the 50kg trace to the 24kg main line. The livie had hardly been on the bottom six metres away when the rod bent sharply.  Paul grabbed it from the holder and wound fast. The rod doubled over and thumped.

“Snapper!” said Paul.

And it was. A lovely 3kg snapper. But it wasn’t our target. We were chasing kingfish on the reef just off Crusoe Rock, and this summer the kingies have been as thick as maggots on a dead sheep’s head. The problem is the snapper often get to the live piper before the kings get a chance.

The challenge

This particular day had started with a game plan.

The plan was to get All Blacks coach Graham Henry a 4.5kg snapper and a king over 12kg. He was taking time off during January before returning to the rugby scene, and a big year it will be for all involved in the top level.

A double figure (in the  old pounds) snapper and decent kingie may not be a problem up north or in the Bay of Plenty, but out of Auckland it is a little more challenging; more so the snapper. There are plenty of kings around and with live kahawai you deter the rats, but our bait was piper as it doubled for the big snapper also. Snapper of that size are not so easy to catch to order when you are fishing in close. But the livies make a big difference when it comes to catching the bigger models.

Finding bait

Live kahawai would also be welcome in the bait tank but there were no birds working so piper were the first item on the agenda.

A berley bomb on the surface in five metres soon attracted swarms of the sharp-nosed garfish, and while a sabiki with scraps of pilchard nailed the odd one Paul produced his secret weapon. A bowl of maggots.

“My dad does a lot of coarse fishing, and he breeds them,” he explained as he threaded three fat maggots on to a tiny hook. Even the hooks he uses, which come from UK and are designed for holding large fish, were superior to the regular sprat and sabiki hooks.

“My dad does a lot of coarse fishing", as he threaded three fat maggots on to a tiny hook.

The wriggling maggots work like dynamite on the piper, and they stay on the hook – unlike soft pilchard belly. The rig is completed with a thin pencil float, and a split shot above the hook. Paul casts it out and works it slowly through the water, and the bait tank was soon packed with piper.

“We will need 50 or 60 for the snapper fishing,” he said.

Piper will take other baits like tiny dough balls and slivers of pilchard. But they will ignore the dark meat, and the silver skin on the flanks and belly work best. Unfortunately this gut area is also the softest and doesn’t last long.

We wanted to be on the kingie spot at low tide to catch the start of the incoming flow, which was three hours away. So it was out to Paul’s snapper spot which is in the middle of the flat area between Waiheke and Rakino Islands.

The current was running strongly as the tides were 3.3 metres, and we put two berley bombs in one pot and another in a second pot. You can’t have too much berley to get the party going.

It is common to use whole dead piper or cut piper for snapper baits, and it works very well. But live piper for snapper? That is a new one for most people.

“We were getting snapper up to 19 pounds (8.5 kilos) here in October,” said Paul as he fished a piper out of the bait tank and rigged it up on two fixed 7/0 hooks, with a one-ounce sinker sliding above the hooks.

With a short trace of 30kg  mono the bait can be easily cast well back from the boat.

Paul fished a piper out of the bait tank and rigged it up on two fixed 7/0 hooks, with a one-ounce sinker sliding above the hooks.

The gear

Paul uses an overhead reel with 8kg line, and we set up Graham – or Ted as he is usually called – with a Quantum Boca 60 spooled with 15kg Silk Touch line, on  a Fin-Nor Offshore rod. The rod is 2.15 metres (7 feet) and is ideal for this type of fishing. The tip is soft enough to cast a light bait and it is solid through the mid section for dealing with powerful fish. This pink mono is the toughest line we have found, and the same outfit subdued a 3.5m bronze whaler in 10 metres of water at Little Barrier not long ago.

Snapper time!

The bites came quickly and it was classic straylining fishing. Let the snapper run then just wind and wind before lifting the rod. You actually strike the fish when taking up any slack by winding rather than heaving on the rod. When the line comes up tight you simply raise the rod, but keep winding. Too often do you see somebody strike, then hold the rod high and wait to see if the fish is on. Big mistake, as quite often the fish has gone as soon as the angler hesitates and the pressure comes off the line.

The snapper ranged from one kilo to over four kilos, and even the small models loved the live piper

But the system was working and the berley was working. The snapper ranged from one kilo to over four kilos, and even the small models loved the live piper. They attack them viciously.

We offered different baits like whole pilchards, which did not last long, and frozen whole blue mackerel which work fine but nothing like the live piper.

Then the bites eased off and Paul checked the berley bombs. Sure enough the berley was getting thin. Time to stick new bombs in the pots.

Ted soon hooked up on a good fish and when it came to the net Paul confirmed some good news.

“This is the double figure fish (in pounds, which is 4.5 kilos).”

Item one on the target list ticked off.

With three rods going the snapper soon chewed through our supply of piper in the bait tank. You either hook up or lose a bait, and the action is pretty much continuous while the tide is running.

It did slow down after an hour, and the reason was the increased current as the tide flow peaked. Our baits were being carried out with the current and not reaching the bottom. The answer is to change to a heavier sinker. This applies to all fishing in strong currents. You change the terminal tackle as the dynamics change.

The bites picked up again, but it is more difficult to pick up the bites and handle the line with a stronger current and heavier sinkers. Like most fishing, line control is important.

Onto the kings

But we had enough snapper and it was time to get ready for the kingfish challenge.

Back to the shallows close to Crusoe and bring out the maggots again. Paul likes a tank full of livies for this job also as the rats and the snapper will motor through your supply of live baits if they are small yellowtails, piper or small kahawai. It is all about the size of the baits.

There was no sign of kahawai around and there was no time to go looking or try blind trolling. They can often be picked up while snapper fishing, but none had been attracted to our piper.

With the bait tank filled up again it is a short distance to the edge of the reef where the kings are often on patrol.

Paul dropped anchor in six metres, and everyone knew their job for when the hot action began. He would start the boat and lift the anchor, I would pull the berley on board and Ted would be busy dealing to the kingfish. Only one berley is used, to speed up the retrieve, and in such shallow water it doesn’t have to be far out.

The two kingie rods were 24kg stand-up models with lever drag reels which are actually 15kg size reels spooled with 24kg line. You have to stop the kings getting into the reef so you don’t mess around with anything less than 24kg, but the smaller reel is easier to handle while standing up.

The piper are hooked through the base of the tail and the hooks are small live bait models. With all live baiting, the hook size should match the size of bait used. Too large a hook will kill the bait, and you can handle big kings on small hooks which are designed for the job.

This spot had been going off and Paul was regularly catching half a dozen kings in a session, often more. One memorable afternoon saw bronze whalers take four hooked kingies in a row.

With a live piper out each side of the boat, one under a balloon and the other on the bottom, it doesn’t take long for a rod to go off. But most of the strikes on the bottom were from snapper. Then the rats turned up and both rods were going off. You need a lot of livies for this sort of action.

Then the bait on the seabed went and rod doubled over instantly. These are fished with the drag hard up, and there is no question when a good king connects.

“Grab the berley!”  shouted Paul as he started the engine and flicked on the capstan. It doesn’t take long to retrieve the berley line and the anchor in such shallow water, while Ted was busy following his fish around the stern of the boat, from one side to the other.

He has caught kingfish at Waiheke and in the Bay of Islands but in six metres this was a different story. The fish can’t dive so they go in one direction.

“Stop him! Go hard!” yelled Paul. Ted hung on and got the fish under control, and soon it was ready for the gaff.

This one was going back to Waiheke as the Henry family enjoys kingfish as much as snapper. And the Mad Butcher is just down the road so a chunk would be heading his way also.

“What do you reckon?” asked Paul. “Mission accomplished?”

Yep. The snapper hit the button and kingie was over the mark. Not too hard when you have a bunch of maggots and a tank full of piper.

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