Summer snapper in the Bay of Islands

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Peter Jessup

Famous for its gamefishing history, the Bay of Islands can offer some of best snapper fishing action you'll experience. But there are some tricks to finding the fish and figuring which bait to use to nail the big ones.

The Bay of Islands is an incredibly productive fishing ground. There are more than a few reasons for this.

For one, as Captain Cook described it in his log on December 7, 1769:

“I have named it the Bay of Islands on account of the great number which line its shores, and these help to form several safe and commodious harbours wherein there is room and depth of water for any number of shipping.”

The myriad of islands large and small also provide ideal feeding grounds for snapper, as well as sheltered bays where spawning achieves a high rate of juvenile snapper recruitment. Around the Bay, you will find pretty much every type of seabed common around New Zealand’s coastline, and that variety also offers a mix of foods at different times of the year - baitfish in summer, worm beds in spring and autumn, rocky shorelines holding crustaceans in winter.

The Bay is the second-most important snapper breeding ground on the North Island's east coast, after the Hauraki Gulf.

And over the summer months this booming feeding ground also provides dinner for thousands of amateur anglers.


Post-Labour Weekend when the water starts to warm, the snapper school and form up under schools of anchovies and baitfish. The early schools are on the bottom. Then later they come off the bottom to feed mid-water and even on the surface. That’s why soft baits work so well up here, because they fish the whole water column.

At times like this, the snapper will take anything : Jigs, baits, soft plastics. Often, the fish will hit the hook while on the drop. Sometimes, these are the bigger fish, shouldering smaller cousins out of the way.

When these guys are on the chew, your dinner is only a cast behind them.

Snapper grow rapidly from October to March because of this aggressive feeding. In winter, their metabolism slows as they sit on the bottom in deeper water and they eat less. Their growth rate slows. So as that hibernation ends around late October, they are very hungry and feed with vigour, for longer periods of the day.

Snapper are serial spawners, releasing many batches of eggs over the summer months, as soon as the water temperature passes the 19 degreesC mark. The eggs have a very short free-floating planktonic stage and so the juvenile fish generally hatch very close to their spawning area. In late November, sabiki jigs put down in the inside channels of the Bay to seek mackerel as live baits for kingfish will frequently produce the smallest snapper you will ever see, smaller than a matchbox.

In November/December the snapper congregate and travel in huge numbers around the middle area of the Bay, in a triangle from Mita’s Foul to the Black Rocks and across to Onslow Rock. The fish are generally all above legal size of 27cm, some are more like 60cm and 5kg, with the occasional monster among them.

At this time the middle foul will also be holding the last of the winter tarakihi and the occasional hapuku pup, in 30 or more metres. These move out by late December as the water continues to warm, as do the last of the winter barracouta.

Over the Christmas holidays you can find this productive spot by following the crowd. At times it looks like a picket fence across the entrance to the Bay. The incredible thing is that all will be catching fish.

As summer progresses and the water warms further, the best snapper move to deeper water to 60 metres, but they will also come right into shallows to feed, at dawn and dusk in particular. The bigger fish are scattered by the amount of boat movement. The middle ground fills with juveniles and throwbacks are common.

Prime eating snapper taken on a slow drift through the Middle Ground - lures only in this case.

Big Baits

So later in the summer the best fish are to be found in 60m by the Ninepin or Cape Brett or around feeding grounds on the reefs and foul around the islands.

Big baits are the go, both slimy and jack mackerel easily caught on sabikis in the channels. Slimy mackerel is possibly the best big snapper or kingfish bait there is.

As a livie, it will get nailed rapidly. Jacks are good butterflied, with strips cut down the flanks to leak out blood. Hook the fish through the back just ahead of the dorsal fin, or up through the jaw, ensuring the point is exposed. Personally, I always use Black Magic hooks, 6/0 or 8/0 livebait type, because of their sharpness and strength.

The best times are dawn or, preferably, dusk.

Over summer the attention shifts to gamefishing but there's exceptional snapper fishing to be enjoyed after a day’s gamefishing. In the evening, with some fresh skipjack for berley, you can have some terrific snapper action.

An onshore breeze that drifts big floating baits towards rocks is always productive - blue and jack mackerel or large slabs of fresh kahawai or mullet, rigged on big hooks with no sinker.

But if any method is not working, try something else. Their diet will change from pilchards to anchovies to worms to crabs and snails on the bottom. There is always someone trying something different and doing better.

Good areas are the broken foul in 30metres off Tapeka Point, the western end of Roberton Island, around the Black Rocks and off the point at Long Beach.

Don’t anchor right on top of the foul, rather fish the fringes, Stone advises, and fish on the up-current side of the foul.

There is good land-based fishing off Tapeka Point and at Long Beach in the evenings.

Johnnies and crays

There has been a noticeable increase in the numbers of gurnard caught all around the Bay, when they were a common catch just on mudflats, and also the number and size of blue cod being caught. John dory are also a regular catch for those fishing live baits in mid-Bay or from the numerous wharves.

Porae, golden snapper, scorpionfish or grandaddy hapuku are also regulars in a mixed bag along with the more common trevally and kahawai.

Crayfish can show upat times, seeking the cracks of the volcanic rock in calm times and moving out onto the deeper seabed in rough weather.

One local expert is Warren Wynyard, a former commercial fisherman. He makes his own pots from tanalised fence palings, wrapped with mesh. He weights them with paving stones to hold the pot firmly on the bottom – and believes crayfish don’t like anything moving around and will avoid a pot rocking in swell. Fresh bait is an absolute must, snapper frames or a kahawai or trevally hung by a piece of flax pushed through the eyes.

When the weather is bad, the Bay still offers a range of options in the lee of wind and waves. There are all-weather and all-tide boat ramps such as the one at Russell. Waitangi is best at high to half tide.

Then there’s the history of the place. The Treaty Grounds and other sites are well worth a visit. It wasn’t until researching this article and after reading the plaque on Flagstaff Hill at Russell that I knew that the flagpole was chopped down a total of four times, the first two occasions definitely not by Hone Heke.

Whatever your boating preferences are, the Bay of Islands is a 'must visit', and a fresh fish dinner is likely to be on the menu. 😀

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