Winter tips and tricks for fishing the shallows
Bruce 'Captain Swish' Duncan
December 19, 2019
Winter fishing has its challenges. The Keys to success involves patience, keen observation and a variety of different types of oily berley.
It is only by constantly challenging yourself year round will you put yourself into the category of the 20 per cent of fishermen who catch 80 percent of the fish.
To accomplish this you must have a complete understanding of the fish’s winter habitat, weather patterns plus feeding habits, as they are all interlinked. When combined these are the keys to being able to determine where, how and when to target the fish and maximise your results.
Habitat is key
Understanding the fish’s habitat is the first step. Every reef and rocky shoreline structure will have some form of kelp and marine growth attached. These provide a habitat for a wide variety of crustaceans and small fish, which are the diet of the resident fish.
First look closely at the target area and determine the best location to set up according to the wind and tide direction. Low tide on a sunny clear day is the best time to survey the shoreline and surrounding area, as the submerged rocky outcrops are more visible.
By closely watching the depth sounder as you work across the whole area you will build up a picture in your mind of the type and shape of the terrain. Perhaps even draw a sketch to retain a good visual image. Once you have done that you will see where best to anchor the boat, also taking into consideration the different wind and tide influences so the stern is directly facing the area you want to cast your baits.
It is only by fishing the spot over a whole tide are you be able to determine what effects the different stages of the tide may play at each spot. Over time you will find that certain spots will fish best at low or half tide or just on the ebb tide.
Snapper that remain close to the shore and shallow reefs during the winter are there for two reasons - shelter and food. They hunt within the rocks and kelp but will also come out at times to graze on crabs and worms in the mud and sand close by.
Over the summer months post spawning snapper will build up their body fat reserves to allow for the colder water temperature, which changes the way they feed. In winter they tend to eat less, just picking up and crunching on crabs and shellfish as they feel the need.
This is why fishermen get frustrated in winter when they feel a few tiny bites only to find the skeletal remains without realising that in fact these were good-sized fish. The anglers then up anchor moving to new spots all day but eventually come home without a fish.
A good tip to remember is to check the gut of the fish before discarding. Take note of what they have been feeding on for future reference.
LET YOUR BAIT DEFROST SLOWLY SO IT DOESN’T GO MUSHY BEFORE BAITING UP.
Berley trigger aggression
The only way in winter to get snapper to become aggressive feeders is by stimulating their senses with a strong berley trail along with small chunks of ground bait.
Just like people - even if we are not hungry the smell of a roast dinner when we open the front door soon fires up our appetite.
When straylining in shallow water where there is little tidal flow drop the wobbley pot full of berley halfway to the bottom. This allows the berley trail to be broadcast further away from the boat than if it was just off the bottom.
Use a berley that has a high concentration of oil such as bonito or salmon, which releases an oil slick. The berley is taken by the current over and around the submerged rocks before rising to the surface. The target zone is where the slick comes to the surface; by casting baits back down the trail the bait will be at the point the berley will be drawing the fish towards the boat.
Regularly toss over handfuls of ground bait, as the current will also take them back through the berley trail. Once a number of snapper are in the berley trail and are picking at the ground bait it is then that they become competitive and start feeding aggressively.
In shallow water the resident winter snapper only snack when they feel the urge. Before the berley trail takes effect I start fishing with small baits, using a 7/0 hook with the barb well exposed from the bait.
Snapper tend to just pick up the bait and crush it as they would a limpet snail or crab without moving away. The bites may feel tiny, however with a large hook in a small bait, the hook will be in their mouth and driven into the jaw on the strike ensuring a solid hook up. Do not think for one moment that the snapper will see the hook and shy away!
Light line pays off
Line weight makes a big difference when fishing in shallow water due in part to the way the snapper feed. The lighter the line the greater the hook up but the down side is the greater the bust offs.
When snapper rip off a limpet or snail off the rocks they do not race off with it but rather stay put and crunch it up so if they detect something out of the ordinary such as line resistance in the water they will often just drop the bait.
The difference in water resistance between 6 and 10 kg line is hard to imagine but it is significant. It could be compared to pulling up by hand a 6mm and 10mm anchor rope, just 4mm difference makes it much easier to grip.
Lighter line weights enable longer and more accurate casts, which in turn mean you will be able to place the bait exactly where you want it. Lighter line also improves your ability to detect bites.
The down side of light line is bust offs, especially as I do not use any trace, just simply a hook on the end of the main line. I find that the extra weight of the trace and swivel can spook fish, and also snags more easily in the kelp.
Snapper taking you into the rocks or kelp comes with the territory when stray lining in very shallow rocky terrain. However I would rather the fish escapes with just a hook in the mouth rather than dragging a trace that could eventually get snagged and kill the fish.
Take a variety of oily baits but ensure that they are slowly defrosted, as this will stop them going soft and mushy. Baitfish coming up the berley trail can be used for fresh bait. Whole butter-flied fresh bait always attracts the bigger fish.
Set a pattern of baits at different distances and angles to the boat rather than all casting in the same spot. It is critical that the bait is presented so it sinks as naturally as possible especially when the snapper are wary and bait shy due the tide state or bad moon phase. When everything is against you, you may only get a few shots at a solid hook up all day.
Strike hard and keep the rod tip high while playing the fish until it is alongside the boat. Lift the rod and keep the head of the fish pointing upward if possible to prevent it from getting into the kelp and rocks to bust you off.
It is only time spent on the water mixed with patience and a serious will to learn from each trip that will result in greater knowledge and skill. Targeting shallow coastlines with straylining techniques will result in some of the most exciting and rewarding fishing of your life.