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XOS snapper from the sounds

December 19, 2019
XOS snapper from the sounds

Troy Dando talks to his mate Gavin Williams, about the secrets of catching XOS snapper in the Marlborough Sounds.

Snapper (Chrysophrys auratus (tamure to Maori)) is one of New Zealand’s all round favourite fish to catch. From the young buddy angler to the old salty seadog kiwi we all love the thrill of hooking up on a good snapper.

They put up a formidable fight with screaming runs and ferocious head shakes that transmit through to the rod tip, heightening the adrenaline. They are also a magnificent visual fish with their striking colours of silver, orange/red and blue spots when all lit up and gleaming.

Gavin Williams with big snapper

I took time out recently to catch up with a mate who is an expert in catching the XOS snapper which have learnt over the years how to elude the average recreational angler.

Gavin Williams is no stranger to the fishing community, being past Club Captain of the famous Dawnbreakers Fishing Club in Nelson (the first club to introduce a totally length based points system for clubs to promote catch and release). His is a face you will often see on the podium at local fishing competitions collecting the goodies.

Gavin puts in the hard yards to secure a prize fish long after many others like myself would have thrown in the towel and retired to bed. I can’t remember how many times Gavin sat up all through the night in my boat, dealing with sevengill shark after sevengill, replacing a dozen strayline rigs, just to have that one shot at a big red. His dedication pays off and nine times out of ten he hits the jackpot.

Here is a little of what Gavin does to prepare for the hunt, told in his own words...

The gang hooked pilchard rig ready to deploy. Notice how much barb is showing and how tidy the entire rig is. Presentation is king.


My passion for targeting snapper includes the whole thing: planning, preparing, hunting and trying different techniques, right through to the fight and actually landing them.

I’m often asked where to find the big snapper. To be honest there is no real set answer. They can be anywhere! It always surprises me where you get a bite. Snapper like deep current lines, rocky outcrops, sandy bottoms, shallow estuary waters, and even the surf. Where there is food, there are snapper.

Gavin Williams with a nice snapper caught on a slow jig. Gavin tends to swap skirts and hooks to always look at ways to improve “off the shelf” terminal tackle.

Another is the question of best time of day. There is the proven dawn and dusk with an incoming current and all that, but you also need to mix it up a little with moon phases. The night time, with low tide around 5-6pm in the summer will give you a good 11pm to midnight high water. This is a perfect tide for good current around the peak of the tidal flow when it’s just starting to get dark and that magic ‘bite time’ with the last of the evening light on the water.

Gear and Techniques

There are many rigs to choose from to target snapper that include Black Magic ledger/flasher rigs, straylining with or without running rigs. Artificial baits like soft plastics, micro jigs and Inchiku styles. You then have the Madai type, and of course soft plastics and lures. My favourites are basic straylining rigs for the shallows, and slow jigs in the deep.

The magic strayline rig Gavin swears by. The two different hook styles on a fluorocarbon leader with just enough weight to get the rig to the bottom

If straylining, add a sinker if needed to just reach the bottom and a maybe a lumo bead. A flasher hook can be tied to the bottom. I like to pre-tie my rigs at home and spend the time to carefully snood knot them. If re-rigging at night a simple uni and running second hook will do. However, the snood knot is strongest and most protected, and holds that second hook if the bottom one is bitten off.

Buy quality terminal tackle. Your hooks, trace and fluorocarbon are the business end of what keeps the snapper connected to your rod. I normally make up a two-hook rig with two different hook styles: one recurve and one beak. I think it gives you the best chance on hook-up rates.

I hook my full baits tail first, with two half-hitches to aid casting and secure the bait as well as the sinker. For that reason I normally run my beak hook at the bottom of the rig, which ends up in the middle section of the bait, and the recurve as the hook goes in by the tail area. These hook seatings bring about the old theories of ‘let it run to give the snapper time to swallow the bait’ versus the ‘strike straight away’.

Gavin Williams Baitrunner

To strike a beak hook just lift the rod tip, which will set the recurve hook nicely in the corner of the mouth. Personally, I grab the rod straight away, wind quickly, and strike as fast as I can. Depending on how long the snapper has had the bait in his mouth, I have got the bases covered with the beak hook located in the baits hit zone being in the middle of the bait and the recurve hook taking care of the rest if the snapper has already turned the bait and swallowed it.

For rods and reels I almost exclusively stick to Shimano baitrunners (8000 for Marlborough Sounds snapper) and a good Shimano spinning Aquatip 6-10kg boat rod. I normally spool up with 15lb Maxima Ultra green line and always run fluorocarbon traces of various weights, depending on the fishing area and the number of sharks there.


Bait selection is essential, though snapper will eat almost anything when they are hungry. One huge snapper scoffed bacon I threw in the water at the end of a camping trip, and I heard of one with a gnarly old sea cucumber in its stomach.

A strayline squid rig is a good back up rig when the fish are not biting. Pilchards or sanmar fresh squid is best if you can get it, otherwise searching through the bait freezers for the right size squid is most important as too big and they will tear.

The best baits though? Anything freshly caught like kahawai, mullet, piper and mackerel, which about covers what’s available in our area of NZ. Then there are the bought baits: pillies, baby salmon, anchovies, sanmar, baby squid, bonito etc. Choose the freshest looking baits from the freezer. Let’s face it, if you spend around $8 -$10 for 1kg of bait, make sure it’s the best.

The bite

Snapper bites range from a full-on smash and screaming run to a tentative one click on the baitrunner. They normally pick the bait up and move it a metre, feel the pressure from the rod tip and drop it.

I have had small bites that just tap the rod tip and look like a spotty or bait fish, only to turn out to be a 20lb snapper. So depending on the time of day, currents, moon phase, and season, we must adapt to the ‘bite’. This means using smaller baits and dropping the trace weight as low as you can so you can feel every little tap on your line.

Gavin Williams (right) in his younger years

Increasing the burley flow and chumming down ground bait is another little trick to bring on a bite when nothing has been happening. ou would be amazed how often you can get a bite when just chumming over small cubed pieces of pilchard for five minutes. One other thing I do is a little lift and drop of the rod tip to ‘tease’ the fish into thinking the bait is about to gap it. I know a lot of people who cast a strayline out and wait for it to sink to the bottom, then retrieve a little of it a few minutes later. This can result in a huge strike of a hungry snapper.

The strike

When to strike comes from experience, the more you fish the better you will judge it. Strike too early, no hook-up; strike too late and the bait is crushed and broken; also no hook-up. With bite-size bait strike straight away, but with big baits the theory is to wait for it to be swallowed then strike.

With softer bait like pilchards, salmon and bonito it can be better to strike straight away or risk losing it. Even on big baits it is hard to know if the snapper has been chewing away on it for a while or has picked it up and is swimming towards the boat. Sudden slack line is a sure sign that a big red is coming at you.

Wind in the slack but the moment the line comes tight, strike, as fish will almost certainly drop the bait like a hot rock the moment they feel any tension. If in doubt, strike straight away.

The battle

On a bite, the most common mistake is to drop the rod tip and wind. That is a recipe for losing the fish. The rod must always stay bent and loaded: wind, strike upward, wind again, and strike once more to set the hook. Wind on the downward drop, but keep the rod bent the entire time.

Don’t increase your drag; if anything, back it off a little as the fish nears the boat. Tuck the rod butt under your armpit to decrease the line angle. This reduces pressure on knots and drag, increasing the chance of landing the fish.

Seeing the fish near the top of the water gets the blood pumping! Try to lead the fish to your mate waiting with the net or gaff. Put the net into the water before the fish surfaces so as not to spook it. Come in with the net from the side and slide the fish in head first. Never net a fish tail first; at first touch, it will bolt.

High fives

Along with the yahoos and high fives, grab some photos while the back fins are up and the colours are bold. To keep the fish, make sure you iki it and get it onto ice as soon as possible for the best eating condition. Gut and gill as soon as it has cooled down then put back on ice.

If you are going to release the fish, handle it with wet hands and a wet towel. Don’t muck around getting it back in the water. Hold the fish over the side, head into the current, and wait for it to regain some strength. When ready it will kick off and power down to the depths to carry on breeding.

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