Keen lure fisherman John Eichelsheim won’t be limited by fishing for snapper with just the standard soft-plastics and jigs, and here he reveals why.
The snapper-jigging craze of the late 1980s and early 1990s proved categorically that snapper like artificial lures, especially jigs, and I remember on more than one occasion catching large snapper on trolled Rapalas, so they clearly attack swimming lures as well.
But after the jigging craze faded, it was as if we forgot about lure fishing for snapper – until the mid-2000s, when the soft-plastics revolution again hammered home that snapper are enthusiastic lure takers.
Next came the current interest in micro-jigs, slow-jigs, slow-pitch jigs, slow-fall jigs and every other sort of jig to reinforce just how strongly Kiwis have embraced lure fishing for snapper.
However, this enthusiasm for soft-baiting and jigging hasn’t really translated into interest in other lure-fishing opportunities. This is a shame, as I’ve been fooling around with different fishing styles for a few years now and find that snapper take all sorts of artificial lures.
These lures cast well, sink quickly, and work over a variety of bottom types. They have a tight wobbling action and can be tuned to swim at different depths or to oscillate at different frequencies. Even better, these very versatile lures can be fished fast or slow, bounced and hopped off the bottom, or ripped across the surface at speed. No wonder snapper love them.
I’ve found the most consistent way to catch snapper on blades is to hop them off the bottom. I start by casting well away from the boat, then let the lure sink on a tight line. That way it will swim and vibrate all the way to the bottom. As soon as it touches down (assuming it hasn’t been eaten ‘on the drop’, as commonly occurs), lift the rod to hop the lure, take a couple of winds on the reel handle to get it vibrating nicely, and then allow it to drop back to the bottom again on a tight line. Repeat this action all the way back to the boat.
This technique works well over clean bottoms; over rock and weed a bit more guesswork is involved. After initial contact with the bottom is made (or when you estimate the lure is a metre or two above the seafloor), start a lift, wind and drop retrieve, without allowing the lure to sink all the way to the bottom, to reduce snagging. With practice you can work the lure over obstacles and across weed beds. Blades work particularly well when hopped down mud banks along channel edges or against cliff faces, and work effectively through the whole water column.
On the negative side, most of the blade lures available in our tackle stores are small (so I snap up larger 6cm-plus blades whenever I come across them). After all, they’re primarily designed to catch Australian bream, bass and whiting, which are generally smaller and less powerful than snapper. I’ve seen larger models advertised online though, so they must be available.
However, their relatively small size is less of a problem than their hardware. Decent snapper still eat these diminutive offerings with gusto, but the small treble hooks are generally too light for the line classes we use, either bending out under pressure or being mangled by powerful jaws.
One fix is to replace the hooks with heavy-duty trebles or in-line single hooks, but finding suitable hooks of the right size is not always easy, and you’ll need to replace the split-rings, too. Keep in mind that overly big hooks and rings can upset the lure’s action and make it less attractive to fish.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’ve taken a few snapper on CD18 Rapalas meant for kingfish, as well as on bibless Marauders targeting the same species. More recently I’ve been using smaller versions of bibbed and bib-less minnows (the Americans call them swim-baits) to catch snapper from my kayak. I generally hook them while trolling, and since I always trail a lure behind the boat when paddling from place to place, I catch snapper this way quite regularly.
Two years ago I enjoyed a couple of wonderful autumn trolling sessions inside the buoys marking the five-knot zone along Milford and Takapuna Beaches on Auckland’s North Shore. I was sharing the water with paddle boarders and swimmers, but the fish were still biting, resulting in a dozen or more fat snapper in a couple of hours paddling one day – and a similar number on a subsequent occasion. Except for a 4kg surprise off Castor Bay, they weren’t especially big, but were tricky to boat in the shallow, reefy territory.
Swim-baits come in many sizes. I’ve had the most consistent success with 5-10cm long versions, which unsurprisingly is the size range that works best with soft-plastics, too. I’m sure the bigger models work too, and probably take bigger snapper, but there aren’t too many 20-pounders in my local waters.
The key to fishing swim-baits is to select one that runs at the right depth for the water you’re fishing. It should get close to the bottom without hanging up too often. I like to troll quite shallow bays and around headlands, so use shallow-diving baits that swim around two or three metres below the surface. I prefer floating swim-baits, because it’s possible to slow down or stop your vessel if it suddenly gets shallow, allowing the lure to float up to the surface so you can retrieve it slowly without snagging.
When fishing over a sandy bottom, I’ll sometimes use a deepswimming lure, enabling me to fish effectively in deeper water – as much as 10 metres in some cases. A downrigger would reach even deeper, but I have yet to try one from my kayak.
Sandy bays with shellfish or worm beds (Stanmore Bay and other sandy bays on the northern side of Whangaparaoa Peninsula, including Orewa Beach, are good examples) can produce some great autumn fishing when lures are trolled in early mornings and evenings.
Every swim-bait has an optimum speed where it swims best. So before letting it out behind the boat, swim it beside the boat to see how it behaves, and adjust your speed until it’s working just right.
Of course you can cast and retrieve swim-baits, too, especially as casting offers more options than when trolling. Also, you can alter the retrieve speed to change the lure’s action, adjust its swimming depth, or impart extra action with the rod. Sinking swim-baits can be ‘counted down’ so they swim at a known depth, while floating versions can be swum over obstacles by halting the retrieve and letting them rise. Once up out of danger, they can be gentled over the shallow section before speeding up the rate of retrieve to make them dive deep again.
Like blades, the biggest drawbacks with most swim-baits are their hooks and rings. Most are designed for the American freshwater market and not up to saltwater use. With the exception of a few expensive Japanese swim-baits, you’ll need to replace the hardware on the majority of off-the-shelf lures in the 5-10cm range. But again, don’t get too carried away: fitting oversized hooks will kill a lure’s action, rendering it virtually useless.
Small- to medium-sized sinking stick-baits are another hardbodied lure I’ve had success with. I particularly like the Little Jacks I buy from Go Fish in Northcote, Auckland (also available from their website). I think these work so well because of their 10cm-long size; I’ve had less success on larger stick-baits – perhaps they’re too big to appeal to the usual run of 1.5-3kg snapper that seem to love the Little Jacks?
I fish sinking stick-baits as much as I do soft-plastics, enjoying my best results in relatively shallow water. I usually make long casts towards areas of cover, letting them sink close to the bottom (a bit of guesswork required here to avoid hanging up on rock and kelp) on a tight line, watching for any sign of a take during descent. Just like soft-baits, stick-baits are often taken as they fall through the water column. I then start to work the lure back to the boat, twitching and/or slow rolling it while varying the rate of retrieve. Most importantly, I regularly pause the retrieve to allow the lure to sink again. Most bites occur just after I’ve paused.
Using this technique I can explore the gutters and holes amongst shallow, reef-strewn bays and rocky points. It works almost as well as soft-baiting, though I’ve spent nowhere near as long perfecting my skills in this area as I did while learning to soft-bait, so there’s plenty of scope for improvement.
The other scenario where small stick-baits work exceeding well is when snapper and other species are feeding in work-ups. The larger size of stick-bait often results in better-than-average snapper, and you’ll hook plenty of kingfish too – though kahawai can be a nuisance at times.
Highly effective on snapper, saltwater fly fishing is an alternative lure-fishing technique that demands more space than is available here, so may well be the subject of a future article...
This article is reproduced with permission of