Halcyon days. That’s how I think of those weeks and months during spring and summer when harbour channels, worm beds and extensive areas of sandy flats in 10-30m of water hold plenty of hungry school snapper.
It’s all about sex
The fishing often kicks off in late September as snapper move inshore, eventually gathering in large schools when the water temperature approaches 18°C. The males arrive first, followed a few weeks later by females. They’re getting ready for the first spawning event of the season, which in most years occurs some time in December, but may happen earlier or later depending on the water temperature.
Millions of fish in breeding condition school up in large sheltered bays like the Hauraki Gulf and Bay of Islands, usually over sand in 25-45m of water. They start out deeper, moving into shallower water as spawning gains momentum.
Huge aggregations of fish, often spread out in smaller groups over a wide area, can be found in much the same places every year. And once the schools are located, fishing can be fast and furious.
While sex is first priority, snapper need to feed in between times, so they choose spawning grounds with plentiful food nearby. Worm beds, patches of reef, or concentrations of school fish like anchovy, pilchard and jack mackerel all provide snapper with sustenance. Large schools of baitfish tend to gather in the same areas where snapper spawn, perhaps feeding on the eggs or else spawning themselves. Diving gannets and other seabirds can be a good indication of snapper activity below.
Find a spawning aggregation and you’re almost guaranteed to catch fish, whether on natural or artificial baits. Soft baits are dynamite in such situations and there’s so much competition between individual fish, pretty much any pattern or presentation will work. However, properly weighted and presented soft baits invariably catch the most and best quality fish, regardless of the fishing scenario.
Later in the season, usually mid to late December in the Gulf, snapper disperse more widely, moving into the channels and shallower sandy areas between the reefs and islands to regain condition between spawning events. Snapper are serial spawners, breeding several times during a summer season if conditions are favourable. These fish are always hungry and their concentration means plenty of competition for food, which adds up to fish that are easy to catch.
Softbaits really come into their own targeting hungry fish in moderately deep water. They’re great for seeking out schooling fish, and they’ll also take individual fish feeding over worms beds and reefs.
As always, adjust weight and lure size to accommodate water depth, current and drift speed. During summer and autumn when you may be fishing channels or shallower sandy flats, you can get away with less weight, especially when using jigheads.
Use your sounder
A good-quality fishfinder is a real bonus when seeking out schooling snapper. Because they gather in same general areas each year, it’s relatively easy to use the sounder to locate groups of fish. Snapper are not the easiest of fish to sound, returning relatively weak echoes, so even inconspicuous marks are worth fishing, especially if they’re close to the bottom. The zoom function on the sounder is particularly useful for distinguishing fish holding near the bottom. It can also pay to switch the sounder from automatic to manual mode, adjusting the unit’s sensitivity, but not so high that the display becomes cluttered with noise. Keep an eye out for the obvious signs such as work-ups.
Mid-water marks are more often baitfish, which themselves are worth fishing to, since snapper and other predators are never far away. Sometimes, mid-water marks will be the target species, either feeding on bait or more often engaged in spawning activity. Occasionally you can luck onto huge mid-water schools that black out the sounder. Toss any sort of soft bait into the melee and you’re guaranteed a hook-up.
Every sounder is different, so it pays to learn to interpret the one you use. After a while you’ll begin to understand what it’s telling you and fishing success should follow. However, many less powerful or poorly installed units fitted to recreational craft struggle to mark fish in 30 or 40 metres, let alone in deeper water. Don’t be despondent if you don’t see fish on the bottom at these depths: if you’re in the right area and the signs are right (birds, other boats etc.), fish anyway – you may be pleasantly surprised.
Casting, dropping and dragging
Fishing to snapper in moderately deep water over generally clean bottoms lends itself to all sorts of soft bait presentations. Alternative rigs are popular and effective, including those incorporating worm or circle hooks, sinkers and various proprietary weight and hook combinations, which may or may not feature bright colours and luminous paint. Many anglers prefer to drag their soft baits behind the drifting boat when they’re fishing over the sand, and most sinker rigs are well suited to this style of soft bait fishing.
I’m a fan of drop-shot ledger-style rigs when drift-fishing in these conditions, often leaving one such outfit in the rodholder to do its own thing courtesy of the rocking boat while I actively fish a second outfit rigged differently. That said, a drop-shot rig fished rod in hand with plenty of short, stabbing jerks, slow lifts and free-fall drops works much better than leaving the same outfit to its own devices. It’s a nice, active form of fishing, too.
Overhead outfits are well suited to drop-shot and sinker-rigged soft baits, especially sinker rigs, since baitcasters or compact conventional overhead reels allow easy, controlled drop-back. Bites, which often occur as the bait-sinker combo is being dropped back, are easier to feel and respond to with an overhead outfit.
Don’t dismiss jigheads
I still prefer to fish a jighead and bait combination on the rod I’m holding, casting ahead of the drifting boat wherever possible and watching the lure’s descent like a hawk, alert for any hesitation or movement in the line.
Brightly coloured superbraid, like Berkley’s excellent Fireline range, is a big advantage due to its visibility. It’s much easier to monitor bright-pink or green braid than a darker coloured line.
The reason I prefer a jighead and soft bait combo for my ‘active’ rig is that so many of the takes come in mid-water, especially when snapper are in spawning mode. It’s been my experience that a jighead is the best way to target fish in mid-water, and often there’s no need to fish too heavy a jig either, since many takes are well off the bottom. Snapper intercept the soft bait as it falls, sometimes just seconds after it has splashed into the water ahead of the boat. Spinning or overhead rigs are equally useful in such situations, though a spinning outfit works better with lighter jighead weights.
If the jighead finds its way to the bottom unmolested, a few lifts and drops as the boat passes over the lure is often all that’s needed to induce a take. The jighead can continue fishing once the boat’s drifted past the lure, by dragging, twitching, lifting and dropping, but I prefer to pick it up fairly smartly once the line angle begins to increase, since the greater the line angle, the more difficult it becomes to maintain contact with the bottom.
Incidentally, good fish often bite as the jighead is wound up off the bottom in preparation for another cast. This usually occurs within the first few turns of the reel handle, but it can occur anywhere in the water column, so be prepared.
Weight, size and colour
Some days any old colour seems to work; on others one colour or a couple of colours do the damage. Where bait fish are prevalent, I prefer natural ‘baitfish’ colours in greys, silvers and blues. Berkley Gulp has any number of jerkshad colour variations such as Smelt or Sapphire Shine to fit the bill.
Over spawning fish, or when drifting the worm beds and other relatively deep areas with no obvious baitfish activity, I prefer brightly coloured lures like Chartreuse or Chartreuse Pepper Neon Glow. Lumo works well too, especially at change of light, and old favourites like Pink Shine, Lime Tiger and Nuclear Chicken can never be discounted.
Of course, fishing the right amount of weight for the conditions is important; you should be able to reach the bottom, even if it takes a while. Wind and sea conditions influence drift speed and have a bearing on how much weight is required, but 5/8 of an ounce is often sufficient and sometimes you can get away with half an ounce or less. Luminous or coloured jigheads may offer an advantage in certain conditions, but plain ‘lead-coloured’ heads seem to work fine most of the time.
If jerk shads are the bait of choice, a lightweight head is an advantage, though larger baits will require a heavier lead-head to get down and also to induce some action in the bait as it drops – most bites occur as the lure is falling. Again, many anglers swear by the effectiveness of larger seven-inch jerkshads, and they certainly work, but five-inch models work just fine, too, and require less weight to fish properly.
Nor have I noticed any meaningful correlation between fish size and softbait size, at least where snapper are concerned, although natural feed size probably influences the attractiveness or otherwise of large/small softbaits.
Whilst fishing amongst patches of presumably spawning snapper, I have hooked large jack mackerel on five-inch jerkshads, only to have the jacks crushed and mangled in mid-water by XOS reds. Usually all I get back is a mackerel head or a crushed body full of snapper tooth-marks. Changing to a large softbait may well target these big fish better than continuing to use a five-inch jerkshad.
Heavyweight heads and ‘down trous’
T-tail, shads and grub-style lures definitely work better with heavier heads, since the weight of the head ensures that these lures fall fast enough to get their mobile tails wiggling enticingly. The vibrations emitted by the moving tail may also contribute to the fish-catching abilities of lures of this type. Some anglers rig relatively large T-tail soft plastics on two to four-ounce sinker rigs and fish them vertically, almost like a metal jig. The rig is allowed to plummet to the bottom, the lure’s tail wigging madly as it falls, before being steadily retrieved partway through the water column, and then allowed to drop to the bottom again. The procedure is repeated until there’s a hook-up or the line angle becomes too great and the lure needs to be retrieved.
One of the disadvantages of this rig, and indeed most worm hook rigs, is that fish regularly pull the soft baits partially or completely off the hook. A bait that’s not properly rigged doesn’t catch fish. To combat this, some anglers resort to devices such as dental floss, cable ties or copper wire to secure the ‘head’ end of the bait securely to the eye of the hook. While solving the ‘down trou’ problem, such rigs are fiddly to tie. Instead, I often use hooks with collars, like Berkely’s range of strong weighted hooks, even though they’re not ‘worm’ patterns. The weight seems to make little difference (I still fish them with a sinker), and baits stay on well.
Another alternative to worm hooks is to use circle hooks, preferably without an offset (unkirbed). You may still need to secure the bait to the hook with wire or a cable tie and they’re trickier to rig baits on so that they lie straight, but the hook-up ratio is excellent and they can be a good option for an outfit fished from the rodholder. Really large soft baits can be fished with double-hook rigs, including double circles. Two hooks improve the hook-up rate and allow the use of relatively small hooks in big baits. Tie up traces just as you would for a two-hook strayline rig, the top hook snooded and the terminal hook attached with a uni-knot.
Another rigging technique for big soft plastics is to use a jigging assist hook. The length of superbraid or Kevlar cord allows the hook to be set well back in the bait for more consistent hook-ups, and assist hooks are strong enough to tackle the largest fish – which is not the case with some worm hooks I’ve tried.
Large soft baits come into their own fishing for kingfish, which often associate with the bait schools snapper also shadow.
Large softbaits rigged in a variety of ways and retrieved quickly through the water column will take big kingfish. Just make sure the big baits are fished on suitably up-scaled tackle.
Big softbaits are also good for XOS snapper, dragged behind the drifting boat and continuously worked, lifted and allowed to drop towards the bottom again.