Fishing the shallows is sometimes referred to as ‘wash’ fishing, because the interface between sea and shore is washed by waves and typified by white-water.
Wash fishing can involve fishing in the deep, green-blue water surging against the high cliffs of offshore islands and headlands, as well as fishing shallow reefs and rock gardens close inshore with lightly weighted soft baits. Either way, it’s exciting and highly productive.
Snapper in the shallows
Snapper occupy remarkably shallow areas during the day, provided there’s enough cover, as any diver can tell you. They hunt and feed along the edges of the wash, but also patrol rocky reefs, bays and coves where the water may be just a metre or two deep, using deeper channels and guts as highways between the productive shallows and the safety of deeper water.
Exposed wave-washed cliffs and reefs rising out of deep water are recognised hotspots, but extensive areas of broken, shallow ground are also good and may in fact hold more fish. Indeed, still water with no obvious wash, shallow coves, caves, guts and holes can also produce good fishing and such areas are often safer to fish than wilder stretches of exposed coastline.
It’s been my experience that the best shallow water snapper fishing occurs in spring and autumn. You can catch snapper year round in shallow water, especially if its relatively undisturbed, but most years there’s an influx of large fish in spring before spawning begins. Most of these fish leave again after a few short weeks, heading for deeper water to spawn, but while they’re resident on our inshore reefs, the fishing can be good.
Later in the year, a similar phenomenon occurs as snapper return inshore to feed up post-spawning. A proportion of these fish settle on the reefs, remaining all winter (or in the Hauraki Gulf, until caught).
During mid-summer, fishing close inshore is less productive, though still worth a shot early or late in the day. In winter, expect a lot of casts between bites, though the rewards can be worthwhile – winter fish can be large.
You will sometimes catch snapper in sandy bays, but the sort of shallow water fishing referred to in this article takes place amongst rocks and inshore reefs, boulder-strewn coves, caves, guts, crevices and holes.
Such shorelines are typical of much of the east coast of Northland, Coromandel, parts of the Hauraki Gulf and the Bay of Plenty. These coasts may be exposed to the waves and weather most of the time, but the sea needn’t be rough to fish them; you can have good inshore fishing even in calm, sunny conditions if you’re careful. Don’t ignore more sheltered areas either – snapper don’t want to be fighting waves and current all the time and often choose easier water.
Covering the ground
Shallow water fishing is all about stealth – and covering the territory. A quiet approach is essential, along with a little forethought. Take the time to sort out the direction and speed of your drift before you make a close approach and take care not to drive over areas you have yet to fish. Kayakers have a real advantage since their silent approach and low profile doesn’t alert fish to their presence.
Fishing the shallows is active. You need to cast constantly and stay in contact with your lure. It’s no place for lazy anglers and definitely not somewhere to practice ‘drop and drag’. If that’s your soft bait fishing style, forget the skinny water and wait for the easy summer fishing when snapper are over sand and in the harbour channels.
Cast ahead of the drifting boat. To the side is OK, too, but any time the lure swings behind the boat and drags, you risk snagging the bottom. You need to cover the terrain, casting to any water you think might hold fish. It’s like trout fishing – imagine where a fish might lie and place your lure there.
Bites often occur moments after the soft bait has splashed down and in the close quarters of the shallows it’s not unusual to see a snapper dash out from behind a rock to seize your bait.
For consistent success anglers need to be brave – and accurate. Cast right up into narrow guts and explore any deeper holes with your bait. Skip the lure over shallow reefs and allow it to drop down deeper faces. Bounce it off rocks to land it close to fringing kelp. All these high-risk tactics will pay off, though the price is paid in lost jigs.
At times it’s necessary to cover a lot of seemingly good-looking territory for little reward. Don’t waste time fishing the same area over and over. Any fish will have seen your bait the first time through – they’re either not interested or there were no fish there in the first place. Snapper may be widely spaced, especially in winter, but by prospecting the better-looking water you will eventually come up trumps, and individual fish can be surprisingly large.
Using a drogue is advisable if conditions allow. However, when fishing ‘real’ wash conditions on an exposed shoreline, especially with an onshore wind, a drogue can be dangerous. You may need to motor the boat out of trouble in an instant, which is impossible dragging a drogue.
At times the only way to safely fish the shoreline is with the engine running and the helmsman at the wheel ready to motor the boat to safety if necessary. You lose the advantage of silence, but engine noise is less of an issue with swells crashing against the shore.
As usual with soft bait fishing, choosing the right jig head makes all the difference to an angler’s success – and enjoyment. Get it wrong and you’ll spend all day tying new traces or watching your mate catch fish.
It’s a fine line between working the lure in amongst the rocks and kelp and snagging up. Choosing the right weight for the situation is critical. Anglers often choose a jig head that’s too heavy. In shallow water a quarter-ounce (7g) is usually ample. At times, lighter is better.
Occasionally, perhaps in really turbulent water where it’s difficult to stay in touch with the lure, you’ll need to go heavier, but be prepared to change jig head weights regularly.
Bear in mind, too, that different lure/bait styles affect sink rates. Large, bulky tails slow the sink rate; small, slim tails sink more quickly. Pogies, grub tails and worms swim well, even when very lightly weighted, while big seven-inch (17cm) tails need more weight – unless you’re trying to slow the sink rate, in which case they can be fished with very light weights.
Other factors that effect sink rate include the weight/thickness of the trace used and the diameter of the line. A bit of thickness can be an advantage amongst the rocks and kelp, but in clear conditions you may have no option but to go light in order to get bites. Soft baits always work better fished on light line and light traces, regardless of the depth of water.
Obviously retrieve speed is important. Snapper prefer a slowly worked soft-bait – the biggest mistakes novice soft-bait anglers make is retrieving the lure too quickly or working it too vigorously – but in shallow water you need to work the lure fairly fast to keep it clear of the bottom.
But not too fast – if you have to retrieve quickly to prevent snagging up, the jig head is too heavy. Change to a lighter jig and work the lure more slowly.
Going to a smaller hook size can also reduce snags in shallow water. Lightweight jigheads tend to be built on smaller hooks anyway, but I’ll often go as small as 1/0 provided the hooks are good quality. Nitros are reliable, but you will occasionally bend a 1/0 in close-quarters, shallow water battles, especially if you fish heavier tackle.
It’s quite possible to catch good snapper in a metre or two of water. The usual tactic is to fish extremely lightweight jigheads or even unweighted baits. Berkley produce a range of strong, weighted hooks that are ideal for shallow water fishing.
In really kelpy foul, fishing weedless baits can be an advantage. You can fish any jighead, conventional hook, weighted hook or worm hook weedless simply by covering the hook point with the soft bait. When a fish bites down on the bait, the hook point punches through the plastic.
When rigging the bait, pass the hook point through the front of the lure at an angle, push the lure body over the collar, spin the bait around and bury the hook point in the lure body. The bend of the hook may stick out of the lure but the point will be covered and the lure should lie straight so that its action is unaffected.
The choice of bait for shallow water fishing poses many interesting questions. What works one day may not necessarily work the next, though I’m convinced colour/size/pattern is less important than placement. In the rough and tumble of the wash or in shallow water where a fish’s window of vision is limited by rocks, weed and sky, it must react quickly. Snapper tend to bite first and ask questions later.
Worms rigged weedless and fished slowly can be particularly effective, but the ubiquitous five-inch jerkshad is hard to beat. I like mobile baits because the light jig heads used have less influence on the lure’s action. The tails should be supple enough to move even when a lightly weighted bait is sinking.
At times a larger lure works well. Selecting a larger pattern can lessen the number of snags and may allow the angler to fish the bait more slowly. Where big fish are common, using a large bait is a good choice.
Most of the time I prefer natural colours, but on some days bright fluoro shades work better than anything else – perhaps they attract the attention of fish from further away. Luminescent lures are a good choice early or late in the day, or whenever light levels are low, though they work best in deep water.
Lure colours/patterns are as much about attracting fishermen as fish. However, it’s possible fish get wise to particular styles/colours and a change can be what’s needed to induce a bite. It can’t hurt to have a few ‘new’ colours in your armoury, and it always pays to experiment with lure styles and colours until you start catching. If you’re fishing with a mate, work together to find out what’s catching on the day.
A rod, reel and superline combination with the ability to cast accurately and consistently is vital. It’s tempting to beef up your gear for the inevitably brutal battles of the shallows, but not at the expense of casting ability or bite sensitivity.
The ability to horse fish out of cover is an advantage. But heavy tackle isn’t always practical because of the lightly weighted baits used. Bites can be extremely subtle, too – often just a ‘tick’ sensed, but not really felt through the rod – and easily missed with a heavy rod and line.
If you can’t cast lightly weighted soft baits into tight spots, you won’t get bites and if you can’t feel bites you won’t hook fish.
Line colour is important too. Watch the line for bites at all times and strike at any hesitation or movement. Brightly coloured lines like Fireline are much easier to see than plain or dark coloured lines.
Soft bait tackle is remarkably powerful, so even light 3-6kg outfits can exert plenty of pressure, especially if anglers have the confidence to fish them to the max. These lighter combos cast light lures well and are sensitive enough to feel subtle bites. There’s a lot of precision casting involved in this style of fishing, so lightweight tackle offers the necessary finesse and won’t tire the angler as quickly. However, it’s a trade-off – if you’re losing big fish in the shallows, you may simply have to trade up to a heavier rod and line and accept missing a few bites.
When you hook up in the shallows, you have to put the pressure on from the start. Snapper run straight for cover once hooked. Often it’s difficult to get a tight line and I’ve seen them broach in an attempt to get free. Fast, zig-zagging runs are a feature of the fight and even 1.5-2kg fish can break you off in an instant.
Try and keep hooked fish high in the water and change the rod angle to create side strain and disorient the fish. Screw your drag up as high as you are able and take back every centimetre of line offered. Playing the fish on a short line has a much greater chance of success than trying to land it on a long line.
It’s a good idea to follow a big fish with the boat, getting right above it if possible and safe.
Snags are a fact of life, especially when you hook big fish, but very often the situation can be saved with good boat work and patience.
Often you can un-snag the line, which may be wrapped around one or more rocks metres apart from one another. Motor slowly down the line with the boat and plunge the rod tip into the water where it wraps around a rock. It will often come free, though you may have to repeat the process more than once.