Alistair Arkell has been a big promoter of lure fishing in recent years, but that’s not to say he’s forgotten about bait fishing. In fact, he believes anchoring up and getting your hands dirty is still the best way to target trophy snapper. He shares some of his tricks for catching big fish with good ol’ bait.
It may be messy, it may be old school, it may not be cool, but one thing you cannot deny is how effective it is. In recent years, 90% of my snapper fishing has converted to lure fishing – mainly soft-bait fishing – for its ease of use and the excitement factor of catching snapper in clean, clear and shallow water. However, for me, at least, bait fishing is still the most devastating way to catch big snapper. It’s is a tried and true method and once you have mastered the art, it very rarely fails to deliver a feed of fish and occasionally that elusive trophy.
My setups for bait fishing are pretty simple. I run an 8kg overhead reel on a 7’ 10-15kg rod for drifting whole baits like jack mackerel or pilchards down the berley trail, and my big set is a Penn Live Liner 6500 spooled with 10kg mono on a 15kg rod. Going up a line weight gives you that extra lift and setting power required to set baits and turn a big snapper’s head.
Whole jack mackerel is a good big bait option. When rigged nose first, they present in a natural way.
Mono: There are lots of monofilaments on the market; some are quite average, and some are of excellent quality. Your best option is visiting your local tackle store and asking for some advice on what the best monos are. The only hint I’ll give you here is that thin diameter monos are not a good option when it comes to fishing big baits. Another tip is to always pull off a handful of metres when setting up for a big fish trip. Your line takes plenty of abuse and once it loses its sheen, it’s time strip some metres off and start fresh. The last thing you want is for the line to snap while connected to a brute of a snapper.
Reels: Lots of great options are available on the market. Look for a nice overhead drum reel that is comfortable in hand and can hold approx. 300 metres of 8kg mono with a smooth drag and decent retrieve ratio. You don’t need the most expensive reel on the market – just something reliable that ticks the above boxes.
Rods: There are some great combo options available now but take 20mins to look at different rod options so you get something you’re comfortable with. Remember, you’re fishing a big bait here, so a soft rod is not going to cut it when it comes to casting or hook setting. When it comes to stray line fishing, a stiffer rod with a fast action is what you want.
Hooks: This is an easy one. Buy quality 9/0 or 10/0 octopus-style hooks that are needle-sharp. Your local tackle store will be able to advise you on what options are available. There won’t be a shortage of choices.
Trace: For big baits, use 80lb fluoro or 100lb mono. I prefer fluoro as it is a thinner, stronger product; however, it’s not as supple or as easy to work with as mono. Why so heavy, you ask? Simple: snapper have big sharp teeth that will bite through anything less. I sometimes use 60lb fluoro, but on my last trip out, I was bitten through by a big snapper. I rarely get ‘reefed’, but this is a consequence of where I anchor rather than the strength of the fish.
Terminal gear: My terminal tackle only consists of swivels and the lightest sinker required to get my bait down in the current. ‘Less is best’ is the motto here, and if you can get away with no sinker, this is even better.
That wraps up gear requirements, and if you’re looking for some new kit, you can cover yourself with all of the above for anywhere between $500 and $1000 – if you buy quality, it will last you for years.
A double hook rig is used to give courage to a big bait.
The key ingredients are current, food source and foul ground – I like to look for an area that is 12-20 metres deep and has these three factors:
Current: I don’t want too much swift current; just enough for things to feel fishy.
Food source: Crayfish, shellfish, baitfish and kina are all preyed upon by big snapper, so these are what I look for.
Ground: When it comes to the foul ground, I wouldn’t say I like it too gnarly, but prefer an area with a mixture of bommies, sand, lots of kelp and the odd drop-off. The reason being is that once I hook a fish, I want to be able to land it and I don’t want to be continually snagging up and dumping half my gear into the reef.
There is an endless amount of this sort of terrain on the north-eastern coast of NZ. The best approach is to anchor just on the outside of the foul, so when you cast back, your baits are landing in the ‘bite-zone’. Remember, your berley will draw snapper out of the reef and onto your baits. By anchoring this way, you will get far fewer snags and bust offs.
One last very critical factor is the adage of tide and wind. Unless you are fishing out of a centre console, you must have the tide and wind running in the same direction, otherwise you are in for an uncomfortable session. Every area is different, and wind often wraps around islands, so you need to know your fishing area to understand how to achieve the right tide and wind combination.
My go to options are a whole side or fillet of a mullet; a blue koheru split in two; an entire jack mack or butterflied jack mackerel; or a trevally or sweep divided in half. Anything big and juicy that your fishing buddies think is too big to use is perfect. We don’t go big straight away; however, and always start the morning off using pilchards or strip baits to get ourselves into the mood. When the catching starts happening and the berley is actively working, then we begin to transfer over to big baits.
A butterflied jack mackerel is a great big snapper bait. The exposed gut releases lots of juices and oils.
The difficulty that most people run into with big baits is when to strike. How much time should you give it? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer here, as often situations are different, and it depends on how aggressively the fish are feeding. A good general rule for jack mackerel baits is to count for three seconds and then strike. Half a trevally? Perhaps give it four to five seconds before hitting them. It takes time and practice, but once you have that aspect figured out, it becomes second nature.
One great way to learn is to go on a charter boat that can offer you this type of experience; they have invaluable knowledge and are out there everyday learning. Ideally, get one in the area you want to fish, and they will help you understand your local patch.
Of course, the first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening is always a great time to fish. However, I have caught a lot of my big snapper during the daytime, and for me, tide runs are the most critical factor in determining your catch. You have a six-hour tide run, and you want baits in the water for a minimum of four hours of this run to achieve a good result. My favourite time to fish is the last two hours of the outgoing. Of course, every area is different and reacts differently to tide. Remember that you need tide and wind in the same direction. If you can time it so this occurs over the morning or evening period, you’re in the best possible situation. Unfortunately, this isn’t always practical so my best advice is fishing whole tide runs.
Fishing at night is a great way to catch big snapper. We have captured some monster fish at night-time. A buddy of mine caught a 12kg fish at around 11pm at the Mokes on a relatively slow evening’s fishing. We only got two fish that night: one 8kg red we released and the bigger 12kg fish that would not revive. It can be gratifying fishing at night if the conditions are right. Spring through to autumn with a warm light northerly wind blowing and flat seas are my favoured conditions for doing this. One thing you do need to watch out for is sharks. In some areas, tope will descend upon you in great numbers. It is more challenging and, of course, a little bit dangerous fishing at night, but the rewards are there if you put in the effort.
So, if you’ve been fishing lures regularly now for a long time but deep down you’re an old school fisherman, or you want to try something new and improve your skills, give bait a go. January and February are the perfect months to put away your lures and get back into some bait fishing!
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