I became obsessed with trying to catch big snapper between the ages of 13 to 17, spending most weekends and the occasional evening after school trying to find them and then land them.
I think that obsession was born from failure because, on looking back, they were five very lean years of fishing! I don’t recall catching a single ‘twenty’, but do remember many fishless days and a few bust-offs, lots of good times, but generally inconsistent results.
A resounding lesson taken from all that youthful time on the water is that there is more to be learned from a bad day’s fishing than a good one.
I am lucky in that I was brought up in a fishing family, with the water acting as our extended backyard. Consequently, it’s not surprising my brother Nick is as keen as I am – and because we’re bros and speak the same language, effectively it’s like doubling the time ‘out there doing it’.
Time on the water has taught us a few things about snapper – particularly big snapper – that we now carry with us on every fishing trip. Once properly understood, they have greatly improved our chances of catching big snapper consistently over every month of the year. These understandings are not related to bite times, tidal ranges or moon phases, but rather to the migratory movements of fish.
We have discovered snapper are a species that moves a lot, not just in spring, but throughout the year. For example, they don’t simply spawn in the harbours then spend the rest of the year in shallow, rocky water close to the shore. They are always moving, from deep water to shallow, as well as travelling up and down the coast. This movement can possibly cover kilometres in a day.
We have found the key to consistently catching big snapper is understanding their migratory movements. The best way to do this is by spending time on the water and keeping a fishing diary. If you don’t tick these boxes – and many of us have neither the time to fish a lot nor the inclination to keep a fishing diary – then the next best thing is to extend your fishing range.
For us, a typical serious day of snapper fishing begins in the dark and ends in the dark. It involves fresh bait, lots of berley, a good sounder and quality rods, reels, line etc. Just as importantly, it involves a boat with the range to cover 30-100 kilometres of ocean in a day, so we have a decent shot at finding the biggest concentration of snapper in as much as 40 kilometres of coastline.
Fast-forward 25 years to Sunday, October 23, 2016 – Labour Weekend. Somewhere north of Whangaroa, my brother Nick, my son Shine, and I were out on the water shortly after sunrise, quietly zigging and zagging along at three knots, eyes glued to the fish-finder. We were trying to turn all those valuable lessons into valuable results.
Early in the morning we lowered the anchor in amongst a gaggle of boats over low, undulating foul showing scattered fish sign. Fresh, bleeding mackerel baits, handfuls of cubed pilchards, as well as whole ones armed with two embedded hooks, were soon tossed astern to drift quietly down through the water column.
Over the following hour, only one small snapper was hooked and released, but then, without warning, Shine hooked up on a ledger rig suspended directly under the noisy aluminium hull. After a few torrid minutes, with lots of bumping and thumping involved, the hooks pulled from an obviously large fish.
And that was it. An hour later, with no other bites and more noisy boat traffic, we retrieved the anchor and resumed the search.
A kilometre later saw us anchored over more promising sign, but the same cold, green water flowed astern, so we weren’t really surprised when, upon expending a similar effort, bites were again not forthcoming. The call was made to up-anchor and continue looking.
In the distant past, when plans ‘A’ and ‘B’ had failed, plan ‘C’ would usually become a do-or-die, sit-it-out-at-all-costs effort. Now, we just keep hunting. Very rarely have we had the best fishing on the first or even second anchor drop of the day. In this respect, searching for snapper is not a lot different to hunting animals on the land: you cover the miles and use the tools at your disposal to locate your quarry, whether these are hunting dogs, binoculars or fish-finders. So we were happy to point the boat away from the crowds of anglers, lift onto the plane, and motor for the horizon.
Thirty minutes later we slowed down and began to quietly and thoroughly search an extended area of foul ground in 40-50 metres of water. At first the seabed looked barren, but as we closed in on a small rock off to the side, it began to come alive. Hanging off all sides of the rock were ‘eyebrows’, clustered in small groups, up to 300 metres out onto the sand. On the top of the pin itself were fiery balls of baitfish, but tucked to the sides were more lines that suggested bigger fish.
Quietly lowering the anchor into the same cold, green water – but with 15 kilometres of ocean separating us from the first spots – we were optimistic that things could only improve.
However, the anticipation of first casts was not rewarded until handfuls of pilchard cubes were fired astern and a fresh salmon berley was lowered over the side.
Nick hooked up almost immediately, and resulted in a fat, pink snapper with a rosy flush to its cheeks being returned. It was the right ‘type’ of snapper though, and when Shine’s rod and then mine loaded up, we knew we had found some fish.
The snapper bite kicked off very quickly, with whole doublehooked pilchards and fresh, bleeding mackerel stray-lined baits being hammered long before they reached the bottom. It was a lot of fun, and in between playing fish I tried to catch a little of the action on my phone’s video camera.
Nick and Shine brought a steady stream of fish to the boat – perfect, hard-fighting snapper that were recklessly hungry. We kept some for eating and released the rest, including two fish of nine and 10 kilos.
A little trick that Nick has carried over from his charter-fishing days involves using ledger rigs for big fish. Contrary to the popular belief that the big snapper hang well back away from the boat, we find some monstrous fish can be hooked directly under a noisy aluminium hull in areas of low tidal flow. These big fish are right there, hoovering up any scraps that fall directly to the seafloor.
For me, though, ‘if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it’, so with strayline outfits screaming off in all directions, I was in no hurry to change techniques. However, Shine loves his ledgers, so quietly lowered one to the seafloor with two butterflied mackerel baits.
I glanced over to see his rod loaded up, but paid little heed as he settled in to fight his fish. A few minutes later Nick drew my attention to the boy still silently battling away in the corner of the boat’s cockpit and suggested I video him ‘just in case’.
Outside of family, friends, business, kids’ Saturday sport, and possibly pig and deer hunting, snapper fishing is ‘life’. When one pastime can consume you so completely for so long, it is a challenge not to take it too seriously. The drive, quite honestly, for me is the moment when the snapper of my dreams pops up from the ocean and is brought to the boat’s side.
In two decades, we have been lucky enough to see a lot of amazing sights, and catch and release a lot of incredible fish. In all that time, we have landed a lot of fish that we thought were ‘thirties’, but only one that ever certifiably weighed that much.
So, when Nick glanced over the side of Tusker and with a hint of excitement said, “Jono, look at this!” I didn’t expect the snapper I saw gliding into view. It looked huge, and remained that way even after Nick coolly netted it and lifted it into the boat.
Yeehaa! A giant goldfish, with perfect fins and teeth, lay gasping on the floor, a small hook hanging from the corner of its mouth. Celebrations and guesstimates followed, and then when both sets of boat scales settled on or around the 15kg mark, we decided it wasn’t going back.
Leaving the fish biting is a skill that improves with age, so when Nick suggested we leave, Shine – having just landed a snapper he will never beat – was in no position to protest! Rods were stowed, the boat scrubbed down, and the long haul back to civilisation began.
And that’s how another epic day on the water, chasing fish and having fun finished. (As a postscript, 30 hours later saw Shine’s snapper officially weighed at Whangaroa Gamefish Club – it pulled the scales down to 14.46kg – 31.92 old-fashioned pounds.)
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