A large proportion of budding snapper fishermen begin their ‘careers’ fishing off the rocks — and a good number of them carry on doing so for the rest of their lives! And why not? Rocky territory often provides the food and shelter necessary for attracting and holding snapper, and you don’t need to fork out big bucks for a boat and trailer to catch them.
Getting Prepared - rod selection
Selecting suitable rods and reels for rock fishing needs to be carefully considered. Although any reasonably long rod (two metres and over) can be combined with a casting reel to get you started, more specialised gear is needed to consistently and safely do well.
Most rock fishermen use fishing rods that are between 2.3 and 3.5 metres in length. This allows them to make quite long casts if necessary and when the angler strikes, the rod-length takes the slack and stretch out of the line for improved hook-up rates. The other major advantage of long rods is increased safety: longer rods allow the angler to stand well back, away from potentially wet or dangerous swells, and yet still keep the line clear of the rocks and weed.
Although very long rods (14- to 16-feet) can be useful for clearing obstacles, they can make controlling large fish difficult, as the fish uses the long rod as a crow bar against the angler. Rods of around 2.5 to 3 metres in length are best suited to rock use in most instances.
However, suitable rod length means little if the rod cannot handle the line weight used. Ideally, functional rock-rods should be capable of utilising line weights of 10 to 15kg. This allows the angler to exert plenty of pressure on the fish and to have sufficient line thickness to give a little added insurance against abrasion breakage.
Other factors to consider include the rod-butt length, the thickness of the rod blank walls and the construction of the guides. Because we’re dealing with fish that are attracted to the rocks we’re standing on, a long casting-type butt is not necessary — in fact, overly long casts can mean that the bait ends up beyond the fish we want. Instead, try to use a rod with a shorter butt that comfortably slots into a rod bucket and which allows good reel-winding co-ordination. The ability to exert telling pressure on a fish is more important than casting 100 metres.
If rock fishing is to be a common occurrence, make sure that your rod blank and guides are up to it. No matter how well you try to look after them, rods get knocked around on the rocks. Damage often results. Obviously, rods with thick-walled blanks will withstand this punishment far better than rods with thin walls. If unsure of the rod’s status, the retail price often gives a good indication of wall thickness, but otherwise check the ‘male’ part of the rod’s ferrule if it is two- or three-piece. It should be at least 1- to 2-mm thick, although some are 3- or 4-mm!
Rods made from pure graphite can be a liability on the rocks. Although graphite is an extremely powerful material and wonderful to use, it is more prone to fracturing than fibreglass. A mixture of the two materials, however, remains a good compromise option.
Guide damage can be kept to a minimum by using ‘Perfection’-type guides (hard-chrome coated heavy-duty metal), or by ensuring that types fitted with inserts have a plastic shock ring surrounding them, as this makes them less likely to crack or shatter.
Winding nylon over a damaged insert while it is under pressure will usually badly abrade or cut the line. If there are slivers of nylon hanging off your line or guides, or you are experiencing unexplained cut-offs, check your guides (and keep in mind that even harmless looking hairline cracks can cause severe line damage).
Getting Prepared - reel selection
The reel can be either a threadline or a freespool, as long as it is capable of casting a reasonable distance and will hold a practical amount (250 metres-plus) of the desired breaking strain of line. (The merits and disadvantages of different types of reels are discussed later in the piece, when they have a bearing on how one fishing style.)
Whatever the reel, keep it filled with nylon. The nature of rock fishing means that a lot of line can be lost for various reasons throughout the day, and you need to have enough left on the spool for when the ‘Big One’ comes along.
Upon reaching your rocky destination, the first move is to deposit all equipment well above the high water mark, even if the sea looks very calm (some large boat wakes have proved very costly in the past).
The second priority is to deploy the berley. Frozen and long-life berley make this a relatively straightforward task these days, but make sure that the mesh bag used is properly secured by a sturdy cord. You don’t want it to get washed away in the first couple of minutes after carrying it all the way out there — that defeats the purpose and it’s not very good for the environment.
Most rocky areas suit the use of unweighted or lightly weighted baits. The rig should include a short but tough 24- to 37-kg nylon trace around 15-cm long, as some of our friendly reef dwellers are big with powerful grinding teeth.
Depending on your knot skills, the trace is joined to the mainline with either an Albright/No-Name knot or a swivel. Any small sinker(s) used should slide on the heavy trace immediately above the hook(s). Just which size of hooks and types of bait you employ may depend on what size of fish you’re likely to catch from the spot fished, but baits that suit 5/0 to 10/0 hooks are usual.
Set your reel’s drag before starting to fish. The last thing you want to do is reset the pressure after the strike. Not only is it probably too late already, but you will be setting a tension that in all likelihood is wrong. Too much pressure and the line can break; too little and the hook may not set firmly — or the fish may reach some weed or reef. Again — set your drag carefully before you start fishing!
The ‘correct’ drag pressure is a somewhat subjective thing. If you are confident that your line is in good shape, your knots perfect and terminal tackle is strong, it is possible to set a lot of tension — more than is commonly advocated. Although the usual ‘quarter to a third of the line’s breaking strain (b/s)’ is a sensible and safe setting for most anglers, snapper do not actually run so fast and long that water pressure need be taken into account. Therefore, depending on the circumstances, competent fishers can set their drag at half the line’s b/s — or even more.
If in doubt, and there are no scales around, simply rig up as normal and get a mate to run some line off the rod tip for you. An abrupt ‘snap’ of the line will indicate too much drag, while a barely bending rod may indicate too little.
Where to cast
Next, look at the area in front of you. Are there some small clearings amongst the weed and rocks where your baits will easily be seen and are less likely to snag-up? Is there an obvious drop-off into deeper water within casting distance? Is there a nearby reef coming out of relatively deep water with mussels and foam around it? Or is there a deep channel or gutter in the vicinity? All these structures need thorough investigation. Otherwise, just explore the whole area around your possie, making sure to vary the casting distance occasionally.
What to do next
It is in your best interest to hold your outfit whenever possible. Leaving a rod, reel and bait to look after itself in active seas is asking for trouble. This is because baited hooks that resist the surge and ebb of weed strands are easily snagged, so anglers need to try and ‘move with the flow’. This may be achieved by simply moving the outfit back and forth as wave pressure (or lack of it) dictates; or when bigger, more powerful swells are present, it may mean having to release some line from the reel’s spool and then retrieve it back again when possible.
The trick to this type of fishing is not to allow the line so much slack that it can tangle around the weed and rocks, but also not hold or retrieve it in a manner that makes it conflict with the weed and current movement.
As a basic guide, look at the length of line between the rod tip and the water. Perfect contact means that it should have a slight belly along its length; if it’s taut, let line out; if it’s slack and saggy, wind some line in.
Sometimes you will find that by doing this, it is possible (and advisable) to slowly retrieve the bait so that it slips and slides through the reef and weeds, gently carried along by the incoming tide. After each slither, let it sit there for a bit, but if the line gets too slack you’ll need to continue retrieving.
This technique is called ‘walking the bait’ and it is especially good for fishing over light to moderate foul. The reason this works so well is that the moving bait attracts attention and often stimulates predatory instincts. It also serves to reposition the bait regularly so that it moves in and out of good and bad places. Instead of the fish having to seek out the bait, the bait often finds the fish.
Although this technique often involves a fair amount of snagging up, generally snags are only temporary. Whenever the bait comes to a solid halt, it’s important not to strike hard or try and pull it out. Instead, give it a little slack and wait several minutes so that the line can wash around a bit. The swirling weeds tend to create different angles of pull, often allowing the bait to come unstuck. It’s also amazing how often some sort of fish will find the bait while you’re waiting, ‘biting’ it out of the snag for you. What a great bonus: not only is your terminal tackle still on the end, but a good fish as well!
Large snapper generally don’t get to be big by being silly. Consequently, they may bite and push the bite around a little before making up their mind whether to take it or not. On the other hand, they may simply steam off with it at high speed!
In all cases, your chance of a successful hook-up is greater if you minimise the many things that can indicate to snapper that something is wrong and cause them to drop the bait. These include: the pressure and/or vibrations of the clicker’s ratchet; the tension of even a lightly-set drag; the sudden ‘clunk’ of the bail-arm as a standard spinning reel is wound into gear; or the desperate thumbing pressure caused by trying to control fast runs on freespool reels.
Some remedies to the above are:
1. Holding the outfit with the reel in ‘free-spool’ or, if a spinning reel, with the bail arm open and the line held lightly between the thumb and forefinger
2. Manually flipping the bail-arm over so that the sudden ‘clunk’ is avoided.
3. Using freespool reels with light spool weights (remember to include the weight of the line), as this makes them easier to control.
Some of the above explains why I like to use overhead reels for this type of fishing. For a start, they can be left out of gear so that when the tide pulls, one simply allows line to pull off the spool under light thumb pressure. Then, when the line slackens, the angler’s forefingers can flick the spool the opposite way so as to retrieve the excess line.
Despite a personal inclination towards freespool reels, there are some occasions when spinning reels can be more effective. They work particularly well when the surges are not too big (so the angler does not have to constantly engage and disengage the reel to adjust the line) or when casting into a headwind.
By holding the line lightly between the fingers with the bail arm open, the angler is able to let snapper do whatever they want with the bait without making them suspicious. The hardest thing about using a spinning reel is striking when a fish is running off with the bait. Assuming that you have done your drag-setting preparation correctly, engage the reel and wait for some tension to be felt. If you strike before this moment, you will likely remove the line’s belly and not much else. This is because standard spinning reels spill more slack line into the water when fish run off with the bait, although ‘baitrunner’-type reels are an exception — and I guess this is a good time to discuss this style of reel.
Baitrunner-style spinning reels have certainly revolutionised this type of fishing for many anglers, but they still leave me in two minds. On one hand, I do like the concept: it’s great to have the two sets of tension controls — one for the ‘bite’ pressure and one for the ‘strike and run’ pressure. I also like the fact that to change from one to the other requires just a wind of the handle or a flick of the ‘feeder control. A third advantage is the way the line is pulled from the reel. Because it’s released under a small amount of ‘bite’ drag, there’s no slack and the line maintains more direct contact with the bait (and the running fish, unlike conventional spinning reels where line leaves the spool in big loops. As a result, the weight of the fish comes on more quickly and strikes can be made earlier. On the other hand, the pre-set ‘bite’ pressure may still prove enough to alert the fish to danger, leading to it dropping the bait. It is therefore in the angler’s interest to always set the ‘bite’ drag at the lightest tension possible — light enough to allow the fish to run off quickly, but tight enough to prevent line overrunning the spool. To get correct ‘bite’ pressure, simply simulate snapper runs until the line peels off easily without overrunning afterwards.
Lesser disadvantages include:
1. Baitfeeders make it easy for anglers to pull line from the reel without opening the bail-arm, increasing line twist, and
2. Baitfeeders sometimes fool anglers into striking without engaging the reel first. A rather silly thing to do, but still very common.
When you get a bite, it may sometimes be hard to distinguish the run from surging swell moving the line around, especially in the early stages of learning rock fishing or if the swells are big. An easy way to determine real bites is to see if your line is moving in a different direction to the swell. If the swell’s coming in and your line’s steaming out, you’d better strike!
More often, interest starts as bites and these can often be tentative. Striking in these early stages is a lottery, so you really want more commitment. To do this, slowly pull back on the rod tip — no more than six inches. Watch the rod tip. Often it will bang and thump as the fish grabs the bait again, aroused by the sign of life and concerned that dinner is trying to get away. If you feel nothing, wind in the slack line and repeat the gentle draw back. Be prepared to react at any time — generally by allowing your rod back in front of you and held well out in response to the weight of a snapper moving off steadily with the bait. Strike. Hopefully, the fish is now firmly hooked. You should try to keep the pressure on at all times as tight lines are harder to wrap around clumps of weed. Also, try to minimise the amount of line out. Every bit of line movement can mean disaster — both when the fish pulls line off the reel against the drag, and when you wind line back under pressure. Any abrasion on rock or weed could be enough to snap a moving line. Therefore, keep things as tight as you dare and use as much muscle as the gear will take. The only time you may wish to ease right off is if the line is obviously rubbing on rock or reef. I personally don’t, but as this strategy works well with kingfish, it could well be worth trying.
Once the fish is on the surface nearby, either use the swells to slide it onto the rocks, or a long handled gaff (you have got one, right?) to gaff the fish in the upper body or lips — depending on whether it is to released or kept.
Catching snapper on softbaits starts with having the right gear. Experienced softbait angler, Mark Kitteridge shares his preferences on everything you'll need to get underway.... Read More >