Houhora Trophy Snapper

The one thing about having a bucket list trip repeatedly postponed is that the level of anticipation rises commensurate with each adjournment, writes Grant Dixon.

Symptoms of ‘postponementitis’ include excessive references to the charter operator’s online presence along with weather and tide sites, a lack of sleep, and a dose of ‘tackle acquisition syndrome’ (TAS). The latter two go hand in hand where the angler lays awake at night thinking about the trip and what tackle they may need to purchase ‘just in case’. This becomes even more disturbing when a flight is involved, and the amount of gear is limited, forcing you to make some tough calls if not prepared to front up with the pingers for the excess baggage.

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Over the years, I have developed some immunity to postponementitis. It has been replaced with a ‘what will be, will be’ attitude. That was until John Donald of Catch Tackle invited me to join him to fish with the Far North’s fish whisperer Rob Parker out of Houhora.

The Far North's fish whisperer - Houhora Charters operator Rob Parker.

The Far North's fish whisperer - Houhora Charters operator Rob Parker.

A trip with Rob, a man who has a reputation as both a top-notch land-based fishing guide and charter skipper, had been on my domestic bucket list for many years. The bulk of my fishing these days is confined to chasing snapper, so someone with the reputation of putting clients onto big fish – himself a multiple Ninety Mile Beach surfcasting and Boat and Beach tournament winner – was always going to pique my interest.

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With the stars finally aligned, the anticipated big day out became a reality. John was loaded with every Catch lure on the market and then some. Armed with such an extensive arsenal, what could possibly go wrong – the fish didn’t stand a chance.

Meeting Rob at the Houhora ramp, it was an easy load courtesy of the club’s recent million-dollar wharf upgrade. The safety briefing done, we headed for the harbour entrance, the anticipation only heightened by the long stretch of five-knot speed restriction in place almost all the way to the open water.

Sticking close to the coastline to stay clear of the strong offshore westerly blowing, we cleared Henderson Bay and another 10 minutes up the coast, it was time to wet a lure. John’s side of the boat looked something like a porcupine, bristling with a variety of offerings delivered on slow pitch jig and soft-bait tackle.

A relatively recent addition to John’s line-up has been a couple of ‘elevator style’ jigheads, the heavier ones designed to fish 10-inch Black Label ‘Livie’ tails.

Fishing these was not rocket science. The terminal tackle was spooled to the bottom and then wound up a metre or so to avoid snagging on the low foul we were fishing over. From here, the rod holder took over while John prepared to soft-bait ‘properly’, but not until he had run a ‘shotgun’ soft-bait on a lighter jighead trailing 20 metres or so out the back.

The anticipation is heightened thanks to what feels like an 'endless' five-knot Houhora harbour speed restriction.

The anticipation is heightened thanks to what feels like an 'endless' five-knot Houhora harbour speed restriction.

Rob is a fan of the shotgun, whether it be drifting lures or baits. He says he often picks up the bigger fish away from the boat, in much the same way XOS snapper will often be lurking well back in a berley trail when straylining. He is not too bothered if it is not running just above the bottom, saying big fish will be found right through the water column – something I was able to prove correct, to my delight, later in the day.

Our drift began in 25 metres of water over an extensive patch of foul ground which ran right out to the 50-metre mark. It was a drift line that we ran many times that day, with the bigger fish holding in the deeper water. Rob put this down to the persistent strong westerlies of late that he suggested had driven the snapper out deeper. The start was steady but not spectacular. My concern was the longer we ran into the morning, the slower the bite would become. “Not so,” said the guru.

“When I look back at all the big fish my clients have encountered, the period between noon and 2.00pm consistently produces the best results, regardless of the tide.” Interesting! This is information I won’t be sharing with my regular crews, who often grumble at the 5.00-5.30am launch time their skipper insists on!

Slowly the bite picked up pace in both quality and quantity. Rob was pointing out snapper on the sounder as they came up from the bottom to nail the baits dropping not far beneath the surface. It was important to stay in contact with the sinking baits, keeping a firm line between you and the lure which, when hit, was only a matter of winding down on the fish to set the hook rather than with the hell strike.

What had started as a tentative snapper bite was now a full-on charge from the trenches, the fish attacking with all guns blazing.

The body count was mounting with snaps close to the magic 20lb coming boat side. I was fishing the seven-inch Black label Livies with an ounce jighead, the tail my favoured orange livery. John was fishing 10-inch tails with the assist rig, proving his earlier statement that almost three-quarters of the fish fall victim to the tail end Charlie hook.

The snapper were all in prime condition. This one nailed the writer's favourite tail, a 7" Livey Orange Ochre.

The snapper were all in prime condition. This one nailed the writer's favourite tail, a 7" Livey Orange Ochre.

We had put some nice keepers in the bin – mainly those fish that refused to be revived. John was on top of the leaderboard at this stage. ‘It’s not a competition,” I reminded myself – yeah, right! My host’s fish was a few centimetres over 80, as determined by Rob’s bait board which is 80cm long. The now leading snapper had its head and tail a few centimetres over either end. A stonker of a fish that left me a little green with envy.

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Retrieving my bait in an erratic stop/start fashion to start another cast, it came to a sudden halt not far from the boat. The fish realised it was in trouble before hitting the afterburners, and when I finally slowed it down, it sulked near the bottom. There were no headshakes or tail beats felt through the rod, just a steady, dour pull before it made another shorter run. Rob offered to chase it down, but the call was for the angler to stand and deliver. After all, it was ‘only’ a snapper!

With short strokes, the fish was worked away from the bottom. The familiar headshaking of a snapper in denial started, and I was now surer as to what I attached to. Soon we had colour, Rob calling it for “twenty pounds all day long” as it graced the net. A quick photograph and a measure – 77cm – and the fish was released but refused to swim down. Recovering it, the revival process was repeated, but to no avail – it was coming home in a body bag, but more about that later.

The fish was short for its expansive girth, the thickness of the tail wrist indicating a fish in its prime. An autopsy performed back home of the stomach contents showed it was full of juvenile crayfish and large shrimp-like animals.

My ‘postponementitis’ affliction had been well and truly cured – for now.

It started with a boat…

Australia-born John Donald’s foray into recreational fishing and the tackle trade started 15 years ago with the purchase of a boat – a charter boat.

A keen angler with an eye and passion for design, John used the boat, operating as Wave Dancer Charters, for the development of his own range of lures. Wave Dancer Charters developed a reputation as the company to fish with if keen on lure fishing, an angling style that was growing in popularity, developing a big following, especially among Hauraki Gulf fishers.

The fleet turned from one vessel into two, into three, John having teamed up with Paul Senior initially. Paul went on to build his own company while John developed a relationship with Grant ‘Espresso’ Bittle, who had the Catch brand.

Houhora charter's Hannah J, a Stabicraft 559, is an ideal boat for two anglers to fish from.

Houhora charter's Hannah J, a Stabicraft 559, is an ideal boat for two anglers to fish from.

Primarily they developed lures for the charter boat, which was the ‘test bench’ for all sorts of ‘crazy’ lures. It was on a Wave Dancer charter that I first fished Freestyle Kabura lures, the Shady lady outperforming all others on this day. Like many, I was initially a little sceptical, having come from a bait and berley background, but it only took one session to convince me of the effectiveness of this Japanese-influenced style of fishing. I was hooked on lures from that day forth, resulting today in a full-blown, incurable addiction!

“We started with a blank canvas. Catch Tackle have always been innovators, not followers, and this is reflected in the range which today has 550 products, distributed in 10 countries,” John says.

Everything from micro-jigs through to 10” soft-baits fished on purpose-designed ‘elevator’ style jigheads can be found in the Catch range. In more recent times, fit-for-purpose jig and soft-bait rods and reels have been added to the inventory.

On our recent Houhora sojourn, I was introduced to the Harrier jighead – Black Label Livies 10” soft-bait combo. This is a true ‘big snapper’ (and anything else!) rig, designed to target trophy fish. On the trip, it only accounted for the bigger specimens; the pannies left it alone in favour of smaller 7” offerings.

This rig is dropped and dragged, ideally fished in the rod holder and left to trail invitingly behind a drifting boat. In deeper water, it can be worked in much the same way you would a slow-pitch jig. Several of our big fish were caught out of the rod holder, a style which leaves your hands free to work other jigs or soft-baits – who says anglers can’t multi-task?

There are two head styles, the Harrier and the Tenya. The former is designed to improve the swimming characteristics of jerk shad 10” tails with the creation of a darting action on the retrieve and drop; the latter sits at a 60-degree angle, the floatation in the tails giving the rig a wounded baitfish look while on the bottom and a rocking motion on the drop – I can report from our experiences the big snapper love both.

Another victim of the Tenya Jig Head assist hook system.

Another victim of the Tenya Jig Head assist hook system.

Adding to the rig’s effectiveness is an assist or ‘stinger’ hook. Fish attack a baitfish in two ways – targeting either the head or the guts, so it makes sense to have a hook placed where the bite happens.

To facilitate this, the jigheads have two attachment points. John says about 70% of the snapper are hooked on the stainless-steel stinger, something that was borne out during our Houhora session.

Another aspect to impress me was the durability of the Black Label Livies. The baits are extremely supple, giving them great action in the water. They also stood up to the numerous bits and hook-ups of 10lb plus snapper. The favoured Tom Tom colour took a hell of a hammering with the points where the main and assist hooks were rigged, showing little or no sign of damage. John says in testing, he had one 7” lure that accounted for over 100 snapper and was still fishing as well in the end as it did out of the packet.

Maximising the catch

Some anglers get hung up on the fact the bigger snapper they attempt to release don’t make it ‘home’, ending up floating belly up on the surface.

Bigger fish seems to be most affected, but don’t beat yourself up over it – or allow the Facebook trolls to do that for you – there is one way you can duly respect your catch, and that is to utilise it fully.

It will take you a bit of time at the filleting bench, but it is well worth it. The following process is specific to a Kilwell hot two-rack ’15-minute’ smoker.

Start by removing the fillets as you would conventionally, running the knife over the rib cage as opposed to cutting through it. Don’t skin the fillets if you intend to smoke them. If preparing the fillets for cooking conventionally, slice the pieces at an angle rather than cutting at 90 degrees – it leaves a longer grain and a more tender result.

Separate the head from the backbone, cutting the gut and gills free to be later dug into the garden. Keep any roe/milt aside for smoking or frying.

Remove the wings from the head, cutting through the middle of them, so they lay flat in the smoker.

The big snapper was fully utilised - the head, wings and rib cage were smoked while the frame was cut up into tasty snack sizes, coasted and shallow fried.

The big snapper was fully utilised - the head, wings and rib cage were smoked while the frame was cut up into tasty snack sizes, coasted and shallow fried. 

Remove the gut from the frame. Take a decent pair of shears and trim off the top and bottom fins. Cut off the tail and feed it to your dog or bury it with the guts and gills.

With a sturdy knife, slice through each vertebra, separating them into ‘bite-sized pieces.

Going back to your fillets, cut them roughly into square sections. This is important with very big fish as it allows better penetration of heat and smoke if using a hot smoker. It is less important if you are using a much longer cold smoking process as with a Bradley.

Coat the fish with a 3-1 mixture of brown sugar and plain salt. Rub this into the flesh and leave for 2-3 hours. Before smoking, wipe off all excess sugar/salt mix with paper towels. For a little extra flavour, coat very sparingly with maple syrup.

The heads can be smoked if you can fit them into the smoker or boiled or baked. There is a huge amount of meat in the heads, and it is quite sweet and tender.

The wings can be prepared the same way as the fillets for the smoker. Like the meat in the heads, it is well worth picking over the wings to get at the sweet bits.

The separated vertebra can be dipped in water, then placed in a bag with Shake ‘n’ Bake (seasoned flour is a good substitute), thoroughly coating them. Allow to stand in the fridge for 30-60 minutes to firm up, then shallow fry quickly in rice bran oil with a dollop or two of butter. These make a great hot snack to accompany that well-earned beverage now that all the work has been done.

January 2023 - Grant Dixon
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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