Snapper (Pagrus auratus) is one of New Zealand’s most popular sport and table fish — the bread-and-butter species for the majority of New Zealanders by virtue of its distribution.
Snapper are found consistently around the entire North Island. Further south, they occur mostly around the upper third of the South Island, straying further south in summer.
Snapper vary in habits and growth rates, depending on where they are found. West coast snapper generally grow more quickly and have the potential to attain larger sizes, but fish numbers are relatively low.
On the east coast, fish are more numerous, but grow more slowly. In the Hauraki Gulf a legal fish may be nine years old; on Auckland’s west coast, a similar fish might be just three or four years of age. Please check the minimum legal lengths and bag limits for your area on the MPI website.
In general, growth is faster in warmer, northern parts of the snapper’s range, but very large fish are often taken at the extremities of distribution, since such large animals are better able to tolerate marginal conditions.
The average size of snapper is around 1-2kg, but may be bigger or smaller in certain areas or in some years. Really big specimens reach 15kg and can put up an impressive fight.
Snapper eat almost any animal matter, including molluscs (shellfish, squid and octopi), crustaceans (crabs, shrimps, barnacles and crayfish), other invertebrates (worms, starfish, sea urchins) and fish. They frequent most bottom types and operate throughout the water column, though most of their time is spent near the sea floor.
Breeding takes place in moderate depths in wide, sheltered bays once the water temperature nudges 18°C. Breeding fish gather in dense aggregations in mid-water.
The Hauraki Gulf, Bay of Islands, Doubtless Bay, Bay of Plenty, Hawke Bay, Taranaki Bight, Tasman and Golden Bays are recognised snapper breeding venues.
Recreational fishers target breeding fish and the ‘schooling season’ is marked in many snapper fishing calendars. Big breeding fish are hungry and aggressive, making them easy to catch, so it’s important not to be greedy.
Within their preferred range, snapper will be found on almost every reef, and in every suitable harbour and channel. They will enter very shallow water, especially at night, and also inhabit reefs and broken foul in 100m of water. They can be taken from the shore or from boats of all sizes.
Snapper are aggressive feeders and can be taken on a wide variety of terminal rigs. They even bite trolled lures intended for kahawai and kingfish. The best rigs for snapper are the strayline (Kiwi & Aussie versions),and dropper rigs. Flasher rigs also work well, at anchor but particulary on the drift over sandy areas. Softbaits/soft plastics are proving phenomenally effective on snapper, especially in northern parts of New Zealand - for more about softbait fishing tips and techniques, see our articles on softbaits:
* Getting started..[more]
* Tips & techniques..[more]
* Selecting softbaits..[more]
* Selecting and tying traces..[more]
* Casting and fishing techniques..[more]
* Fishing overhead reels..[more]
* Using braided line..[more]
Also check out the latest news & views in our softbait discussion forum.
Strayline rigs are fished in relatively shallow water where little or no weight is required to sink the bait. What weight is used should be free-running on the trace above the hook(s).
Straylined baits are usually cast away from the boat or shore and allowed to sink slowly towards the bottom. Fishing large, straylined baits is the traditional way to catch large snapper, especially in reefy territory.
Dropper and flasher rigs
Dropper and flasher rigs include one or more hooks branching off the main line with a suitable sinker at the bottom. Weight is adjusted to suit water depth, current strength and/or the speed of drift. Sufficient weight is needed to keep the baits near the bottom where snapper usually feed.
Flasher rigs are based on the same principal, but add flashy materials tied to the shanks of the hooks to further entice a fish to bite. They can be fished with or without bait.
Other useful snapper rigs include metal jigs and saltwater flies. Jigs can be fished using conventional tackle and are best bounced up and down just above the bottom from a drifting boat. Flies require specialist flyfishing tackle.
When they're feeding snapper will eat almost anything. However best baits include fresh mackerel, fresh kahawai, pilchards, squid, skipjack tuna, mullet, shellfish and crabs.
For big snapper, try live mackerel, live squid – even live kahawai if they’re not too large – fished near the bottom. Soft baits, jigs and flasher rigs are also very effective on snapper.
Snapper hotspots include Nelson and the Marlborough Sounds in the South Island and from Hawkes Bay right around the top of the North Island to Taranaki.
Larger fish usually inhabit reefy areas and may remain there all year round.
Large numbers of adult snapper migrate into harbours and estuaries in spring and early summer and will move close inshore to feed aggressively before and after spawning. Pre-spawn fish are in peak condition. Bigger fish tend to characterise the spring run, with fish becoming on average smaller later in the season.
Once summer hits it stride, juvenile fish join the adults inshore and can dominate the catch, especially in sheltered harbours.
Post and pre-spawn fish gorge themselves on shellfish and invertebrates. Worm and shellfish beds around the country host good numbers of hungry fish, which may move around from day to day and tide to tide.
Snapper can be found on the inner Hauraki Gulf worm beds from mid/late October through to December, where they are putting on condition prior to spawning. Use your sounder to locate the schools and fish softbaits, natural baits or jigs.
For general, consistent year-round fishing, find reefy areas with good consistent current and use berley to attract snapper to your bait. Placement of the boat in relation to the structure you are fishing is paramount with wind and tide running in the same direction preferable.
Softbait fishers can enjoy success year round, but the best fishing is when fish are at their most hungry before and after spawning. Softbaits can be used in shallow water over reefs and in harbours, or in deeper water over schooling fish.
Early morning and evening is the best time for snapper, since many fish feed at night and rely on low light for camouflage, especially in shallow water. Larger fish are easily spooked, so silence and careful presentation pay dividends.
Night fishing can be good, especially if there is some moon, but snapper often go off the bite a couple of hours after the sun goes down.
The tide is important, especially in the shallows; in some harbours, productive fishing areas dry out completely at low tide. The effect of the tide varies from place to places with most locations fishing better on one tide or the other (incoming or outgoing).
In general, a tide change usually dictates a change of venue, even if it’s to the other side of the rock, and sometimes a change in technique. The fishing is invariably better when the tide is running strongly.
Too much tide makes it difficult to fish effectively and it’s sometimes better to move out the worst of the tidal run and fish the edges (of a channel, say). Fish seem to prefer these areas, too, perhaps because swimming against a strong tide saps too much energy.