The basic concept here involves drifting and casting over areas with some structure and/or weed present, or into rocky coastline/exposed reefs, preferably with active swells producing some sudsy white-water.
Although this technique tends to be best early morning or late evening, there are many exceptions, especially if the conditions are overcast and there’s minimal boat traffic around. So, if times are tough out deep, it’s always worth a crack in shallower, because you never know.
As we’re dealing with a species of fish that tends to react badly to unusual noises, it pays to be on a water-craft that’s as quiet as possible, with minimal/no engine noise and a hull that produces very little wave-slap. (This explains why kayak fishers often do so well softbaiting for snapper.)
Those aboard relatively noisy tinnies and bigger charter boats can still get amongst the action by taking a bit more care and thinking smarter, perhaps drifting along sections of coastline that disappear into deeper waters.
It pays to take precautions prior to reaching the location. When a hundred metres or so from your target area, ease back on the throttle and slowly idle in, taking care to skirt the area you intend casting into, or drifting across, so as not to spook any resident snapper.
Ideally, the boat should be positioned to take advantage of any tide and/or wind present so the anglers can start or finish a comfortable casting distance away from the targeted area, or so the boat continues to encounter new opportunities while drifting along the coastline or reefy area.
Wherever you end up, concentrate on casting your Softbait lure into new water; this usually means up ahead of the boat’s drift direction or out to the sides – but of course there will always be exceptions, especially if the boat is drifting away from the best territory and you’re still keen to keep casting back into it.
The key after casting is to know when to stop feeding out line from the reel – or whether to feed out any at all. In very shallow water (less than five metres, say), it is best to engage the reel right away – especially if you’ve cast a reasonable distance– wait a few seconds, then perform a two or three short, sharp, rising jiggles with the rod, before winding the reel handle a couple of times to remove any slack line. Then, either wait for the line to slacken, indicating it has reached the bottom, or immediately commence your jittering retrieve if confident the lure is within the strike zone.
In slightly deeper water, try whipping off a rod-length or two of slack line initially, before engaging your reel, and occasionally (depending on the drift direction) winding a little to tighten the line and slow the lure’s descent. At all times watch the line keenly, as it will twitch and jerk when fish bite on the way down, or may even race away if the snapper are particularly hungry. Fish that bite ‘on the drop’ tend to be the larger, bolder specimens, so the ability to detect bites and then convert them into hook-ups is important.
Once the lure reaches the bottom the line will go slack (wind and strike first, just in case it’s a fish – as it often is), signalling it’s time to begin the twitching, jiggling retrieve, using your lifting rod to create the lure movement and with your reel taking in the slack line as you lower the rod tip again. Overall you want the lure coming back towards you erratically, but slowly sinking as the depth (often) increases, all the while ensuring there’s minimal slack line. (Obviously you will need to wind faster if the wind or current is blowing the boat towards the lure.) Catching up momentarily on weed and structure occasionally is actually not a bad thing – it means you’re down where the snapper are lurking – but if it happens too often, the lead-head is too heavy and/or you are winding too slowly.
Also keep in mind that snapper will race up two or three metres to grab prey, so don’t stress too much about whether your lure is close enough to the bottom or not especially if the visibility is good.
The deeper waters often produce exciting action, especially during the warmer months when the fish are schooling and actively feeding.
While it’s possible to use exactly the same rods and reels as those deployed in shallow waters, small freespool and baitcaster type outfits can be even more effective.
As depth varies, much of your success will depend on your ability to choose a strategy that best suits the existing conditions. For example, before even starting, you need to decide on the jighead weight. Do you tie on a heavy one to plummet the softbait lure down so it reaches the fish on the sea floor as quickly as possible, or use a lighter one to take advantage of the times when the bigger fish are up off the bottom, attracted by work-up activity, and which will take the lure in mid descent? Or perhaps a compromise between the two will ultimately prove most effective. It pays to experiment and adapt to the changing conditions.
If you’re fishing softbaits with a jighead, you’ll need to cast (unless heaps of fish are showing on the fish-finder directly under the boat), casting your softbait ahead, or to the side of your drift direction allows time for the lure to sink and then be jiggled back towards the boat. And, if the drift’s not too fast, you might even like to trail and twitch it behind the boat for a while before winding in and casting again. This results in more area being covered and causes the lure to assume a variety of actions, any of which might be the one that triggers a strike.
Otherwise, simply drop the lure over the back, let the line get dragged off the spool or slip lightly through your fingertips, as despite slowing the lure’s descent, it also keeps the line slightly tighter and more direct to the lure, again enabling better bite detection and a more effective response. This is a good technique for overhead set-ups and paddle-tail baits work well in this situation.
Sometimes it can be hard to know when your lure has reached the bottom, especially if the seas are choppy and the drift is fast. So if in any doubt let more line out, watching closely as it sucks down steadily, before (hopefully) momentarily slowing and producing slack line, indicating the seabed has been reached – or that a fish has grabbed the lure. The latter situation happens surprisingly regularly, especially when snapper are attracted and drawn up from the bottom by work-ups overhead.
However, should your softbait lure reach the bottom safely just engage the reel and commence the usual jiggling rod-lift-and-drop retrieves, the speed of which is determined by the wind and current conditions.
No matter which outfit is used, light winds and a light-modest current in the same direction tend to work well, but for once lightish wind-against-tide situations can be a good thing, too, often battling one another to produce the slow drifts needed for the lighter softbait lures to stay near the bottom for longer – provided they’re not too evenly matched or you’ll end up going nowhere.
Too much wind is the Softbait angler’s greatest enemy, although certain measures can be adopted to keep us fishing through to around a maximum of 20 knots of wind when drift fishing.
First to be deployed is a sea anchor/drogue - the bigger the better. If casting softbaits, attach the drogue from the bow (with the collapsing rope attached back at the cockpit, so it can be easily set and retrieved), particularly if conditions are choppy and your boat is relatively small, as attaching it elsewhere can be dangerous. However, if simply dragging softbaits behind the boat, you’ll probably need to attach the drogue from the stern-cleat instead – if conditions indicate this can be done safely.
Casting further ahead can help in this situation too, as despite the fast drift speed, you’re giving your softbait more time to get down. However, you will need to wind in any slack line created or you’ll miss a lot of strikes.
Other small things can help too, including using the thinnest possible mainline, so it slices downwards with minimal water resistance; using a heavier lead-head to get down more quickly; and selecting smaller and/or more streamlined softbait tails, again enabling them to descend more rapidly.
Anglers in more confined boat cockpits can also work in with each other to retain maximum effectiveness, taking turns to cast ahead and then move down along the side of the boat, slipping under or over one another as necessary.
Don’t be too quick to wind in once the boat has passed directly over the softbait’s position. Unlike shallow water fishing, good fish can still be in your boat’s ‘exhaust’, so keep letting out a little extra line, engaging the reel and then giving the rod an upwards jiggle. These actions are generally repeated until a) it becomes obvious the softbait lure is nowhere near the seafloor, b) you get bored, or c) a fish nails the lure. Indeed, when drifts are not too fast in reasonably deep water, or you’re using a decent amount of weight, it can be possible to simply trail a soft-bait behind, jiggling it occasionally, and end up fighting plenty of good fish.
This technique basically involves dropping down a softbait lure and either leaving it to its own devices in the boat rod holder, or holding the rod and reel in your hand and providing small twitches and manipulations, as well as effecting any necessary line-length alterations and occasional re-presentations.
In the first instance, the only action given to the lure is provided by the sea conditions and the wind strength at the time. As a fixed part of the boat, the rod-holder transfers all the sea’s joggles, jerks and rocks to the rod, which in turn causes the attached lure to lift and drop continually and erratically. As for the tidal flow, this determines the trailing lure’s speed. This is remarkably effective for attracting bites, but unless the fish is of good size and takes confidently at the right angle, you’re unlikely to hook up. However, reasonable success can still be gained by watching for nibbles, whipping the outfit out quickly when this happens, giving a couple of twitches, and striking if the fish bites again.
Otherwise, you have to be the rod holder, staying patient and moving stiffly with the boat’s movements; for some reason anything we intentionally do tends to be less effective in this situation. When you get as bite, drop the rod tip slightly, twitch it back up, and if the pressure starts to come on at any moment, strike hard.
The other big advantage of dragging manually is that you’re able to regularly adjust the lure’s depth so that it hops and skims along just above the sea floor. When suspended like this, the snapper tended to bite much harder and more confidently – very different to the generally tentative nibbles and chews inflicted on softbaits that slither and plough along the sea floor.
Also, your rod’s health is much safer. Unless placed securely in an appropriately angled rod-holder and/or with the current angling the line far enough back from the boat’s stern, a rod and line that’s left reasonably vertical in a rod holder may become point-loaded if a decent fish hooks up, and could snap.
Obviously this technique is better used over light foul or sandy areas, as rugged foul soon proves costly, both in terms of tackle and in the amount of time spent re-rigging.
The jighead weight will depend on drift speed, wind and depth and often a deep water rig (or similar) is a better option than a jighead.
Despite looking as subtle as a fist between the eyes and the heavy weight deadening the jiggling uplifts, this rig’s a killer. After all, there are times when just getting down to the bottom quickly and then staying there is often more important than anything else.
Although virtually any tail will work when fished with this rig as mentioned earlier, curly ‘grub’ tail or paddle tails are recommended, as they create strong movement when descending or being retrieved, which attracts and excites predatory fish.
As many fish bite while the lure is dropping, it makes sense to wind back up after the bottom’s been reached - a third to halfway back up - and then drop down again.
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