Snapper basics part–2

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Standard 4-6kg spin tackle loaded with 20-30lb braid is ideal when targeting snapper in water from 30-50m.
Standard 4-6kg spin tackle loaded with 20-30lb braid is ideal when targeting snapper in water from 30-50m.

While targeting snapper in shallow water is great light tackle fun, the trophy-sized specimens are out in deeper water. JAMIE CRAWFORD explains how to catch them.

LAST issue (click here for Part1) we discussed targeting snapper in shallow inshore water as well as from land-based locations, at the same time listing what conditions suit each of these fishing scenarios. While inshore and land-based snapper fishing share some similarities, targeting reds in deeper water requires a vastly different approach.

As we know, snapper are found in a wide range of environments from calm water bays, turbulent shallow water reefs and surf beaches right out to deep water on the edge of the continental shelf. With this adaptation to different habitats comes great diversity in how and where anglers target snapper. Techniques used in these different fishing scenarios vary greatly, but more importantly the conditions and peak feeding periods are also very different, meaning when and how we target fish in one environment is fundamentally different than in another.

Medium Depth

Wrecks and reefs in the 15 to 30m depth range are what we would classify as “medium depth structures”. These are fairly common throughout the Gulf waters and neighbouring bay systems here in SA. There’s not a lot of prominent natural reef in the middle of SA’s Gulf fisheries. There are some limestone ledges and scattered hard bottom through this depth range, but it is fairly low-lying. These areas are largely mud, sand and shoaly bottom, and lack prominent features as seen in more open ocean waters. The maximum depth in the Gulfs is around 30m, so we’re not talking particularly deep bodies of water.

Other reefs include man-made structures such as purposely-sunk barges and vessels, car bodies, tyre pyramids right through to illegal “ghost reefs” that have “appeared” over time. There are some vessels which have come to rest accidentally as well. And while the history of these man-made reefs may alter, they all have the ability to hold fish at the right time of year. The larger man-made structures seem to hold aggregations of bigger fish whereas the natural reefs house a good number of mixed sized fish but scattered over a broader area rather than concentrated. Both can offer good fishing.

Jamie with a stud snapper caught while fishing 30m water in SA’s Spencer Gulf.
Jamie with a stud snapper caught while fishing 30m water in SA’s Spencer Gulf.

Why would we choose to fish around the wrecks and reefs in this depth of water over the other snapper fishing options? To put it simply, this is where we catch our biggest snapper. If you’re after a trophy red of 10kg or better in SA waters, man-made structure in the Gulf is your best bet. Smaller sized fish I would rather catch from shallow water – they certainly fight better in the shallows. We rarely see the calibre of fish in the shallows that we see around these deeper reefs and wrecks.

Fishing in the 10-30m depth range is a good option as well if the water is clean and calm, as the shallow inshore reefs are usually quiet in these conditions. And while the shallow water options can be fickle as to what time of day the fish will feed, in the deeper water the fish are less fussy. Sometimes they need a bit of coaxing, but if they’re in the neighbourhood you’re in with a good chance of triggering a bite.

These medium-depth structures are the most popular snapper fishing grounds in SA. They house good numbers of fish, and are accessible for most trailer boats. The fishing can be good, but timing is important as these fish are highly mobile and rarely aggregate over an area for too long.

The timing of these aggregations varies depending on where the structure is located. We tend to see good numbers of schooling fish (5-8kg) around the southern grounds early in the season, say, October to January, with the fish pushing further north into higher Gulf waters thereafter.

The drops further up the Gulf are more consistent as year-round producers of fish, whereas the southern reefs are a bit more seasonal. You will always get a few resident fish holding near this structure; but these southern drops largely rely on the movement of pre-spawning adults.

These reefs are a great place to fish when the snapper are in town, and when there’s good numbers of fish on the reef it’s relatively easy to get results. Snapper are opportunistic feeders and when competition is high they will readily take a variety of baits and lures. We’ve caught good snapper on bare jig hooks, squid jigs, a spanner and even a lolly snake when they’re schooled up and feeding – it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, literally. But it’s when the fish are scattered and not feeding aggressively when you need to change tack and approach them with a bit more strategy.

Fishing the tide change is a good start, with the first hour of flow after the change a fairly productive period. When there are good numbers of fish around, the tide change in the middle of the day can be productive, but when the fish are slow, then concentrating on the sun up and sun down periods definitely bring better results. I don’t know how many times we’ve been fishing next to a wreck all afternoon without a hit, only to have a flurry of feeding in the final half hour of light. Fishing into the night can be productive as well.

If we are going to fish a particular spot leading up to nightfall, then I would invest a bit of time and berley into this location. If, on the other hand, we launch early and are planning on spending the whole day on the water, then we keep fairly mobile. We would generally invest half hour to 45 minutes on a drop, and if we haven’t seen any positive signs of fish, then we’ll up anchor and shift. We usually fish at anchor out here, as the drops are fairly localised and we use berley to draw the fish to us.

Berley is a key factor too, even in these depths. Because of the tidal flow experienced, getting the berley down to the bottom is important. If you throw handfuls of berley loosely into the water it may settle a hundred metres or more behind the boat. I use a weighted berley pot on a cord, and I drop this all the way to the bottom. Old bait, fish frames, and even food scraps are effective as berley. I caught a couple of big snapper with chicken wings in their stomachs once.

We fish with a combination of baits or plastics, depending on the conditions. My preferred plastics for snapper are 100mm to 125mm shads and stickbaits, especially in light colours such as white and silver. Sometimes when the tide is racing, it’s hard to effectively fish a plastic. Strong tidal flow is more common on the drops in northern Spencer Gulf. I normally run with a 21g or 28g jig head.

Bait is effective as well, although you can go through a fair bit of bait in a session if smaller fish are prevalent. When bait fishing around these reefs and wrecks, I prefer using larger baits such as bigger squid heads, whole arrow squid (the Californian arrows are great), whiting heads, and whole fish such as silver whiting, red mullet and herring. By using larger baits you’re giving yourself a better chance of withstanding the smaller “pinky” snapper long enough for a bigger fish to come along. Live baits can be deadly in this situation too. On our last session out wide from Arno Bay we were being plagued by smaller fish, but by using a live slimy mackerel we managed to pull a better fish of 8kg from amongst the small stuff.

If you want trophy sized reds, head out to the deep drops.
If you want trophy sized reds, head out to the deep drops.
Deep Water

The final snapper fishing scenario we’ll discuss is targeting reds in deep water. By deep water we’re referring to depths greater than 30m, and probably averaging 40 to 50m. While snapper fishing in these depths may be fairly common on the east coast, here in SA these depths make up only a small percentage of our targeted snapper fishing. As mentioned before, our Gulf and neighbouring bay waters max out at around 30m, so any water deeper than this is found only in our open ocean waters.

The size of the fish on average is smaller than those found around the wrecks and reefs in our Gulf waters. We would choose to fish these deeper ocean reefs for snapper during periods of slow tidal movement, as the fishing in SA’s Gulf waters and fringing shallows can be tough during slow tides.

The snapper on these ocean reefs are a year round proposition, and are a good option on those calm winter days when the snapper fishing can be slow in the Gulfs and in the shallows. Light winds make drift fishing a lot more productive out here. This fishing is usually done during daylight hours too, so there’s no need for super-early starts.

The snapper caught on these deeper reefs are usually kept for the table. Snapper from these depths don’t always go back down given the effects of barotrauma. We normally fish these deeper reefs when we are keen to take a couple of pan-sized snapper home for the table, and one of the benefits of fishing these reefs is the bycatch you often get at the same time. Red snapper (southern nannygai) and queen snapper are regulars for us on our reefs, and along the east coast you have tasty pearl perch amongst others to top up the bag.

When we fish these ocean reefs, we look for structure in the 30 to 50m depth range, but when lining a drift we avoid the very peak of these reefs and instead run a line along a plateau or towards the base of the structure. We see a lot more general reef fish such as wrasse, sweep and leatherjackets on the main peak.

We rarely fish these reefs at anchor, but instead keep on the move and do repeated drifts over our targeted area. We don’t do long aimless drifts, but we pinpoint an area and would do half a dozen targeted drifts over that spot before moving on and trying another. Because we are drift fishing, we can’t berley easily so it’s important to keep on the move to find the fish.

The big snapper found in deeper water pull hard, as Riley Tolmay discovered during a trip to SA’s famed Arno Bay.
The big snapper found in deeper water pull hard, as Riley Tolmay discovered during a trip to SA’s famed Arno Bay.

The snapper found on these reefs are usually schooling fish, so when you pick up one you invariably pick up a second or third fish. Keep a watchful eye on your sounder too. It’s important to note any likely bumps, soundings of fish and their depth. Watching the sounder will give a good indication of your drift speed and direction too, which is important when lining-up subsequent drifts.

We bottom bounce these reefs with bait for the most part. It will mean having a good supply of bait for a day bottom bouncing, but you can use fillets of bycatch as bait too, including sergeant baker, silver trevally and any baitfish picked up near the surface. Other than fish fillets, we use strips of squid or cuttlefish. Brined pilchards work well too, but they get removed from the hooks pretty easily by smaller fish.

We use a standard paternoster rig when fishing these deeper reefs. Because we are drift fishing, it’s important to have the sinker below the hooks to reduce getting snagged on the bottom. Good hooks for this sort of fishing are circles and octopus patterns in the 5/0 to 8/0 size range, depending on the size of your local snapper. Aside from baits we have used plastics, slow jigs and mini metals in the 50 to 90g range.

That completes our two-part overview of snapper fishing scenarios. There’s nothing wrong with keeping a good eating fish for the table, but if you do, don’t waste the fish. Brain spiking the fish and icing down improves the eating quality of snapper by a long way.

Snapper Tackle

TACKLE used for snapper fishing these days is miles ahead of the cumbersome outfits of the past era. Overhead reels fishing 10kg mono on 6’ fast-taper rods were pretty standard fare for snapper fishos throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Abu seemed to be the reel of choice (especially the 7000) with rods from Sabre and Shakesphere quite popular.

These days the shift has definitely swung to new generation threadline reels, braided line and light carbon or graphite rods. There are plenty of really good threadline reels and rods on the market to choose from these days, and when coupled with braided line they offer a sensitive, lightweight but powerful outfit to use on snapper.

A “standard” snapper outfit is a 4000 sized threadline reel spooled with 20lb braid and coupled to a 4–7kg rod of around 7’. This outfit will handle bigger snapper (provided there isn’t too much current flow or depth), and is still fun on smaller fish. When fishing in shallower water for smaller fish, this outfit can be scaled down to a 2500 sized threadline reel and a 3–5kg rod to maximise the fun on pan-sized fish. Either 10 or 15lb braid is ideal for this situation.

If you are primarily going to be fishing in deeper water, in areas where the tidal flow or current is quite strong, or simply for targeting XOS snapper around wrecks, scaling up to a heavier outfit may be necessary. In situations like this, a 6000 sized threadline spooled with 30lb braid and fished on a 6–10kg rod is a good option.

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