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Targeting shallow water snapper

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MY first ever snapper came off a rocky point that lies adjacent to the Bouddi National Park on the Central Coast of NSW. I was there with my brother, chasing tailor, and we were throwing WA pilchards mounted on a four-hook gang over shallow reef. When my snapper struck, it was with a smashing hit as opposed to the typewriter like chatter of a tailor chomping a pilchard from tail to head. The run was powerful and I received the knuckle-knock from the handles of a wildly spinning Alvey sidecast.

That fish was determined, dodging this way and that before I was able to scramble down onto a wash-out ledge used by luderick anglers. When the fish first showed pink in the whitewater, I was so excited. It was a nervous wait for a set wave to bring sufficient water to enable me to wash it high and dry. With the second wave being quite a bit larger, I remember jamming my fingers into the gills and running for safety on higher ground. We both ended up with two snapper that day. Needless to say, the walk back to the car didn’t seem as long as usual …

Within 12 months I was in a tinny and spending my time on the ocean. We learnt to spin up tuna and kingies in the morning and chase snapper in the afternoons. It was the late 1970s and there was plenty being written about targeting snapper in the washes. So our long rods and ganged hooks became our snapper gear and we visited just about every wash between Broken Bay and Terrigal, with a few Norah Head spots thrown in. We scored snapper under the cliffs and during summer they’d gorge themselves on cicadas … and now 35 years later I catch North Coast bass that are doing the same. Who’d have thought!

The pilchard/ganged hook combo was used by a lot of switched-on anglers, many of whom would take their boats onto shallow reef under cover of darkness in order to catch the early morning bite. The lesson learnt was that snapper are found much closer to shore, and in much shallower water, than many anglers realised.

Depth Deception
I think that most of us, at some stage, fall for the deception of depth. In our quest to get onto large snapper, we skim over the shallow inshore areas on the way to deeper reef. In the pre-sonar/GPS days, great fish were landed from reef a couple of miles from the shore. This was the time of “marks”, when features on the land were triangulated in order to find the chosen reef. Hills, big trees, houses and poles were commonly included and reefs had names such as the Red Roof Ground, The Mooballand Hirstie’s Hump and, of course, Spot X! For many, the lure of wider spots is still strong, and I wonder how many quality, lump-headed thumpers have been by-passed over the years.

Tactical Backbones
In order to regularly succeed in extracting snapper from shallow water you need to adjust your game plan to suit conditions.
Firstly, we all know that a good-sized red carries a powerful engine and that when hooked, they are capable of a powerful and dogged fight. Snapper seem to feel most secure around structure, and while I doubt that they head directly towards the bottom as a kingfish does, when snapper panic, they do swim deep. In the process of swimming around structure, they brick you with regularity, if allowed to run for any distance.

In shallow water the danger of being reefed multiplies because there is less depth in which to swim, so if the the bottom is rough, a fish in shallow water is much more likely to find it in much less time than does a fish in deeper water … and they find it all to often as it is.

One obvious solution to the bricking problem is to fish with heavier line and thicker gauge hooks. When a fish is hooked, the angler simply pulls the fish up into the clear. Fifteen kilo braid is an ideal “heavy” line as it’s light enough to allow for easy casting, not so thick that bites become hard to detect yet is strong enough to allow for heavy handling on behalf of the angler. Still, it’s nowhere strong enough to stop a big snapper from rampaging through structure in shallow water. To stop a large fish cold you’ll need a 24kg outfit, which will be fine for bait fishing, but not so good for soft plastics.

Therefore a successful shallow water game plan is not solely the use of heavy gear. Fish fighting strategies are required, and that often involves chasing down your snapper as soon as it becomes obvious that it’s a big model. The idea is to get moving quickly and to move up behind the fish as soon as you can. This is a position that enables the angler to lift both the fish and the line up off the bottom. It doesn’t always work, but chances are greatly improved with a shorter line.

Stealth Suggestions
This is a short section and rather an obvious one. It basically involves keeping quiet, never driving over an area to get a sonar view before fishing it and cutting the outboard well short of the target zone. By being the first boat in the area and by drifting onto the fish, you’ll avoid spooking them. Whether or not there are any fish holding in the area is one of trial and error, as you don’t have the option of a drive through/sonar check beforehand. Drive through and the fish will be gonski.
Remember also, that snapper will feed on or just below the surface early in the morning, so keep your eyes peeled for floating cuttlefish and other food items.

Snapper Hangouts
Snapper love reef, which is why they are known as a reef fish, and while they do hang around reef, they are rarely found on the peaks. The places to find them are the reef edges, the broken/rough areas that have crevices and boulders and gravel beds between rocks. The shallow stuff in my local waters on the Mid-North Coast of NSW runs from the shore out too the deep stuff, so there are plenty of options. The most productive areas seem to be in the 8m-12m zone.

By building a mental image of your local reef systems, through intensive sonar plotting, you will find the edges where the snapper congregate. By knowing how to maximize your time in prime territory, you’ll catch more. Kelp beds are another favourite haunt of snapper. The wafting fronds offer both cover and the basis of a rich and productive ecosystem. Snapper thrive in kelp. The difficulty with fishing the kelp is that of extraction. When hooked, the reds bolt for cover and once ensconced within the fronds can be very difficult to get out. I gave my favourite mark to a mate and he’s only fished it once. He was disgusted with the scenario. “Every decent fish I hooked, I lost in the kelp!” he complained. So he reckons kelp fishing is a waste of time … And on 15lb line, I agree with him!

The white water washes around offshore islands and bommies are well known as fantastic spots to fish, and for good reason.The species available are many. You’re never really sure what will come next, and the expectation makes for exciting fishing. Regulars include tailor and kingfish. Around Coffs Harbour and places further north, mackerel and tropical visitors such as spangled emperor and Maori cod make their presence felt. Then again, you could connect to a trophy mulloway, tuna or even a monster offshore bream.

Washes, while shallow, require far less stealth due to the movement of the water; however, they can be tricky to fish when conditions are unpleasant. If there is a danger to being hit by set waves from behind or from the side it’s wise to keep one person on the helm whilst the other fishes. By keeping the bow pointed out and the motor in idle, a quick exit is possible if required. An electric motor is perfect for minimizing noise in shallow water. There’s nothing quieter than an electric (apart from paddles!) and if you’re fortunate enough to possess one, this is where you could put it to good use.

Fishing Options
Soft plastics continue to be the backbone of a well-established snapper sportfishery. By replacing ½ oz jigheads with ¼ oz and 1/3 oz jigheads, the plastic will sink at a slower rate, thus providing the necessary “hang-time” in the mid-water zone.
Snagging on the bottom becomes more likely in shallow water, so it is worth considering rigging plastics weedless on a wide gape worm hook. The worm hooks with a weight moulded mid-way down the shank help the plastic sink in a horizontal orientation as well as reducing the snag rate. Bear in mind, however, that the down side of hooking the bottom less often transfers to hooking snapper less often as well. Each angler needs to weigh the pros and cons, but for what it’s worth, I rig weed-less on the “shocker” days.

Hard-bodies are a productive option if they can be trolled without spooking fish. The most successful means of using deep diving hard-bodies is to troll with an electric motor or behind a kayak. Outboards spook too many fish in the shallows.
My preference in lures is fairly focused: I go for a 5m or 8m Halco Scorpion in the “Qantas” colour scheme (red head and white body). I prefer trolling lures behind a SOT kayak when fishing the shallows because it’s easy, quiet and great exercise. I’ve mounted a Lowrance Elite sonar/GPS unit on top of the hatch cover and am able to target fish in the 10-12m zone with ease. It’s great fun and a really productive means of putting a fresh snapper on the table.

Interestingly, I seem to be able to bring fish home from the shallows on a far more regular basis than I first expected. It’s a year-round exercise, with the usual 1-4kg fish coming in during the cooler months and some honkers over summer and autumn. It’s true that paddle time per fish increases during periods of warm water, but they’re in close more often than not.
Perhaps one reason for catching bigger fish during warm water periods is that in the shallows, big snapper take the live baits deployed for mackerel. They are more often encountered when baits are set 3-4m under a float than they are when slow trolling the surface layers, but that’s not to say they won’t come to the surface to feed.

Soft plastic vibes are another option for the shallows. By being able to equate the depth of the lure during the retrieve, snapper respond well to a slow rolling retrieve as well as a lift and drop motion. I stick with the red and white colour scheme, probably because I know it works, and have landed snapper regularly on these lures. What is of interest is the frequency that snapper hit them as they drop. The soft vibes sink with plenty of action, so you should watch your line carefully as the lure falls.

Sinking unweighted baits around the shallows is a tactic that should not be discarded. A pilchard or half-pilchard used in conjunction with berley is a killer tactic. By avoiding a gang of hooks and sticking with a single or at most two hooks, the bait should sink at a rate that allows a fish to get a good eye on it before it disappears amongst reef or kelp.

In Closing
There’s no denying that snapper lie in the shallows far more regularly than we realise. Your mission is to unlock your own shallow water snapper fishery. Good luck!

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