Next Level Snapper

The snapper on softies phenomenon continues to evolve with quality fish now being targeting successfully
from deep-water grounds. CHRIS CLEAVER reports.

I’d been counting down the days before a recent trip up the coast, as had regular fishing partners Adrian, Tom and Chloe. However, this most recent trip proved to be surprisingly tough. After two days of solid fishing, casting our arms off with every lure imaginable, we had only a handful of fish between us.

The close-in grounds just weren’t producing the goods. On the morning of our third day we motored just outside the harbour to a reef that had been producing a few better quality fish. Tom and Chloe scored a reasonable red just before dawn in their boat but as the sun rose the bite went quiet. It was a cracker day – the best weather for ages – and being a Sunday the boat traffic was pretty intense. Adrian and I decided to move to greener pastures.

But more productive water proved hard to find. By lunch I was left scratching my head, wondering what the hell I had to do to score a decent fish. I started thinking about the snapper I’d been catching with a new technique in my local waters off southern Sydney. While the fish weren’t huge, I’d been scoring quality reds with 100 per cent regularity. In Sydney that’s akin to winning Lotto. “What the hell,” I thought. “If it works down there, let’s try it up here.”

A quick scan of the Navionics charts in the desired depths revealed a contour that looked the goods. Motor on, throttle down – we were off! As we approached the area I started sounding around. To my surprise, the Lowrance marked healthy bottom with bait and that telltale hard line below that means predatory snapper. As I set up a drift, Adrian got a crash course on what I now call “next level snappering”.

Most inshore snapper fishing with soft plastics occurs over and around bommies, shoals and reef edges in water ranging from 20 to 60 feet. Lures are typically in the four to six inch range with heads of ¼ to 3/8oz, which allow for a controlled and natural sink into the bite zone. Depending on conditions, that can be anywhere from just under the surface to a few metres off the bottom. Here we were attempting to fish 200 feet of water. That’s pretty standard fare when bottom plonking for reds and other reefies with bait and paternoster rigs but pretty extreme when trying to fish plastics. I could tell that Adrian thought I’d gone nuts.

Then like two stunned mullets we looked in disbelief as the first rod I cast out buckled in the holder, drag screaming. After wrestling the rod out I palmed the wildly spinning spool and felt the “thump thump” of a solid red. After several minutes of serious pressure, and a couple more line-burning runs, a beautiful hump-headed snapper lay beaten before the Environet.

A few quick pics and it was high fives all round. That fish was a great confidence booster – previous sessions in Sydney had revealed deep-water plasticking as an effective technique and to have it work so well in these waters was very satisfying.  As I was setting up for another cast the sound of a screaming drag signalled that Adrian was also enjoying the benefits of some deep-water softie action.

That fish turned out to be a PB for young AJ and was also his first in three tough days of fishing.

That afternoon ended up being one of the most memorable fishing sessions I’ve ever experienced. It was Father’s Day and as snapper were dear to my Dad’s heart I knew he’d be watching from above with a wry smile, saying “the cheeky little bugger has cracked the pattern”.

As the sun began to descend behind Coff’s rugged backdrop, we tried to calculate how many snapper of over 70cm we had landed in this epic session. I’m not trying to brag – just show how effective this technique can be. The concern with catching reds from deeper water is that they can sometimes be hard to release due to barotrauma issues. If fish you catch are showing signs of barotrauma – which is basically an inflated swim bladder due to pressure changes caused by moving from deep to shallow water – it’s probably a good idea to limit your catch. Fish can be successfully released with either a release weight or by carefully venting their air bladder with a syringe or spike.  It’s important we all take the time to learn about these techniques, and/or to be responsible about how many fish we catch. The fish we caught and released in this session all swam strongly away – the fact that we were using light gear and it thus took a while to get the fish up may have helped them adjust better to pressure changes than if we’d been using heavier gear and just skull-dragged them up.

On the last cast of the day I managed to get a monumental tangle. I cut the line and called stumps for myself. “Come on,” I said to Adrian. “Let’s get out of here, grab some beers and celebrate – we ain’t topping this day.” As if on cue, Adrian’s rod keeled over, drag smoking. It slowed and the fish’s head shook as it lit the afterburners once again, twice as hard and fast as the first run. At this stage we both realised it was big but was it a snapper? It had all the trademark head knocks and tail kicks but it felt too powerful to be a red. Maybe a king? An amberjack? Even a late season Spaniard? I pulled in the sea anchors, all the time hoping everything stayed connected. By this time there was only a faint orange glow behind the Coffs skyline – night was fast approaching. Adrian started to control the fight and eased the unseen beast into view. I went weak at the knees – it was a red and it was big. It lolled up on top as I reached out full stretch with the net. It barely fitted in. I jockeyed the net around and fumbled the reddie in enough to ease it over the gunnels. As it lay it on the deck its true weight and size was revealed. This fish was incredible! I let out a hoot I reckon they heard back in Sydney. I looked at Adrian to high five him. He was sitting there speechless, shaking all over.

The snapper went 96cm and just over 10.5kg. That’s a helluva fish on a plastic, especially in NSW.

Way too majestic to kill, the big old snapper was quickly released and swam off powerfully towards its reefy home. We motored backed to port on a high, grinning from ear to ear.

Where
Finding good numbers of reds is never easy, especially in hard-fished locations such as Sydney. And it’s understandable that productive locations are closely guarded secrets. If I had a buck for every time I was asked where I caught my fish I certainly wouldn’t be worrying when I go to the bowser to fuel up the boat. The fact is that fish are where you find them, and snapper are no different.
Sure, you find snapper in shallower water, especially after times of heavy swell. Easily accessible areas tend to see considerable attention these days and the huge popularity of lure fishing for snapper has resulted in fish becoming extra wary. This is why focusing efforts in deeper water – and here I’m referring to water in the 80-250 feet range – can pay dividends.

Snapper have always been associated with “hard reef”. This remains applicable in the deeper water  but gravel and mud are other types of bottom composition that hold fish. Out in the deep, these locations can actually be more effective than reef. Finding these areas is relatively easy with modern electronics. Quality charts and colour sounders help to not only find fish but also assist greatly in determining bottom composition. It’s then a matter of spending time on the water to find the exact positions the snapper in your area like to hold up in. Every time I hook a quality snapper I instantly waypoint the position; these fish are a creatures of habit and will return to the same areas with regularity. Marking bites and soundings on your chartplotter helps build a picture of where fish are or are likely to be.

Another thing to be vigilant about while on the hunt for productive reddie grounds is to take notice of where your local charter boats do their bottom bouncing. I don’t advocate actively following or shadowing these guys – that’s pretty rude and disrespectful – just take note of the general area and check it out. Generally speaking, they’ll be fishing productive broken ground for mixed reef species. These areas are a good place to do some deep plastic prospecting. Always give the party boats a wide berth while they work the area so you don’t get in the way or intrude on their drift. Keep your eyes peeled also for pro fish traps that are randomly placed along contour breaks; a good sound around the area may reveal a gravel patch in no man’s land which can be a snapper goldmine. When you find some good grounds, get to know the areas intimately and results will follow.

Tackle
Exactly what comprises a typical “snapper outfit” has been widely publicised. You’re generally talking a 4-6kg spin rod in the 7’ range matched with a 3000 size reel loaded with 20lb braid and 15-30lb fluorocarbon leader. I tend to use slightly different tackle when targeting reds in deeper water, mainly to help with getting the lure down as efficiently as possible.

I prefer high quality 3-6kg graphite rods in the 7’6” range for my deep-water snapper work matched to a 2500 size reel spooled with 8lb braid. I personally use rods from the G-Loomis and Shimano stables with a Stradic CI4 2500 reel spooled with 8lb braid. This reel is extremely light for its size and coupled with a quality graphite rod is perfect for long hours on the water. I always carry a heavier outfit on board as you never know when you may require a little muscle if you hit the jackpot.

The next piece of important equipment is jig heads. Heads from 3/8 to around 1 ½ oz in various hook sizes should cover most bases; just be sure to purchase quality brands with strong hooks as snapper jaws make short work of inferior hooks. Leader size will be determined by the terrain being fished but I have found 14 to 25lb covers most situations. Interestingly, I haven’t found a decrease in catch rate between fluorocarbon and monofilament, possibly due to the depths being fished.

Which plastic?
There are plenty of different plastics available and everyone has their personal favourites. It’s a good idea to carry a variety of brands, shapes, size and colours – certain days will see fish biting best on certain lures. One point to remember is that larger lures will take longer to sink down than smaller ones, an important consideration when you’re selecting your plastics for the day. A mix of sizes from 100mm (four inches) to 175mm (seven inches) covers all the bases

Techniques
So you’ve found a good location, the sounder is marking bait and fish … what do you do? First up, you need to get your drift sorted. This is done by putting the motor in idle and determining the drift speed and direction via your plotter. Zooming right in helps here. I like to be drifting at under 1.5 knots – any faster than that and you’ll find it difficult to get your lure into the zone. I carry three different sized drogues or sea anchors and add accordingly till a suitable drift speed is obtained.

Once the drift is set up so you’re positioned to line up a productive area or previously marked fish, you need to select the appropriate jig head. This may require several casts with a variety of heads. Once you find the right jighead for the job – i.e., one that gets down there relatively quickly but with a natural action – you’ll find that success will be much greater.

Cast well up drift and flick the rod several times with an open bail arm to pay off some slack line so the jig head can free fall and then close the bail arm. You can hold the rod or place in the holder. It’s surprising how many good snapper are hooked from the rod holder; just make sure there’s no chance of the rod coming out! You want the plastic just off the bottom once the boat is level with it. Better still is having it crunched on the drop by a rampaging red. Hooking the occasional sergeant baker or red rock cod is a good indication that your lure is getting down near the bottom.

While this may seem a bit weird, there’s no need for any fancy jigging or flicking of the rod. Sure, I get a few fish when actively working the plastic but 85 per cent of my fish just smash it on the drop.

Sounds simple – and it is. But it’s also extremely effective. And if, like me, you like catching solid reds, it’s the way to go.

A great bonus of deep water is that the fish tend to bite throughout the day – fantastic if you don’t enjoy pre-dawn starts. This is addictive fishing – that opening run from a solid red on light gear is a smoker, not to mention those killer headshakes. So if your regular inshore snapper grounds are proving a bit quiet these days, head out and check out some deeper stuff – you might be pleasantly surprised!

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