Mining the depths for the mighty snapper, king of the southern reefs.
Snapper are one of those rare fish that somehow maintain a universal appeal.
They’re an old fashioned ‘table fish’, having been a regular on suburban dinner tables since the depression era, yet they’re considered an excellent sport fish in their own right and are favourite targets for many fishos.
It helps that they’re an objectively beautiful species, and they photograph well. Their rusty chrome flanks are flecked an iridescent blue that might appear nowhere else in nature, while their peg teeth and gnarled skulls hint at their top tier position on the deep sea pecking order.
A big snapper is a prize catch, to be sure, but big snapper don’t get that way by being stupid.
Snapper are caught on a variety of baits, and their willingness to strike at a range of lures has helped drag the art of snapper fishing into the 21st century, although mastering the art of snapper fishing still takes plenty of long sessions.
KNOW YOUR QUARRY
Snapper are found around more than half of the Australian coastline, from the central Queensland coast down the eastern seaboard, right around the Great Australian Bite and up the west coast as far as Coral Bay.
They’re known as snapper around the entire country, but there are some regional terms for juvenile fish.
Where I grew up in New South Wales, undersize fish were known as cockneys, legal sized fish as red bream or pinkies and bigger fish were called squire.
In South Australia smaller fish are sometimes known as ruggers whereas over in West Oz the species is commonly known as pink snapper or just pinkies.
Snapper can turn up anywhere within their range, at any time of year. With that said, there are definitely ideal conditions and seasons for targeting them, and these vary as you move around the country.
Snapper generally prefer fairly cool water, so are commonly targeted in winter around the northern part of their range once ocean temperatures start to drop.
Around the New South Wales central and south coast, the prime time to fish for snapper is between autumn and late winter, whereas Melbourne anglers head out in droves to intercept the springtime run of big spawning fish that enter Port Philip Bay and Western Port.
Snapper will feed readily through the warmer spring and summer months in South Australia and Western Australian waters, although seasonal closures exist and are enforced in both states.
In South Australia, the closed season for snapper fishing is from November 1 to February 1 annually.
In Western Australia, closed seasons are staggered across various bioregions. More information can be found HERE.
Snapper live in the vicinity of reefs and rocky structures in water depths from 5m down to 100m+. Due to the snapper’s willingness to follow a food source into relatively shallow waters, it’s possible to target them from the ocean rocks as well as from a boat.
When targeting snapper from the rocks, you want to pick a spot that’s fronted by a turbid washzone that drops away steeply into deeper water.
The two popular methods of catching snapper while your feet are planted on the bricks is to cast a heavily weighted bait a long way from shore into deeper water and wait for the fish to find it, or to create a steady burley trail that attracts the fish to the washzone at your feet, where you can target them on lightly weighted floater baits.
Classic Alvey sidecast style reels are ideal for this style of fishing as its easy to play out line slowly so your bait maintains a natural sink rate without letting out too much slack line.
Many anglers will choose to carry in two rods so that a large bait can be planted on the bottom 100m or so from shore, while the washzone can be simultaneously targeted with slow sinking strip baits.
Anglers fishing from the luxury of a tinnie or larger boat have the option of employing more sophisticated methods on their hunt for red gold.
Likely reefs can be scouted out with the aid of depth sounders, and the reef can be targeted either on the drift or from a stationary anchored boat.
In the past, the most popular method of targeting snapper when fishing over a reef was with baits pinned to the bottom with large snapper leads.
This method is still popular when fishing in very deep water or in a fast moving current, but floater baits fished down a burley trail are now more popular when fishing over shallow reef or when there’s not a lot of current.
Lure fishing for snapper is now more popular than ever, with plenty of trophy reddies falling victim to well presented soft plastics and deepwater jigs.
Fairly large soft plastic tails between 5-7” are the most popular lures, with patterns that have an inbuilt action such as shad and wriggler tails tending to do the most damage.
The depth of the water being fished will have the biggest influence on the weight of the jigheads required to get baits to the bottom, with lighter weights favoured where conditions allow.
The most effective baits for snapper vary a little depending on the region you’re fishing. Traditionally, strips of fresh or salted fish fresh baits have always been popular, and continue to account for plenty of quality fish.
Oily species like slimy mackerel, bonito, mackerel tuna and frigate mackerel are all effective when salted and cut into strips and slab baits, as are smaller baitfish like pilchards and mullet.
Cephalopods including calamari and arrow squid, cuttlefish and octopus all work well, being naturally tough, these baits will withstand a barrage of pickers and last long enough to be found by the quality fish you’re chasing.
These baits are generally fished as fresh as possible, although salted octopus tentacles are sometimes used when ultra tough baits are required.
In lots of places, the average size of the snapper available can be comparatively tiny, with fish size ranging up to just a couple of kilograms.
With that said, it’s impossible to know when that 10kg+ fish of a lifetime is just around the corner, and it’s a terrible feeling losing good fish due to being under gunned.
While most small to medium sized snapper could probably be comfortably subdued on 6-8kg tackle, most anglers will use 10kg tackle at a minimum, upgrading to 15kg tackle when big fish are being targeted or when fishing over rough terrain.
When fishing from the land, long fiberglass rods between 12-14’ in length are generally matched to midsized threadline or overhead reels with a quick retrieve speed that are capable of holding around 300m of 15kg line.
While braided line is not as abrasion resistant as monofilament, it’s favoured by many landbased snapper enthusiasts as its thin diameter allows ultra long casts.
When fishing from a tinnie or larger boat, most fishos will use fast tapered graphite spin rods matched to medium size threadline reels loaded with 10kg or 15kg braid.
A fairly fast retrieve ratio aids in taking up slack line quickly on fast drifts, and these types of setups are suitable for fishing both lures and baits.
Snapper are one of those species that are a real day-to-day possibility for most saltwater anglers around the southern half of the country. They’re not some tropical daydream – if you want to start catching them all you need to do is scout out a likely spot, source some quality bait and put in some hours.
There’s fantastic snapper fishing available in six Australian states along many thousands of kilometres of coastline, so there’s certainly no accessibility issue. Learn the craft of snapper fishing on your home waters and then take your skills on tour around the country.