Winter basics for snapper

For some, winter is the time to tie the boat cover on tight and forget about fishing for a few months. For charter captain Nick Jones, however, it’s the time to pull on his winter jacket and start hunting those shallow water moochers.

I love snapper – they are super accessible for those based in the northern part of NZ, can be caught using a variety of methods and, best of all, go pretty damn good in the fry pan. So, in winter when other popular species like kingfish and gamefish move further out of reach, I like to set my sights on snapper as I know it’s the best season to snag the big moochers.  

Locations

Choosing the right spot is the primary concern for most fishing trips, and this is certainly the case for targeting winter snapper. While you can catch snapper in all manner of terrains right through winter, a lot of the school-sized fish move further offshore and those that remain in the shallows tend to favour areas with particular characteristics.

I find the snapper that stay inshore over winter tend to bunker down in among the rocks and reefs – luckily this equates to a wealth of handy fishing locations along our north-eastern coast. On the other hand, those fish that seasonally wander out deeper tend to school up in depths of 50 metres or more. For example, from my home port of Auckland, schooling winter snapper tend to gather around the Craddock, Jellicoe and Colville Channels. With snapper either prowling the reefs or congregating out deeper, it means productive summer and autumn areas such as harbours, estuaries, bays, surf beaches and sandy inshore habitats can largely be devoid of snapper through the colder months. For simplicity, I’ll boil down winter snapper tactics to three options.

Soft-baiting the shallows 

This is my favourite winter snapper technique. You don’t need to go far, can hide out of the chilly wind, get to soak in some awesome changing scenery and put yourself in the best position to snag a trophy snapper. When throwing soft-baits around shallow coastlines or reefs, you want to cover some ground. This means fishing on the drift or using a stealthy electric motor is advisable. I seldom find a need for a drogue in the shallows as a quick drift often means you keep stumbling into new patches of fish. 

The gear required is pretty simple – a spin soft-bait set with 10-20lb braid, a length of 20-30lb fluorocarbon leader, a weighted jig-head and, of course, an enticing soft-bait attached. 7” jerkshads will help entice the bigger fish out of their lairs, but some days you’ll find the fish aren’t ravenous and smaller offerings will do the trick. Although some anglers like to use a very lightly-weighted jig-head when casting around rocks, I prefer a 3/8-1/2 oz weight for the following reasons:

• Further casting potential

• More action on the drop

• Better control and less guesswork regarding lure depth.

When I begin fishing my chosen coast, I like to start by prospecting the different zones as you’ll find the snapper tend to hold in certain depths or over certain structures over the course of the day. One day they might be found over flat areas of reef adjacent to weed-lines, while the next they might be sunbathing in only a few metres of water right up in gutters, nooks and crannies. Fishing areas with decent water clarity can help you identify the best terrain to deploy your lure, and don’t be afraid to cast right by the shoreline – just be prepared for an immediate strike! 

Stray-lining the shallows

Another great cold-water option for big snapper is an old-school bait and berley session. Whereas with soft-baiting you are hunting down the fish, with stray-lining you’ll need to anchor in a good location and draw the snapper to you. Aim to fish with the wind and tide in the same direction and your berley running back into a promising rocky reefy area. Classic areas to park up include choke-points where water is funnelled between rocks or areas of reef protruding under water beyond points. Patience, unweighted (or as little weight as you can get away with) rigs and sexy bait presentation are crucial to fool the big dogs. And if you’re super keen, fishing off the rocks or through the night can pay serious moocher dividends!

Harvesting the depths

If you’re more interested in a feed or quantity over quality, winter is a good time to set up long drifts with slow jigs, or baited ledger rigs, and target the schools of snapper that accumulate around the 50m+ depths in areas such as the Hauraki Gulf. You can normally pick the fish up on your sounder, and as always, a few diving gannets always helps!

Article by: Nick Jones