Snapper on Kayaks 101
A nice Stradbroke Island Red to kick off my season!
The morning starts at some of our favourite launches are definitely starting to get a bit chilly now with just an extra 10 minutes in the car with the heater on seeming more tempting than ever, but rest assured that your efforts have a great chance of being rewarded in a big way when you’re giving the snapper a crack this winter!
First off it’s definitely worth noting that here in South East Queensland/Northern NSW, we’re spoilt for choice so snapper are by no means the only thing biting. We should keep seeing spanish mackerel stragglers in some areas for at least a few more weeks along with some bruiser longtails and once those fish start to become a bit too scarce to target the cobia should be firing up! That said, if you’re looking for a species to chase with a bit more consistency in these colder months while still having a chance to nab a trophy, you need look no further than the humble pink bream. Keep on reading for a guide with everything you need to know to start getting stuck into some of these tasty, hard-fighting reefies.
Location, Location, Location
Snapper, like most fish, will tend to hang around various kinds of structure so long as it’s got enough food to keep them happy. Crabs, shellfish, cephalopods and baitfish like pilchards, yakkas or slimy mackerel are all staple parts of a snapper’s diet and if at least some of these options are present on a patch of reef, coffee rock or even a weed bed, then the snapper won’t be far behind! I’ve personally found fairly shallow and flat coffee rock areas to be the most fruitful for good numbers of smaller snapper that usually range from 1-3kg, while harder reefy/rocky areas with some good deep water nearby will produce the trophy fish but in smaller numbers.
Fishing from kayaks really comes into its own here on these shallower reefs, often less than 20m deep, as snapper can be very wary of boat noise and I have had many a good early morning session shut down suddenly after a boat comes flying through at full speed. Under paddle power however, silently cruising over the top of these fish means that you’re extremely unlikely to scatter them or put them off feeding which puts you at a big advantage when your bait or lure does end up in front of one! The coffee rock reefs in particular are awesome for stealths as they often lie very close to the coast making surf launching by far the quickest and easiest way to get there.
Winter surf launches can get a bit chilly!
Smaller snapper tend to school up along the top of structure and it’s not uncommon to get your bag limit of 4 on board in very short time if you strike a patch! If you have a sounder, usually they will show up as fish sitting a few metres off the bottom and once located it’s simply a matter of dropping a lightly weighted plastic or bait straight down to them and they should snaffle it, but I’ll go into a bit more detail on rigging up later. If you don’t have a sounder then long drifts over these areas are the way to go.
On the other hand, the big snapper that I’ve been lucky enough to catch have all been hanging around hard rocky ledges immediately adjacent to deeper water- it doesn’t have to be much, but so long as it’s got a decent difference (say 5 or so metres) in depth from the main structure and a bit of current hitting it, it should have a good chance of holding a quality red or two. I like to look for midwater bait schools around the edges of these kinds of reef and focus my efforts on those as big snapper rarely stray too far from their food source.
A bit about your quarry…
The good news with snapper is that they will eat a very wide variety of offerings. A few key feeding habits they have which help when deciding what to target them with are that they although they tend to sit in the lower part of the water column and will go around crunching shellfish and crustaceans on the bottom, they aren't at all averse to rising a long way up in order to feed and they’re absolute suckers for an easy meal. This means that anything which sinks slowly is a fantastic place to start, or alternatively an offering that runs along slowly looking injured anywhere from the bottom to midwater are great options.
There aren't many fish that are more satisfying to slide into the hatch!
Plastics and Dead Bait
For slow sinking approaches, the two most effective tend to be soft plastics and deadbaits-usually pilchards, garfish or strips of mullet or something similar. Slow sinking options are great when there’s just a little bit of wind/current to push you along so that you can cover ground but still fish them effectively. I personally tend to go for this approach on larger, flatter reefs where I can set up a nice long drift and cover a good bit of ground.
My favourite plastics tend to be 5 inches in length with straight tails and natural colours, but ultimately it largely comes down to personal preference and if you can match the bait in the area then you’re onto a winner. As for weight, I will tend to use 3/8th oz jigheads as a starter, but this will depend on the drift speed and depth. If it’s super calm or quite shallow and you can get away with going lighter, you’ll usually get more strikes, but if it's just not getting down then it can sometimes pay to upsize the weight a bit. The basic game plan when fishing with placcies is to cast them ahead of your drift, let them sink as you drift over them, jig them up from the bottom a bit and ultimately let them spend as much time sinking in the bottom half of the water column as possible as this is where you’ll get the hits. Same goes with deadbaits- you’re after a slow, natural and consistent sink rate which keeps the bait in the fish’s face so play around with weights, bait sizes and the amount of line you let out until you find something that works!
This technique works exceptionally well for racking up a good tally if you've got a few hungry mouths to feed!
Possibly my most productive style of fishing, especially in spots with a bit of current, has been trolling hardbody lures. The quietness factor of kayaks is essential for this to be successful making it an almost kayak-exclusive way to fish for snapper. I’m a big fan of 8m diving 125mm RMG scorpions for this as most of my spots are between 10 and 20m of water which puts these in the strikezone pretty much all the time. Some of my best fish using this technique have come from just over 20m of water so they definitely rise to these lures! Although many people will tend to stick with redheads as their go-to colour, I’ve had success on a decent variety of colour patterns so it can pay to branch out a bit. Also, don’t be put off by the lure’s size! It’s not at all uncommon for small snapper to hit big lures (and vice-versa)- my personal record is a 28cm fish on a 15cm lure so I have no qualms in saying that they’re not afraid to eat them.
Hardbodies are particularly effective where there’s a bit of current that makes it hard to sit in one spot and midwater bait schools are getting pushed around by that current as they imitate a lone, wounded baitfish extremely well and are super easy to fish with regardless of conditions- it really is just a matter of letting them out a decent distance and then paddling slowly over structure. As an added bonus the snaps always seem to hit these things especially hard so it’s a fun way of fishing when they’re on the chew!
Trolling lures can have some fantastic results!
Live baits like yakkas, pike or slimy mackerel are a great way to target good quality snapper with the added bonus of giving you a good chance at some highly desirable bycatch like cobia, kingfish or jewfish as well, depending on where you’re fishing. I tend to rig my livies with a fairly heavy sinker, either on a running ball sinker rig or with a paternoster rig and one large circle hook straight through the nose of the bait. Adding a stinger to the back can be a good idea if you’re losing baits often, but it can shorten their life a bit. I’ll usually fish livebaits quite vertically and close to the bottom, and the heavy sinker keeps the bait from being able to run around too much so that the snapper can eat them as easily as possible. From there it’s basically just sitting the rod in the holder (it’s important to have a reasonably light drag here to avoid flipping!!!) and waiting for the fish to jump on!
The ideal result of a live yakka fished near the bottom!
In my experience and in the areas that I fish, snapper tend to be fairly clean fighters and don’t actively swim for structure with the intention of burying you. That said, where the ground is rough and sharp it’s quite possible for them to cut you off on the reef while they’re running for deeper water, so it pays to be on the ball when fighting them. Staying on top of the fish and keeping a fairly vertical angle during the fight is ideal when possible. For big fish on hardbodies and livebaits I run between 40 and 60lb leader, and when fishing with plastics I’ll usually drop this back to 20 or 30. They’ve got some sharp gill plates and solid teeth though so it’s usually a good idea not to go too light on your leader or it may wear through during the fight and I can guarantee that losing a nice red yakside is not a fun experience! Mainlines on the other hand can be dropped down to very light breaking strains though if you’re looking to make the fight a bit more entertaining! Lastly, be sure to bring a very sharp gaff. I’ve tried a few different types of gaffs over the last few years, but in all honesty, there’s no easy way to land big snapper in kayaks as they’ve got very thick scales all over their body and bony hard bits in their head that make finding a spot to pin them extremely difficult, but if you tire them out and aim for the chin or in behind the gills you should find your mark. Smaller ones are best tired out then lifted straight into the hatch with the leader.
Gavin Visser with another prime example!
Thanks for reading! I hope this has given you a few tips and tricks to help you nut out these fish, and remember to fish sustainably- always stick within the size/bag limits, only take what you need and care well for what you keep!