As gentle breeze laps over the calm bay. The hooks are baited and rods cast, all in anticipation, of the season’s first Big Red.
With rods set and burley flowing the angler waits resolutely for a screaming ratchet as a Big Snapper charges off into the unknown abyss below.
Each year from September till early May thousands of keen anglers descend on Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay in search of the elusive “Big Red”.
This guide will hopefully give you the tips, hints and secrets that will see you become a Port Phillip Bay Snapper Fishing expert.
The run of Snapper in Port Phillip Bay coincides with the blossoming of the Tea-Tree. The Sunday after the AFL grand final sees many of the keen Snapper anglers ready their gear in expectation of the first blossoms of the Tea-tree. It is not long after this that reports of snapper flood the local tackle shops and boat ramps, and so the cycle has begun as another snapper season is on in earnest. Will it be better than the last year? Who knows? One thing is for sure now that Scallop Dredging has been phased out every body has a chance of connecting to one of Victoria’s favourite sport fish.
The annual migration of Snapper into Port Phillip Bay is believed to be one based on the fishes urge to breed. The run of Snapper starts slowly as individual fish enter the Bay, as time progresses these fish invade in schools, at times the number of fish entering is so great it creates a so called “Red Tide”. Snapper prefer to move into the Bay under the cover of a murky discharge of rainwater through the Heads.
There are many factors that determine the volume of Snapper that enter the bay. All fish have cycles that follow weather patterns; these patterns determine the rate of growth, activity, feeding patterns and so on of all fish.
My experience has shown the more early season rain (September-November) the better the season, this is due the amount of organisms flushed out of all the local creeks and rivers. This Plankton feeds the Pilchard schools. The Pilchard schools in turn feed the Squid, Salmon and Barracouta schools that enter the bay at the same time as the Snapper. Hence the more food, the bigger and longer the run of Snapper. Lets face it as soon as the beer and steak run out at a BBQ we all head home too.
Snapper are a grazing feeder; they feed on anything that is easy prey. The majority of the Snapper’s diet consists of molluscs, crustaceans and any other easy feed on the seabed. The Snapper is a bottom feeder; its teeth are suited for grazing and foraging not hunting. Snapper are adaptable and opportunistic feeders if they are hungry they will eat most quarry. Snapper are in PORT PHILLIP BAY at a time when food is prolific so fresh well-presented bait will out fish all other offerings, this is a very important hint.
Snapper tend to School and populate areas where there is a high incidence of their favoured foods, therefore shellfish beds, reefs and sea-grass beds are prime Snapper grounds. Snapper like good cover; they tend to spend the daylight hours in deep water. Snapper will venture into shallower water under the cover of darkness or murky water to feed. After rough seas opportunistic Snapper invade swallow reefs and sea-grass beds to feed on dead and injured prey, namely cephalods, crustaceans and fish. These are the times when most land-based anglers encounter and target Snapper.
The key to Snapper fishing in Port Phillip Bay is being prepared. There are many keen anglers who struggle to find consistency in their results due to their lack of preparation. Each year I have a very good guide to the location of Snapper schools through my fishing diary. Snapper are a fish of habit; they have an uncanny habit of being at the same place at the same time each year. Yet they are not totally predictable, this in my opinion adds to their mystique.
There is a lot of debate about the best boats for Snapper fishing in Port Phillip Bay. To me this is a matter of opinion; all have their pros and cons. Personally I like to fish out of a 4-5 meter tinny with forward and aft seats, this gives me the ability to fish all around the boat. Creating a distinct advantage when the tide is opposing the wind. The open layout also gives a large area in which to fish and move about. The down side to this style of boat is that it gives you very little protection from the elements. A Snapper boat and its skipper should be capable of handling waves up to two meters, this is due to the fact that not always will the fish bite on nice sunny days and Port Phillip Bay is a large shallow expanse of water that roughs up quickly. Boats should not be underpowered as quite often it is necessary to make a hasty retreat from an approaching squall line.
All boats that plan on fishing for Snapper in Port Phillip Bay should be setup so that anglers can fish at least eight rods. The most common method of doing this is with the use of rocket launcher style rod holders. When fishing this number of rods it’s imperative that the boat not drifts. To ensure the boat stays at rest while at anchor make sure your anchor rope has sufficient chain and rope and that the anchor is the large enough for your craft. I prefer the sand dredge style of anchor. Anchor chain is the shock absorber in this system. I like to employ a chain length of over three quarters of the boats length.
Serious Snapper Fishermen have both a depth sounder and a GPS. Most of the time I find a GPS the most important tool of all as it puts you on your spot each time without fail. Always have a notebook with your GPS marks written down just in case of a system failure or sudden loses of power causing memory erosion. Many anglers have found very productive Snapper grounds while drifting for Flathead. They have done this by finding that their lines are snagging and or bringing up Mud Oysters, Sea cows and sea grasses over other wise vast expanses of sand or mud. These slight changes in the seabed are not always detected on a depth sounder. This is the reason that I find a GPS of more use than a depth sounder.
Hooking a snapper is a subject of much debate. There are two distinct methods employed by most anglers, free spooling / zero tension or fishing the reel in gear with 1 kg of drag preset. My preference is to fish with the reels out of gear, there are a number of factors behind this style. Fishing out of gear enables the angler to entice timid fish that are easily spooked by resistance. Also fishing out of gear gives the fish time to swallow the bait allowing a better hook-up rate. When free spooling for Snapper let the fish run with the bait for around two seconds before striking. This gives the fish time to swallow the bait. One of the final reasons for fishing out of gear is the fact that Gummy Sharks are a common by catch, Gummies often mouth a bait before swallowing and are also easily spooked by resistance. The most important thing to remember in hooking a Snapper is that you must have suitable and sharp hooks. Hook size depends on bait size. It is common practice for snapper anglers to fish with hooks ranging in size from 2/0 to 6/0. My preferred hook size is a 5/0 or 6/0 with a 2/0 to 4/0 keeper tied on a running sinker rig with a 1.5 meter 40 lb Floro-carbon trace. The use of a keeper enables the angler to fish baits of varying sizes. Don’t have a poor quality keeper as you will find a vast number of fish are hooked on the keeper, especially if pickers like flathead are about. Chemically sharpened hooks are the choice of most angles as they are sharp enough to use straight out of the packet.
Snapper fishing gear can be as simple or as complex as one desires. My personal preference is to use a seven-foot fast tapered rod (soft tip, solid butt) with a quality overhead reel. My brand preferences are combinations that incorporate Shakespeare Ugly Stick or Silstar Power Tip rods with an Abu Ambassador 6500 or a bait runner style of reel. I do have a preference for overhead reels as they are less prone to line twists. This is a great consideration when fishing in tidal movement with large baits. The most common cause of the line twists is the angler winding while the drag is feeding line. In overhead or bait caster reels the spool will not turn so line twists that are caused in this fashion are eliminated.
Most snapper caught on Port Phillip Bay are easily landed using four-kilogram line. Yet due to the ground that I fish for snapper I use lines ranging from six to ten kilograms braking strain. Snapper baits may sit on the seabed for up to an hour before you move them, it is at this time that your line may come into contact with abrasive objects such as Oysters or reef. These objects can leave your line damaged and worn. This is the reason why I choose a stronger line than required, as previously mentioned this factor also dictates the way I fight the fish.
The fight of the Snapper is quite distinct. When first hooked the fish will run hard along the bottom before tiring, the fish will then start head shaking, giving a distinctive nodding feeling, when the fish sights the boat it will run a second time. The second run usually does not have the power of the first, after this most fish just circle to the boat providing the angler with an easy net opportunity.
When fighting a Snapper I initially have quite a firm drag to help me penetrate the fish’s bony mouth, once I have hooked a fish I progressively reduce the drag setting as the fish gets closer to the boat, I do this because the line has a reduced stretch and with the rubble bottoms Snapper inhabit nicks in the line are quite common. This results in fewer break-offs and pulled hooks as well as easy net shots as fish are tired when brought to the boat.
Now you have your prized snapper beside the boat, net the fish head first as it lays on its side. This way you should never loose a fish while landing it.
A good net for snapper fishing is a sturdy large mouthed model with a long handle. I like the long handle as it gives the angler a longer reach. This is a great advantage as most anglers use seven foot rods and leaders up to two meters long, in rough seas and strong currents it can be quite difficult to bring your prized fish close to the boat.
Bait for Snapper is a boat ramp topic. “What ya getem on ?” Is one of the chief topics at local boat ramps.
Snapper will take on any given day Squid, Pilchards, Whiting, Barracouta, Salmon, Mackerel, Bonito, Flathead, Cuttlefish, Crabs, Garfish, Octopus, Mullet the list is endless.
My preferred Bait for snapper fishing in Port Phillip Bay is fresh Squid, with the head being the bait of choice. Many people religiously use Pilchards. As a hint find what bait works best for you and your style of fishing, or listen to what other people are catching fish on. As a tip try to always have a variety of fresh baits at your disposal. Although I fish for snapper using a free spooling method of hook-up, when I use pilchards as bait I fish the reel in gear. This is due to the Pilchard being a soft bait easily dislodged from a hook.
There is much debate about using burley for Snapper. I swear by it. I find that the burley will hold a school of fish around for a longer period of time. Burley I frequently use is a amalgamation of fish pellets and tuna oil with a little bit of squid, garfish or pilchard depending on which bait I’m fishing with.
The most effective way to use burley is to have a dispenser on your anchor as well as the stern.
Try and arrive at your fishing spot three quarters of an hour before slack water this gives your burley trail the ability to attract fish from a wider range of water.
The use of burley does attract rubbish like Stingrays, Flathead and sharks, yet it also attracts garfish. When the garfish enter the burley trail I catch them and use them as bait. When using burley learn to take the good with the bad.
Time of day is not critical when fishing for snapper. I find that if you fish a change of tide rather than a time of day your chances of hooking a snapper are greatly increased. There have been many times that I have put the boat in the water at eleven am to fish a two pm tide and had other anglers laugh at me. They say “Its too bright. Snapper don’t bite in the middle of the day”. At four pm as I’m pulling the boat out of the water, I show them the value of fishing a tide. A typical Snapper sortie will see me catch Squid prior, then Snapper, Gummy, School and Seven Gill Shark and Flathead while on the Snapper location. With all that said I should also tell you that the best catches I’ve ever had have happened when a tide change has occurred at the beginning or end of daylight.
Now lines have been cast, rods set and burley flowing, the angler patiently awaits the arrival of a Big Red. Will the next fish that takes your bait be the mystical twenty pounder we all search for? Who knows! Isn’t that the very reason that we all go fishing?