Pelagic Snapper

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, pelagic means “belonging to the upper layers of the open sea”. When we use the term pelagic we are generally referring to oceanic speedsters such as tuna, wahoo and marlin, but not snapper. After all, snapper are bottom hugging reef dwellers, right? Wrong!

Sure, snapper are attracted to reef, or any structure for that matter, but in my opinion the real attraction for snapper — particularly large specimens — in these areas are the schools of baitfish that congregate over reef rather than the reef itself. Like most keen snapper anglers, I have been caught up in the soft plastics craze over the past few years and there is no doubt in my mind that I can confidently outfish bait for both size and numbers with plastics. You just have to change the way you think about snapper.

Now this is probably where I might lose a few readers. “Not another snapper on soft plastics story — we’ve heard it all before!” I hear you exclaim. Well, I dare you to read on because I am about to reveal all my snapper secrets that are the result of many hours on the water. My techniques also challenge some of the traditional methods for catching snapper on plastics, so you never know — you may just learn something new.

I’m going to backtrack a few years to when I used to bait fish for snapper. Indeed, the education process of how snapper behave started then. In the early days we fished for snapper in two ways — drifting with paternoster rigs on the bottom, or anchored up and fishing a berley trail.

When drifting and fishing the bottom, we very rarely caught a big snapper. We also anchored up and berleyed, floated pilchards down the berley trail and regularly caught quality fish. In fact, you rarely caught a small one. Of course, this method still works today if you can be bothered with the anchor and the bait.

I always thought that the berley was bringing the big fish off the bottom and that’s why the floating bait was so effective. I later learned that the big snapper were already in mid water and that’s why you would always catch a quality fish on the drop rather than on the bottom.

As the years went by, I got more and more confident using my depth sounder, to the point where I knew when I was marking snapper. All the big marks were mid water and you could literally count the snapper under the boat.

Let’s fast forward to the current era and I’ll explain to you why soft plastics are far more effective at catching quality snapper in shallow water than bait. I should point out that these methods refer to my home waters off Queensland’s Sunshine Coast where I am generally fishing shallow reefs from 5-15 fathoms deep. That said, there is no reason why the same methods won’t work in your home waters also.

Although snapper will feed all day, it’s no surprise to hear me say that dawn and dusk are the best times to fish. If you can combine this with a tide change, so much the better. Boat traffic can quickly kill a shallow water snapper bite, so if you’re able to sneak out on a weekday, then your chance of success will increase again. Since I am not much of a morning person, the majority of my snapper fishing occurs in the afternoon and evening.

The first thing I do when I get to my chosen location is to have a troll around. The main reason for this is because I want to locate where the baitfish and snapper are holding. I have my head in the sounder while doing this and if I mark bait and/or fish, then I obviously place a mark on the GPS. I will fish this mark a little later with plastics. While I am looking around I generally troll a couple of deep diving minnows. Snapper will eat hard-bodied lures and it is often another good way to locate feeding fish. The Classic Dr Evil is a great snapper minnow as it has a fairly small profile, but will dive to 9m.

Sunset is snapper time. While most people are sitting down to watch the news, keen snapper anglers are getting their arms stretched.
Snapper love jerk shad style soft plastics and this is a selection of the author’s favourites.

If you aren’t lucky enough to find surface bait, then it is time to go back to where you previously marked sub-surface bait and/or fish and set up a drift. Both wind and current will affect the direction of travel, so I always fish ff the starboard side of the boat and turn the outboard full lock to port. By doing this each time, my drift direction shouldn’t alter too much during a session and it is easier to position the boat over the GPS marks by monitoring the track on the plotter.

Once the drift direction is established, start up-wind of the mark, as you will be casting with the wind and drifting towards the plastic. I will often start a drift 50-100m up-wind, drifting in nice and quietly without spooking the fish.

It is probably an opportune time to mention the tackle we are using, which will help explain the technique a little better. As we are casting light lures long distances, this is the domain of the spin outfit. You need a minimum 2.1m long spin rod that can handle 10kg braid. A fairly fast action is the go. My favourite snapper rod is a custom-built Precision Rod that is 2.44m long with a nice light tip, but locks up midway down and has real pulling power. It has a nice long butt section for sticking under your arm, and is super light. I can cast a very light jig head a long way, but it could still handle 15kg braid if I wanted to fish that heavy.

Reels of choice are the 4000 Stella or Sustain, but any quality 3000 to 4000 size threadline will do the job. I have decided that 10kg braid is the go in this area and I am very happy with the results I have been getting with Power Pro. I used to use 7kg braid and 10kg fluorocarbon leader, but I was losing quite a few fish in this rough terrain. Since upgrading to 10kg braid and 15kg leader, I have been able to stop the majority of those bigger fish that have the power to take you over a reef edge.

Jig heads vary depending on water depth and wind strength, but the simple theory is the lighter the better. You want the plastic to appear as natural as possible as it wafts through the water column like a stunned baitfish. Generally speaking, 3.5-7g (1/8th-¼oz) heads suit that 5-15f water depth that I am fishing here. Hook size is 5/0-7/0, depending on the brand. Keep in mind that if you are going to fish a heavy drag on 10kg braid, it needs to be a fairly hefty gauge hook.

As far as plastics go, any jerk shad style will do the job. I prefer the 13cm (5in) due to the good hook exposure, but quite a few of my mates have had success with the 18cm (7in) models. I was a really big fan of Berkley Gulps and had a lot of success on them, but since discovering Z-Man plastics I’ve had no reason to use anything else. What I like about the Z-Mans is I can catch several fish on the one plastic, whereas the Gulps are generally one fish, one plastic. Maybe I am just a tight arse, but at one stage I was spending more on Gulps each trip than fuel for the boat! I haven’t used them much myself, but a bunch of other snapper aficionados I know also swear by the Squidgy Flick Bait.

Okay, so now we’ve run through the gear, let’s get back to the fishing. Make the longest wind-assisted cast you can in the direction that the boat is drifting. Big casts achieve two things. It gets the plastic further away from the boat, which may spook a fish, and it also gives the plastic more time to drift through the water column.

Once you have made your big cast, engage the reel and wind up the slack. You want to be in contact with the plastic, but not actually winding it in. As you drift towards the plastic, all you want to do is remove the belly. Be ready for a bite as soon as you engage the reel. Like I said, these are pelagic feeders and I often get bit within a couple of metres of the surface. The majority of the bites come from mid water though and if you are fishing 10f of water, then expect to get bit around that 5f mark with regularity.

A lot of the stories I have read about snapper on plastics over the years recommend a jerky retrieve bouncing off the bottom, but in my experience the ‘do nothing’ method is more effective. In fact, so many of my bites come on the drop that I don’t even bother working the bottom any more, as all I ever got down there was snags or small fish. As soon as I reckon I am near the bottom, I simply wind the plastic back up and cast again.

I’m sure there are plenty of people that catch snapper on plastics using different methods and indeed there are no hard and fast rules, but after many hours’ trialling different techniques, the one described above is certainly the most effective in my home waters at least. Best of all, it is quick, clean and easy fishing with no bait, no berley, no anchoring, and you are turning a quality table fish into a sportfish. Yep, snapper on plastics has definitely become one of my favourite forms of fishing.

Big snapper aren’t as good to eat as the smaller models and do release well if caught from shallow water. Consider releasing all the bigger spawning fish and of course stick to state bag limits.