Until April 2012, I wrote surfcasting articles for New Zealand Coast to Coast magazine. The magazine has since gone out of print, so I’ve decided to rekindle my fishing writing in the form of a blog on this website. I intend to catch more fish and write new material, but I will also revamp or update some of my published articles and the images that went with them. The article below is the last one that went to print.
Many surfcasters have never caught a trophy-size snapper, or perhaps they have caught just one. Clearly, where you live has a bearing on how easy it is to catch these fish. For example, Bay of Plenty beaches produce many more snapper than those of Hawke’s Bay, yet Hawke’s Bay has a deserved reputation as the place to catch the bigger specimens. Rock fishing in Bay of Plenty, however, is a different scenario. Those who have mastered that style of fishing catch trophy snapper among the shoalies. The well-known surfcaster Leon Jury has caught countless large snapper in the reef areas to the south of New Plymouth. He indicated to me that catching these fish from the clean beaches to the north of New Plymouth is possible, but bags of shoalies are a more likely result in that direction. Many people prefer to do just that, which is understandable.
7.57 kg snapper caught at Haumoana on 18 March 2012. This one gut hooked itself on an 8/0 octopus circle hook. The bait was squid (Sealord).
My strategy is no great secret among local surfcasters. Along the beaches around Napier, the big snapper often come close to shore when there’s an east or northeast wind. These winds can be so strong that many novices would look at the choppy sea and whitecaps and go home. You can see what I’m referring to in the photograph of the snapper in the red chillybin. It was a mean wind causing that chop and slight discolouration of the water.
Targeting big snapper can involve a degree of discomfort wherever you are, so you may have psyche yourself up for task. Where I live, I often endure an off-sea gale for three to four hours, waiting for a big hit that never eventuates. If you live in Taranaki, you may have to scrabble over and among treacherous rocks and lose a lot of tackle to snags. Needless to say, veterans of the area like Leon Jury will have identified the best locations, and those locations may be quite specific—a channel between rocks for example. Being in Taranaki, they may also be very subject to tide. It can take years to know an area like this.
7.59 kg snapper caught at Haumoana on 6 March 2012. This fish was lip hooked with an 8/0 octopus circle hook. The bait is squid (Sealord).
Bay of Plenty surfcasters are a lucky lot. They can drive vehicles onto their lovely beaches, pull out the deck chairs and camp cookers and catch shoalies without too much effort. But if they want to catch the big snapper that undoubtedly exist in their bountiful bay, they may have to hoof it to a rock platform somewhere near East Cape. Again, the temptation to target smaller fish on a clean beach in relative comfort is perfectly understandable. I’d do it myself.
On occasions, surfcasters have made a trip to Hawke’s Bay in the hope of landing one of our big snapper. The background to this is that they see photographs like those in this article and think yeah let’s go over there and get into them. Photographs can create a false impression. I caught these two snapper this March. Prior to that, I caught three in October 2008. Nothing of note happened between then and now, so what are the odds an outsider will plan a trip weeks ahead with no idea of what the conditions might be and catch a good fish? I’d say it’s better to study your own territory and go surfcasting when the sea conditions and weather are favourable. But don’t ask me what those exact conditions are in your area. I’m still getting to know my own. Obviously, time of year and time of day are very important. Assuming those two are optimal, wind direction may be the next critical predictor of success, more so than tide or moon phase. As I mentioned, the best winds around Napier are east and northeast, but they will be different in other parts of the country.
Close-up shot of the bait and floats that attracted this 7.59 kilogram snapper.
Assuming sea conditions and weather and time of season are all favourable, and that you know the best locations locally, the final aspect is the skill set you take to the beach—casting, rigs and bait. It’s my impression that big snapper roaming close to shore are in the mood to eat just about anything, but why take a chance? Why not offer them the best? This takes me into contentious territory. Many surfcasters have very set ideas on what is the best bait.
I don’t claim to know what is the best, but I prefer to use squid and octopus when targeting big snapper. I’m sure pilchards are equally as good, but I’m too lazy to muck about with them. Also, they’re too prone to damage by baitfish, and that’s before lice and paddle crabs get into the act. In Hawke’s Bay, we have every bait-wrecking problem known to surfcasters: lice, paddle crabs, baitfish and baby tope (school shark). At certain times the last on that list is the biggest headache. I think tope must breed in the lee of Cape Kidnappers.
Octopus is hard to get. Squid is easier, but I don’t buy the small, fragile ones they sell as bait—the ones that are marinating in their own bacteria-riddled gut contents. Those squid seem to start rotting the moment you thaw them, and I’m quite sure your average snapper isn’t impressed with that. The squid you see in the photograph of my rig is from Sealord. If you ordered a dish of calamari at a fancy restaurant, that’s what you’d get, only cooked. I assume it’s gutted and skinned and frozen on the boats as it’s caught. It’s pristine white in the box and doesn’t go off in the fridge nearly as quickly as the bait product. My cat loves it, and that’s the ultimate accolade in my view. If your cat won’t eat your bait, chances are a snapper won’t either. I wonder if the lads working on the squid boats aren’t too concerned about the undersize squid they toss in the bait bin. Maybe they leave the bin in hot sun all day before wheeling it into the chiller at night.
My standard rig for targeting snapper on beaches around Napier.
You will note there a two floats on my snapper rig. I use those to keep the bait off the bottom to delay damage by paddle crabs, which are prolific down the southern end of Hawke’s Bay. If snapper are in close, those crabs make themselves scarce, but I use the floats regardless. They possibly act as attractants, although I don’t really know if they increase my catch. Some people are concerned they may deter snapper from accepting a bait, but that doesn’t seem a problem. The snapper I’m holding has a trace hanging from its mouth. I had to dissect that fish to retrieve my hook and two floats—he’d swallowed the whole package and gut hooked himself (circle hooks don’t always lip hook). The two green floats you see in the lip hooked snapper are very pretty and make a nice photograph, but I don’t believe colour is an issue. The floats the other snapper swallowed were shiny silver with blue flecks. I wine cork will probably do the same job.
If you look closely at my bait, you will see one 8/0 circle hook secured with a snell knot. I don’t claim this is the best approach, but I like the results I get in terms of hooking and retaining fish. No snapper can crush or bend an 8/0 of this design. They absorb a decent strip of squid when stitched on as shown, and that strip can be arranged so the inturned point is well exposed. I always use a Breakaway Impact Shield as a bait clip. When casting into a head wind, as I’m often doing in Hawke’s Bay, it helps to have an aerodynamic bait. Snell knots are known to increase catch rates on commercial long lines. I can’t be certain the same advantage applies when surfcasting, but they are a very secure knot. Whatever gives me confidence, I use.
Big snapper in the bin. Note the sea conditions. A strong east or northeast wind brings these fish close to shore around Napier.