by Ron Giles
Snapper are New Zealand’s most popular sport fish — the most-targeted species for the majority of New Zealanders by virtue of its distribution.
Snapper are found all around the North Island. Further south, they occur mostly around the top third of the South Island; only venturing further south in the warmth of summer.
Snapper vary greatly in habits and growth rates, depending on where they are found. West Coast snapper usually grow more quickly and end up much larger but fish numbers are relatively low.
On the east coast, fish are more numerous, but grow more slowly. In the Hauraki Gulf a legal 30cm fish may be nine years old; on Auckland’s west coast, a similar fish might be just three or four years of age.
In general, growth is faster in warmer, northern parts of the snapper’s range, but very large fish are often taken at the extremities of distribution, since such large animals are better able to tolerate marginal conditions.
The average size of snapper is around 1-2kg, but may be bigger or smaller in certain areas or in some years. Really big specimens reach 15kg and can put up an impressive fight. Larger fish tend to avoid the daylight hours, especially in the shallows, and most success with the bigger fish will be had at dawn or dusk.
Snapper eat almost any animal matter, including molluscs (shellfish, squid and octopi), crustaceans (crabs, shrimps, barnacles and crayfish), other invertebrates (worms, starfish, sea urchins) and fish. They frequent most bottom types and operate throughout the water column, though most of their time is spent near the sea floor.
Breeding takes place in moderate depths in wide, sheltered bays once the water temperature nudges 18°C. Breeding fish gather in dense aggregations in mid-water.
The Hauraki Gulf, Bay of Islands, Doubtless Bay, Bay of Plenty, Hawke Bay, Taranaki Bight, Tasman and Golden Bays are recognised snapper breeding venues.
Recreational fishers target breeding fish and the ‘schooling season’ is marked in many snapper fishing calendars. Big breeding fish are hungry and aggressive, making them easy to catch, so it’s important not to be greedy.
Within their preferred range, snapper will be found on almost every reef, and in every suitable harbour and channel. They will enter very shallow water, especially at night, and also inhabit reefs and broken foul in 100m of water. They can be taken from the shore or from boats of all sizes.
The methods of catching snapper are as varied as the waters where they are caught. The most common method is by baitfishing and that used to be mainly with a ledger rig - a sinker at the bottom and two loops of the trace where the hooks are attached. Substituting the loops with Flasher rigs proved hugely successful, although more than two Flasher hooks is not recommended due to the likelihood of tangling. There is nothing worse than having a school of snapper below your boat; all going hungry while you are untangling a rig.
Two soft baiting rods
A nice day on the Waitemata Harbour - fishing the Rangitoto Channel
Flasher rig - one of the most common ways to catch snapper
One of the most productive ways of catching big snapper is 'straylining'. With this method, a whole pilchard or a butterflied fresh baitfish is skewered onto a size 6-8 suicide type hook. Depending on the strength of the current, a small ball sinker is threaded onto the trace so it sits above the hook. A second 'keeper' hook is often used below the sinker to provide added hooking capability. The rig is cast out behind the baot and allowed to drift down to the sea bottom. The rod is loaded into a rod holder and left with the reel set on clicker drag only. When the clicker goes mad, the rod is picked up and the fish is allowed to run. Striking too early, when the fish is only 'mouthing' the bait can see the bail pulled out of the snapper's mouth. When the line starts slowing out of the reel, a strong upward strike should see a solid hook up. That lack of resistance when the bait is taken, is why big fish are more likely to take a straylined bait.
These days, there has been a huge trend to soft baiting and lure fishing. Many anglers do not even take bait with them on a fishing excursion but rely solely on articial baits like the Gulp range of soft baits. These baits are threaded onto a lead-headed hook; the weight of the lead depending on the depth being fished and the speed of the current. More on softbaiting here.
Hard-bodied lure fishing has also become popular in recent years. There are a wide range of lures used from Sebile hard body through to Shimano Lucanus and Bottom Ship metal lures plus the newer 'micro jigs'.
Bottom ship lures
Lucanus jig lures