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Going soft on big snapper
  |  First Published: July 2017



There’s something very special and exciting about catching big snapper on lures. Not only are they a highly-prized catch, but they fight hard and when they grow old, some develop incredibly striking facial and body features that show us how prehistoric and tough these fish are. Being that they are a long-lived fish, they are seen as wary and smart, but it can be quite simple to outsmart and trick these big fish into eating a lure with consistency if you know how to go about it.

Even though large snapper are said to be hard to catch, every year many large snapper are caught on a variety of baits and lures, and with a little understanding of how these fish behave, it can be quite simple to find and catch large snapper – even a fish of lifetime – on a lure.

We are lucky in South East Queensland to be able to catch snapper year round, but like with all fish, numbers and sizes can fluctuate depending on the time of year. With winter here and spring approaching, there’s no better time to chase these fish, as large numbers of snapper school up offshore in preparation to spawn.

When it comes to luring big snapper, there’s a huge variety of lures you can use, but in my opinion if you want to catch big snapper, no lure is as effective and more versatile as soft plastics. With the simple change of a jighead, you can fish any depth of water, and soft plastics come in a huge array of sizes, colours and styles, all with different actions and scents to entice the fish.

If you think about it, soft plastic fishing for snapper is very similar to float lining, even though the plastic doesn’t have the same smell as real bait.

To catch big snapper effectively on soft plastics, you’ll need to persist and learn a few new techniques to control and understand where and how you are working the soft plastic. Before we get carried away and go out dropping and throwing soft plastics, we need the right gear to work soft plastics and put the brakes on these powerful reef dwellers.

Gearing up

When soft plastic fishing for snapper, the key is to use a spinning set up so you cast and free spool your lure with ease. When chasing snapper on soft plastics, I like to have two set ups.

The first is a 7ft 10-20lb NS Black Hole Amped spin rod, which has a 10-40g cast weight matched with a 3000 Daiwa Certate that I have spooled with 20lb braid and a 20lb flurocarbon leader. This is my finesse set up that I use in shallower water to work lighter jigheads in the 1/4-1/2oz bracket. It’s still a good all-rounder to use in shallow and deep water, running up to a 1oz jighead with a 5-7” plastics, but it lacks a little in pulling power when you hook up to a really big knobby, which needs controlling around nasty reef.

My second second set up is a 7ft 15-30lb NS Black Hole Amped spin rod with a 15-50g cast weight running a 3500HD Daiwa Certate, which I have spooled with 30lb braid and a 30lb flurocarbon leader. If I’m targeting big snapper in shallow or deep water, the 15-30lb is my go-to set up, especially when I’m casting 3/8-2oz jigheads with 7-8inch plastics. You may not catch as many smaller pan size snapper on this set up, but you will land a lot more quality fish and when that fish of a lifetime does show up, you’ll have plenty of power to turn it.

On the heavier set up lighter and smaller plastics can be trickier to work, but if a big snapper is about they’ll crush a plastic regardless of how you work it, as long as you can keep in contact with that lure and keep it in the strike zone.

If you purely want to catch quality snapper, the heavier set up is what you are after. Snapper can be leader shy at times, and 20-30lb leader can seem light, but as I run fluorocarbon it’s hard and strong enough to handle any snapper and is still finesse enough to get extra bites if snapper are wary.

If a snapper is hungry enough, it doesn’t matter how heavy your leader is, as snapper don’t intentionally reef you. There’s probably no point in running a leader heavier then around 40lb, as if they find reef, it doesn’t matter because the braid won’t hold up against the reef. Even though braid isn’t very abrasion resistant, it’s key when fishing plastics, as you must keep in contact with the plastic at all times, feeling for the bottom or a bite.

Choosing plastics

Choosing the right soft plastic is very important, as anything from 5-8” will catch fish, but some styles and colours work better than others.

I’ve had a lot of success on jerk shads in 5-8” sizes, as well as grub, paddle-tail, shrimp and squid/octopus imitation plastics.

The colours I find best are pearl white, glow, pink, nuclear chicken and natural bait colours. A lot of the time lure choice and colour comes down to what you are confident with, but some colours are proven fish catchers.

Rigging the soft plastic with the right hook is very important to your hook-up ratio, as if it’s too big you miss or foul hook fish and with hooks that are too small, you can pull them or the fish can break them. The rule of thumb I find best is matching the hook size to the size of the soft plastic, so 5” with a 5/0, 6” with a 6/0, 7” with a 7/0 and 8” with an 8/0. It’s okay if the hook doesn’t sit half way in the plastic, as snapper often attack a lure head first, so the closer the hook is to the head of the lure, the better.

When rigging the plastic to the jighead, you want to rig it as straight as possible, preventing any spin, as you want the plastic to look and sink naturally.

Where’s Knobby?

Offshore reefs are without a doubt one of the best places to encounter big snapper in good numbers, and to fish offshore for snapper, a good sounder and GPS and knowing how to use it is key to finding and understanding where these fish are.

Snapper can live on any piece of structure, but its understanding the types of reef and structure they prefer and how to fish these locations. Generally the biggest factor to finding snapper and big snapper is fishing structure that holds good bait, as this draws in the fish.

Most would think big snapper are bottom feeders, but it’s not uncommon for big snapper to sit up off the bottom searching for prey or feeding off schools of baitfish. They will hold to the bottom at times, but most of your bites with soft plastics come from well off the bottom, sometimes in mid water and even close to the surface in shallower water, as they race up to intercept the lure before it gets down to the pickers.

There are many forms of structure that will hold snapper, from large rocky reefs to smaller rocks, coffee rock patches, rubble patches, rocky islands, wrecks and artificial reefs, but as stated the key to finding the snapper is locating the bait in these areas. By using a good sounder and GPS, it can be quite easy to locate these areas.

I’ve found there are two types of fisheries for snapper, shallow and deep water. The reason for there being two is that your techniques and approach changes, depending on the depth of the water. I consider shallow to be anywhere from 5m to 40m, and deep from around 40-150m.

Shallow

It’s not uncommon to find really big snapper schooled up in shallow reef, but you need to be very stealthy with your approach, as large snapper can be easily spooked by the boat. Leaving your motor running, driving over the reef or banging the side of the boat can cause the fish to spook. Even drifting over the fish can be enough to partially spook them. To be stealthy in your approach, you need to line up and start your drifts well before you drift over the reef or structure and drive around the area you are fishing, being as quiet as you can with the motor.

Soft plastic fishing is extremely effective when fishing in shallow reef, as you can cover a lot of ground easily as you cast around the boat, plus it’s easier to be connected with your lure, as you aren’t greatly effected by current and wind as you are when fishing deeper water.

The jighead sizes I use in this area are anything from a 1/4-3/4oz. Generally I try to use 3/8 and 1/2oz, as these jigheads give the plastic a more natural sink rate to entice a lot more strikes. In the deeper water around 30-40m, I will upsize to a 3/4oz, as I can effectively get the lure to the bottom in most situations, but if conditions permit I will use a 1/2oz.

When fishing plastics in the shallows, you need to cast your plastic as far as you can ahead of your drift, so you cover as much grown as you can around and ahead of the boat. Most of the time, I like to cast the plastic on a little angle out to one side of the boat, so that when boat catches up with the plastic, I can continue to work the plastic out to one side and work an area that the boat hasn’t drifted over. I believe the boat drifting over fish in shallow water can temporarily spook them.

The way I fish my plastic is quite simple. I predetermine the sink rate of the plastic and jighead I’m using and determine how long it will take to get to the bottom, so once I cast out my plastic and slowly wind in the slack line, the boat drifts towards it. I count down how long it will take to get to the bottom. Sometimes you may feel it reach the bottom as you count it down, and sometimes you may not. If you can’t feel the bottom, don’t worry, just work the plastic up with a few erratic hops, retrieving line between each hop to keep connected with your plastic and repeat the process.

Once the lure is near the boat, you can either cast again or continue to let it out, free-spooling it to the bottom and elevating it off the bottom. If you can’t feel you’re plastic hitting the bottom, that’s fine, as you want to generally work the bottom third of the water column, as this is where these bigger snapper will feed. As long as you keep the plastic off the bottom, it will be in a better field of view for a snapper, as they will race up or over from a good distance to destroy the plastic. This is when you need to be ready.

Snapper will generally hit the plastic as it’s sinking, so after hopping the plastic off the bottom, be prepared to strike. Sometimes as you free spool the line to let the lure sink faster, they will hit, this is when you want to engage the bail arm as fast as possible and set the hook.

When fishing the shallow reef, you want to cover the ground and use the sounder at the same time, trying to locate the fish. Once located, continue to work that area over, predetermining your casts and drift so the plastic sinks down right on top of the fish that you have located and marked on the sounder. If you find you’re drifting too fast and it’s too hard to work your plastic effectively, a sea anchor or drogue is a very useful piece of equipment to use to slow down the drift, you can even use an electric motor if you can afford one.

Deep

Fishing deep water isn’t that different to shallow in the way you work the lure, but instead of casting far ahead of the drift, I find it’s best to drop the lure behind the boat and let it drift down and work it more vertically.

Depending on how fast you drift and how the current is moving, you may need to use the engine if the sea anchor isn’t slowing you down enough so you can feel your lure hitting the bottom. In this case you will need to use the motor to slowly reverse up on the line so you can feel the plastic working the bottom. The motor can put off the snapper, but generally, if they’re hungry and you locate a large enough school over structure, they will feed normally, but it’s best if you can drift without the motor.

In the deeper water I like to use a jigheads from 3/4-2oz. In the depth between 40-70m, I like to use a 3/4oz if I can, but with a bit of current I’ll upsize to a 1oz. In 60-90m, 1-1 1/2oz is my preferred weight, and in 90-150m 1 1/2-2oz is necessary.

These jigheads make the plastic sink quite a bit fast, but as snapper in deep water aren’t as wary they, have no problem with eating these lures once they see them. You just need to work it correctly, so this means using the sounder to see where the snapper are sitting and how far off the bottom they are, and working the lure through and above the school and letting it sink back through it. A lot of the time when you locate a school of snapper in deeper water, you’ll find the bigger fish are sitting above the smaller fish, around 10-30m off the bottom. So keeping that lure in the face of these bigger fish for longer is the key to enticing a bite from a bigger fish.

By-catch

When fishing soft plastics for snapper, you will come across a huge array of by-catch from pelagics like kingfish, tuna, trevally and marlin to other reef species such as pearl perch, grassy sweetlip, spangled emperor, mulloway, and pretty much anything that eats fish, squid and crustaceans out there. Most predators will eat a plastic, which can make snapper soft plastic fishing so exciting.

Theory into practise

Now that you have the basics of how and where to find big snapper and how to work the plastics to catch them, it’s only a matter of time and experience on the water until you learn the patterns and reasons as to when, where and why. Once you have this down, you’ll be able to catch trophy snapper consistently on soft plastics.

Until next time, stay safe, keep persisting and I hope you catch that trophy snapper you’ve been searching for.

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