How to Catch Snapper – Location, Bait, Presentation, Rigs, Tackle

Rod Shearman with a 7kg snapper caught right on dusk. How to Catch Snapper.
Rod Shearman with a 7kg snapper caught right on dusk.

How to Catch Snapper

by Andrew Padlie

Catching snapper would have to be every Kiwi’s favourite pastime. If you say you are going fishing everyone you talk to automatically thinks of snapper on the menu for tea. Except if you live in the South Island off course where a snapper is a real bonus and not just another bottom species. Let’s look at how to catch snapper.

Over the years, developments in fishing have bought to us a whole variety of methods in which to catch snapper. The Australians have for many years caught snapper with methods that we Kiwis have been slow to pick up on. But now we Kiwis have advanced in our methods. Now catching big snapper is becoming easier and now all can enjoy the thrill of catching a 201b fish. Just how do you catch that magic 20lb plus fish? Easy, put a line in the water of course and you are in with a chance. If you want to increase your chances then certain steps can help in your catch increase. The first step is the location.

Location – How to Catch Snapper

Where do you go? Well, that is up to you, but it usually helps to go somewhere there is food for snapper. Remember that snapper love shellfish and crustaceans. It is the major part of their diets here in the North Island and most probably the south as well.

It is also known that where there is food there is fish about. Most of the time you will find snapper around reefs and headlands where all this food is. In the Bay of Plenty snapper also move into the shallows and onto the sand to breed. At times they can be caught in large numbers while breeding.

Also migrations of other species effect snapper at all times. Crayfish migrate across the sand to different reefs for spawning. Once there young start to move the snapper have a field day on them especially when they are breaking out of their shells and are growing their outer shells then become soft and easy for the snapper to devour.

Snapper also like to feed on kina which is also a favourite part of their diet although to me chewing into those spikes doesn’t sound too yummy to me. So as you can see wherever there is food that snapper are fond of technically there should be snapper present at certain times. Once you establish what the local food source is and where it is then you are well on your way to catching more snapper. Some people believe snapper are just shallow water fish. Well, in fact, they spend a majority of their time in the shallows over reefs and close to shore looking for food. But they do spend time in deeper water looking for the same thing. We have caught them in water down to 80 metres in-depth and a lot in 50 metres of water. I gather the bottom structure would be very similar to the shallower conditions.

Water temperature also plays a big part in a snappers life. As temperatures increase and decrease snapper move from one location to the next. Snapper also needs a certain temperature to breed. They only breed once this temperature is met and this is when you will find them on the sand.

Snapper can be a very easy fish to find. If you are lucky to have a depth sounder on board then all you have to do is look for an area with good structure and plenty of food around. While around reefs look for a lot of kelp on the bottom and a lot of large boulder style rocks. These rocks are great for the big snapper to hide around but not good for your terminal tackle though.

Bait – How to Catch Snapper

Bait is something that is a must. You would look a bit stupid fishing with no bait on your hooks wouldn’t you now. Which bait you use is really up to you to decide. Everyone has their favourite bait they like to use and there is none more popular than the good old skipjack tuna, or bonito as it is called commercially. Skipjack would have to be the most versatile bait for snapper of all time. You can use it in any way you wish.

Pacific Saury or Sanma - Cololabis saira.
Pacific Saury or Sanma – Cololabis saira.

The next on the list in how to catch snapper would have to be pilchards and sanma (Pacific Saury). These two baitfish are best used whole or in half. All three baits have a very high oil content that can be smelt by snapper from metres away.

There are other baits that are very popular such as mullet, tua tuas, mussels, dorado, Koi Carp, trout and crayfish (if anyone is crazy enough to use it as bait) to name a few.

In the past, they even used marlin for snapper bait. My stepfather told me when he was a little younger they would go down to the local wharf. There always used to be a marlin hanging in the water at the end of the wharf caught by one of the local boats. They would then lift the carcass out of the water and cut off a reasonable slab of flesh before the days fishing. Back then they never used to catch skipjack for bait so the main bait was mainly kahawai, trout or marlin.

My personal favourite is a whole mackerel that is rigged with its tail and backbone missing. This allows the two fillets to flap around in the current looking like a wounded baitfish.

One important thing to remember is to always use fresh bait. You and I do not like rotten food, neither do the fish.

This far north snapper shows the colour that indicates it hangs around reefs and kelp. These snapper are also known as kelpies. How to Catch Snapper.
This far north snapper shows the colour that indicates it hangs around reefs and kelp. These snapper are also known as kelpies.

Presentation – How to Catch Snapper

The most important thing when snapper fishing is to present your bait the most natural way possible. To do this your bait must be fresh and in good condition. A squashed pilchard or soft one will not stay on your hooks too well and can be easily ripped from them. Try and keep your bait out of the sun and away from where anyone can stand on them.

When buying bonito look for one that hasn’t had its skin damaged and again try and keep it out of the sun.

Try to avoid refreezing your bait if you can. If you do it would probably be best used as berley on the next trip. When you are bottom bouncing any cut bait will look good to any cruising fish. So presentation is not so important here. Also, your rig has to be well presented, even when bottom bouncing.

There is no use having your hooks so close together that they become tangled every time you drop your baits into the water. If the loops to your dropper are too short then the fish will bump into the mainline and could spook easily.

When straylining you want to keep your rig simple. Try and keep excess parts of tackle such as swivels out of your rigs if possible. Things that are more likely to scare that big 20lb plus snapper away. Tackle stores are going to love me for that one, sorry guy’s.

Rigs – How to Catch Snapper

Rigs which you can use are varied and everyone has there own variations of popular rigs. All up they are all pretty much the same in style. I’m not going to get into specifics as I could fill the whole magazine with different rigs and ideas. So I will stick with the three most used rigs. The first and most popular rig is the bottom bouncing rig or dropper rig. This rig is best used in deeper water and is good for catching just about anything. It is also good for figuring out what is down there as well.

The second rig is the running rig. This rig is similar to the strayline or floating rig except it has the desired amount of weight above the swivel. This rig is very good over sand and around areas where there is a lot of current. Hence the weight above the swivel.

Last of all your is the strayline rig. This would have to be the most popular of all. The strayline rig allows you to present your bait in the most natural way possible. Your bait will look more like it is floating down with the current.

A strayline rig is simple to prepare. All you need is a length of trace material that should be as light as possible for the conditions that are been fished. Simply tie a loop or swivel at one end of the trace and one or two hooks on the other. The size of the hooks and how you attach them is up to you. A small weight can be added to the trace to help get the bait down in stronger currents.

I have a favourite rig that has worked well for me. It is very simple to tie. All that is needed is for you to tie a short double in your main line then slip on a small weight for the current and tie the one or two hooks of your choice onto the end of the double. The knot from the double line will stop the small weight from sliding up the main line. If this is not to your liking I sometimes tie a metre of heavier mono onto the end of the double for extra security around the rocks. The double then comes in handy when that fish of a lifetime takes you into the rocks while fighting for its freedom. The only disadvantage with this rig is the amount of line twist you get because you use no swivels.

Attracting Snapper

Attracting fish to your boat is another important part of learning about how to catch snapper. It doesn’t matter where you fish whether it be from the shore or from a boat. Berley is a must for luring that big snapper from it’s hiding place in the kelp. If you happen to be fishing from shore you can still use berley as well. While fishing from a rock ledge it is possible to suspend an onion sack full of minced berley in the water. The ocean wash on the rocks is enough to help distribute the berley evenly in the area to be fished.

The same can be applied when fishing from a beach. The only problem is when the tide is coming in. It is then required to hurl handfuls of berley out to sea to distribute it.

From a boat, the concept is still the same except all that is needed is to tie the onion sack off to the side of the boat. Then the natural movements of the sea will shake the berley out of the sack and into the current.

Some like to attach their berley bag to the anchor so as to get the berley to the fish quicker. This is a great idea but I have heard too many stories of sharks grabbing the berley bag and dragging the boat around with them. There is nothing more freaky than fishing in the harbour on an outgoing tide and your boat starts moving up the current. Just remember snapper and other fish have a great sense of smell and can smell objects from metres away. Another thing you should consider is to try and use the same berley as you intend using for bait. This way you are more likely to increase your chances of catching fish. Put it this way, if you walked past McDonald’s and smelt the aroma. You would want to eat McDonald’s, wouldn’t you?


Your choice of tackle comes down to what you can afford. I’ve seen guys bring out their Old Lucky when on a charter. Some of these outfits look like they should be hanging on the wall and not over the back of the boat. The line is still the same line as when the outfit was bought sometimes. Somehow they still manage to catch fish on them. Personally, I believe the best all-round outfit would be a Shimano Baitrunner 6500 matched to a 6ft 10-15kg spinning rod of your choice.

Make sure you buy a rod with a relatively soft tip section and a strong bottom end. The soft tip will help with those soft bites that are hard to detect. The strong butt section will help with while fighting that monster snapper. With this outfit, you can fish from the shore or boat with ease and land them. All methods can be used with this outfit. Some anglers prefer to use a free spool reel to fish for snapper. There is no rule to say you can’t but be prepared for the hard run of a big snapper once it takes your bait. A huge birds nest is not what you want when there is a 20lb plus snapper on the other end. The extra line capacity seems to make a lot of people more comfortable. You never know when a 20kg kingfish will come along. These reels take a lot of practice to master especially when it comes to casting.


Once you have yourself all sorted out and you are at your secret spot waiting for that big one. Just think of what could increase your catch rate. Don’t be afraid to try another spot even if it is only a few metres away. It is amazing how a few metres can make all the difference. Do not worry about those guys with their Old Lucky they will always catch fish on them. How do think their gear got the name. Remember the more effort you put in the better your chance is at catching that dream fish.


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