Snapper Success from Shore – Fishing in the Marlborough Sounds

Snapper Success from the Shore – Fishing in the Marlborough Sounds

By Scott Hollis-Johns

Boats are great fishing machines and many a good catch of snapper can be made fishing from a boat. But as I do not own one I do almost all of my fishing from the shore. Snapper success from the shore may require a little more physical effort but can be very rewarding and on a good day, you will catch just as many fish as the angler utilising a boat. However, some anglers can really struggle to catch the elusive snapper.

For South Island fishermen the Marlborough Sounds are the place to catch snapper. They just do not occur in great enough numbers anywhere else, except maybe for the Golden and Tasman Bay area, to make it worthwhile targeting them. So far this spring I have spent six days fishing in the Sounds and caught many snapper up to 16-pounds. Here is a brief rundown of how I like to do it.

Where to Fish for Snapper Success

I like to fish rocky headlands and points where reasonably deep water is close to the shore.

Mussel rafts can be magnets for snapper success. Often the fouler the area the more fish. I like to fish areas that are not too foul though otherwise you just get too many snags and bust-offs!

Beaches can be good too if they drop away steeply and have shellfish beds close in.

From time to time some really big snapper are caught in Kenepuru Sound like this 21-pound beauty taken on a 5/0 Black Magic hook.

When to Fish

This depends a lot on where you choose to fish. I have caught snapper at all stages of the tide and in all sorts of conditions. When thinking about going fishing I always remember what land-based fisherman Pete Lamb once wrote and I quote, “the best time to go fishing is when you can.”

Having said that, the best times in my experience, and the shared experience of friends who catch snapper, are early morning and evening.

I always feel more confident fishing on overcast days and consider dead calm days with bright hot sunlight on the water to be the worst time to fish for snapper.

I have caught one snapper at night but (prefer to see what I am doing and unless you get to know an area well I would leave night fishing to the boaties. It can be tricky enough climbing around on slippery rocks during the day.

Snapper Success – Rods and Reels

You can use any rod and reel to catch snapper from the shore. I have caught them on 15kg jigging tackle and 2kg spin tackle.

As long as you can cast an unweighted baitfish twenty metres or so you are in business. The further you can cast the better, but quite often as little as ten metres is enough.

On one occasion, I made an absolute botch up of a cast, landing the bait less than ten metres from my feet, and while untangling the resulting overrun had a snapper grab the bait and bust me off. Fixed spool or free spool reels are equally as effective, they just require different techniques once the bait is in the water.

Line Weight

I started off fishing for snapper on 15kg. I caught some fish and got busted off by plenty as well. With braid, line-weight is much less important.

A heavy line has the advantage of being able to survive a bit more grating on mussel-covered rocks than lighter stuff but it tends to sink more and drift around in the current more easily which is a primary cause of snapper bust-offs due to hooking a fish when your line is tying in amongst rocks and weed on the bottom.

Also, the more pressure you put on a snapper, especially a big one, the more he is likely to bolt for cover and bust you off.

Two weeks ago I fished alongside brother Matt at a spot we had not fished before.

It looked really good, a beach covered in shells, an indication of shellfish beds nearby led to shelves of rock at the base of a cliffy point.

There were submerged rocks at our feet covered in weeds and dark patches in the water suggested this continued further out. We both cast out half a garfish bait and sat down holding our rods, waiting for Sam the snapper. We had obviously picked a good spot as in less than a minute Matt was hooked up to a good-sized fish which was pulling very hard and making it difficult to keep his footing. I placed my rod in a rock and ran around taking a few photographs of him with a bend in his fishing rod.

After a few minutes, the tug of war was over and Matt indicated to me in unprintable language that I should put the camera away and get the gaff as he had a big one. I turned to get it but never got there as my rod was dancing and spewing a lot of line.

The short of it was we were both hooked up and both went on to land fish of identical size. A fourteen-pound snapper each on our first cast, and in less than a few minutes, we were more than a little pleased.

The interesting point was, that Matt was fishing with 15kg and I was fishing 4kg yet my fish, even though it took a lot of line while Matt’s took none, took no longer to land. Maybe my fish was a wimp or maybe, if you do not pull so hard they will not pull so hard. I think somewhere in between, say 8-10kg, would be a good line weight to start with until you get the feel of things.

Bait for Snapper

Fresh is best. I like yellow-eyed mullet, garfish, mackerel and if you can catch them, pilchards. Spotties also work well but I think yellow-eyed mullet and garfish look better. While I have no evidence to confirm spotties are less appealing to a snapper. Confidence in your bait is important, especially if you have to wait an hour for Sam to come along and eat it. I like to take a good selection just in case. I catch bait by berleying off the local wharf with bread and/or a bran/oil mix.

Once a few baitfish come around I jig with bait flies. If there is no wharf around I just do the same from a good-looking rock.

Rigging Baits

Whole and half fish make the best baits for snapper. They look natural and cast well. I have used big strip baits on occasion but the “peckers” pay them a lot of attention and they do not last long in the water. There are dozens of ways to rig whole and half baits, as long as the barb is well exposed and the points stick into the snapper and not back into the bait when striking, you have got it right.

To secure the bait so the hook does not pull on the cast, I either put a half hitch around the tail or when using the head end, pass the hook twice through the eye socket.

When using whole baits I add a small keeper hook, 1/0-2/0 is a good size for keepers. Slide the keeper on the line, tie on your main hook, and starting at the tail end sew the main hook through the underside of the bait two or three times.

When you get to the head give yourself a bit of slack line and put the point of the hook under the gill plate and push it through so it comes out the eye. Lay the hook down and pull tight.

Next, simply make a few turns around the tail and put the keeper hook into the flesh under the wraps of the line, pull tight and there we have it. Don’t be alarmed if the yellow-eyed mullet you just rigged looks way too big for Sam to get his teeth around, a two-kilo snapper will easily scoff down a six-inch yellow-eyed mullet. Just give him a bit longer before striking than you do with a half-bait. I do not use sinkers, you just do not need them and they cause more snags.

I also avoid swivels for the same reasons and tie my traces directly to the main line using blood knots and back-to-back clinch or uni knots. A wind on trace is always good insurance but often difficult to cast as the knot can catch in the line guides.

I use a 15kg leader unless I am fishing with a 15kg mainline, then I just tie a hook straight on and away we go. I always use Gamakatsu 4/0-6/0 octipus hooks. If you have not tried laser-sharpened hooks go and buy some, you will catch more fish.

Snapper Success – The Run

This is the most exciting part of fishing for snapper. Once the bait is in the water I always try to hold my rod, keep in close contact with the bait and keep the line as high and as tight as possible without moving the bait. If you have too much slack line drifting around in the water you are asking for a snag and if you get a run, a bust off on the strike.

Keep your reel in free spool or in the case of a fixed spool reel, leave the bail arm open. Now comes the waiting bit. On my last trip, we were definitely fishing in the right place and 15 minutes was a long wait for a run.

But on other trips, I would happily soak bait for an hour before moving.

So, you are standing on a rock in the middle of nowhere and not so much as a spotty has pecked at your beautifully rigged mullet that was so fresh it still wriggled as you cast it and, bang, a strong bump and almost instantly your line screams off the reel at a speed you never thought possible, what should you do? Do not ask me! From now on it is between you and Sam.

Try to strike when Sam is running away from you or when you think he, or in the case of Samantha snapper, has the bait properly in her mouth.

Snapper have the fascinating habit of carrying the bait around for a bit before swallowing it. If the first run is long and sustained, I usually strike then. But if they play the run and stop, run and stop a bit more then I might strike on the second or even third run. Striking, missing and winding in a mangled herring or a bare hook is all part of the fun.

Unless using a very big bait that needs chewing, mostly I try to strike as soon as possible. It is very hard to generalise as Sam’s mood can vary greatly. I have had days of dozens of runs and no hookups and days where I have hooked almost every fish.


These are spotties, juvenile cod and other small fish that like to shred up and destroy good snapper baits that I take a lot of time to catch and rig. The Marlborough Sounds are home to a special strain of monster spotties than can, in what feels like machinegun fire on our bait, destroy a perfectly good half herring (yellow-eye mullet) in less than sixty seconds. When plagued by spotties you can forget half baits, they are just too easy for the pickers to get their teeth into.

When the spotties get really bad I go to whole baits and fish with spottie and mackerel tails which are hardier. Dawn and dusk are good times to avoid cut-baits as are places riddled with hungry spotties who will beat snapper to your bait.


Berley will definitely help you on the way to snapper success if you plan to fish in the same area for a few hours.

I prefer to travel light and move around a lot. If I do not get any runs I wander around the corner a bit and have a go there. Sometimes a move of only a few metres or a cast on a different angle from the same rock will produce fish.

A sure way to get a run on a quiet day is to use Murphy’s Law to your advantage. The line has been in the water for almost 30 minutes and you are tired of holding your rod. You put it in a rock and wander off to chat to your mate, or answer nature’s call, and there we have it, a run. Line spews from your unattended reel, a huge over-run develops, your line jams, the rod loads, then ping! Round one to Sam the snapper.

Have fun and put a few fish back for years to come. I hope this article will help you on your way to snapper success when fishing from shore.

This post was last modified on 15/03/2024 9:06 pm

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