Live Baiting for Groper in Fiordland and Around New Zealand

Groper - Polyprion oxygeneios. Live baiting for groper.
Groper - Polyprion oxygeneios.

Live Baiting for Groper

by Dick Marquand

During the winter months, the settled weather and flat seas provide the perfect opportunity to fish for FiordIand’s reef dwelling species. Without a doubt, one of the most prestigious reef dwellers available to the recreational angler is the groper. It is during winter that Fiordland groper makes its way into shallow waters to spawn.

Over the years I have caught groper on dead baits, live baits, jigging, and even by trolling. In my opinion, the most deadly method of fishing for groper is by using live baits over a shallow reef.

Have you ever had the ambition to catch a really big groper on a rod? By reading through this article, I hope you will pick up a few points that will help to make this ambition a reality.

Let’s take a brief look at the groper or hapuku as it is known in the North Island. The family Percichthyidae has two members which are well known to New Zealand anglers, these being the groper (Polyprion oxygeneios) and the bass (Polyprion moeone). Both species inhabit deep water, look similar and are often confused by amateur recreational anglers. However, the groper can be distinguished from the bass by its more slender body, smaller eye and protruding lower jaw.

The groper can grow to a weight of around 90kg (200lb) and inhabits deep water reefs, in some cases too deep to fish with a rod and reel. However, at times, groper can be found in relatively shallow waters where they provide excellent sport to recreational anglers.

The breeding biology of the groper is little understood. What is known is that they are winter spawners. In the far north of New Zealand, they tend to move into shallow waters to spawn. David Graham, in his book “Treasury of New Zealand Fishes“, mentions that in Otago waters, the reverse applies – the grope head offshore into deeper waters to spawn. My experiences with this species indicate that in Fiordland waters, the groper moves inshore to spawn, as has been recorded in the far north.

There are many favourite groper “holes” and reefs throughout the coastal waters of the South lsland. My favourite groper ground is in the vicinity of Brig Rock, an area of foul ground where it is not unusual to land groper weighing in excess of 35kg. The Brig lies approximately 5 kilometres northwest of the mouth of Milford Sound and is also a popular area for commercial crayfishing, underwater diving and large sharks.

During the winter months when the sea is calm, it is possible to take a boat close to this protruding wave-swept rock and send a live bait down through the swirling bubbles to the bottom, towards a waiting puka. However, before doing so, it is advisable to carefully check both the current and wind direction to ensure that you do not drift your boat and occupants into a dangerous situation.

Transit Reef

Just south of the mouth of Milford Sound is another great fishing area that I know as the Transit Reef. This area of foul ground protrudes seawards from the northern extreme of the Transit Beach. On occasions, I have seen schools of small groper, each perhaps 4-5 kg in weight congregating beneath our boat. I have
even caught them while trolling over this reef with CD 18 Rapala plugs.

Despite their small size, these fish are powerful fighters and put up a great effort on light tackle. Those of you who have fished in Fiordland waters are very fortunate as this area has not had the commercial or recreational fishing pressure that other more accessible areas have sustained. However, no matter where you fish, groper could be a lot closer than you realise.

Buy a marine chart for your area and check out the promising reefs and areas of foul ground that are marked. Talk to the local commercial fishing community, show them your chart and check out the areas that they recommend. Watch out for crazy pots as these usually mark reefs or areas of foul ground that are always worth a close inspection.

Live Baiting For Groper – Tackle Required

Now, let’s look at the tackle required for groper fishing with live bait. No less than 15kg line When there’s a chance of hooking into a big groper, I use no less than 15kg breaking strength line. The reason for this is that after the initial strike, it is very important to all but stock the groper in its tracks and keep it from reaching the rocks, boulders, coral and ledges.

I’d opt for a 15kg game rod, preferably a stand-up model, fitted with a Penn Senator 4/0. The Senator 4/0 on my groper rod has given me 26 years of trouble-free service and with the 2:1 gear ratio, it has the grunt required to encourage a big puka to the surface. I can assure you that in 25 metres of water, a 37 kg groper uses its big square tail to advantage and fights all the way to the boat.

Braided lines have changed the equation firmly in favour of the angler. Braid makes it possible to feel every bite even in water 100m deep.

Suicide Pattern Hooks

The hooks that I prefer to use when live bait fishing for groper are the “suicide” pattern, such as the Gamakatsu Octopus in size 10/0. To the eye of the book, I crimp a 45cm length of 60 kg breaking strength stainless steel trace, this also being required to deal with the odd “toothy critter” such as a school shark or a sevengill shark, as these also frequent the reefs. The steel trace is tied directly to the mainline without a clip, swivel or sinker.

A Fiordland groper caught in Dusky Sound by Allan Burgess in mid-winter.
A Fiordland groper caught in Dusky Sound by Allan Burgess in mid-winter.

Medium Size Blue Cod best When Live Baiting for Groper

Through experience, I have found that the best live bait to use for groper is a medium-size blue cod or scarlet wrasse. Although groper will take dead baits, they just can’t resist a live cod or Wrasse.

The sharp 10/0 hook is placed through the skin just under the bait’s dorsal fin in such a way that the point is exposed when the groper takes the bait. Even if the bait is taken tail first, you still have an excellent chance of a solid hook up.

I allow the live bait to swim back down to the bottom and I hold my thumb on the spool with the reel out of gear. The groper “take” is not violent, being more of a slow draw than a bite and one of the secrets of success is being able to recognise when a fish has taken the bait. I let the groper take line for perhaps half a minute before engaging the gear and when the line comes uptight, I strike hard several times. The hook usually tears free of the unfortunate baitfish and becomes firmly embedded in the roof of the groper’s mouth.

The tension on the reel should be very tight so that the groper can only gain ground when the monofilament line approaches its breaking strength. The idea behind this is to stop the big fish from getting your line down amongst the snags.

This “muscle method” has worked successfully for me too many times to recall, but places an enormous strain on both the angler and tackle – hence the need for good quality tackle. In shallow water, the groper puts on an amazing show of strength and fights all the way to the surface.

Use a gaff to secure your catch and don’t be tempted into putting your hand in through the gill slit. You will find that your fingers will slip between the gill rakers with ease but won’t come out without the distinct possibility of severe lacerations.

When you get onto a groper “hot spot”, don’t completely fish it out, think about future anglers and the resource, and only take what you and your crew can immediately use. A 37 kg groper contains a lot of fish flesh, so remember not to overdo it.

The groper is a relatively slow-growing species and susceptible to overfishing. In Fiordland waters when they come into shallow areas during the winter months, they appear to be close to spawning so make sure that you give some the opportunity to carry out their breeding function. Consider putting the small ones back so that others can be assured of the same exciting experience.

Download the Fiordland recreational fishing rules brochure

Give live baiting for groper a try. The methods that I have described work well for me, I hope that they also work for you.

Geoff with a brace of 35kg groper taken close to Brig Rock, Fiordland. Live Baiting for Groper.
Geoff with a brace of 35kg groper taken close to Brig Rock, Fiordland.