Without a doubt the pinnacle fish for NZ spearos is the snapper. These wily targets are incredibly hard to get close to and to land that elusive 20lber is one of the greatest achievements of most divers’ careers. The main way we target the snapper is by snooping. This involves silently stalking the shallows carefully checking for big mooching snapper snoozing under some kelp or quietly finning into the current. This is a hard way to get fish though and when you’re starting out (or want to do better in comps) it’s best to learn how to ground bait for snapper first. While not the best way to get onto the real trophy fish, using ground baits will get you closer to more snapper and help you learn their ways in a more forgiving situation than you’ll ever get snooping.
Like all systems ground baiting effectively does require some special techniques and tricks to work properly. Here I’ll try and outline a few of the key points to try and save you a lot of trial and error.
The first thing you need to understand is that you’re still hunting snapper and they’re still incredibly flighty. Just because they’re getting a free feed doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to approach them without the utmost attention to stealth and cover. When you dive you need to be well back from your station so that you can approach it along the bottom using cover and you need to do everything quietly. The big benefit of using the ground bait is that you know where the fish is going to be and that you’re able to manipulate the placement of the bait to give you an advantage over the fish that you won’t usually get when snooping. And that is the point of the whole system; you use the bait to place the snapper where you want them to be.
So first we need to find the right spot. You need to find an area that is likely to have snapper holding up somewhere nearby. This means finding the spot that’s catching a bit of current and is already pretty fishy. I’ve found the two best indications of a fishy area to be the presence of demoiselles and oblique swimming triplefins. These two species are only found in the sweetest part of the reef and where they are the big snapper aren’t too far away. The other thing we’re looking for is access to deep water. A large snapper is unlikely to swim far through the shallows to get to your bait. We want them to feel safe coming in to feed so make sure there’s deep water nearby that they could bolt to quickly if they sense any danger.
Once we’ve found the right general area we need to find the right rock to berley. Getting the right rock is absolutely critical and there are a couple of things to look for. What we need is rock that we can dive to the edge of completely unseen by any fish below – it is critical that you’re shooting down on the fish not at their eye level. Then we need to be able to get a good clear, easy shot at any fish feeding on the bait we’re going to set at the base of it. This means we need to have a good sniping position no more than three or four metres from the bottom. The depth it’s set at can vary but it needs to be deep enough that you’ll be able to lie still comfortably without floating but shallow enough that you’re not going to be stretched just getting down to it and have plenty of bottom time to watch the bait. If it is a bit surgey you’ll need to set it deep enough to get below the water movement. A rock with plenty of kelp on top that we can hide in is good and ideally there will be a clear patch of bare rock at the bottom that we can set our station on. If there isn’t we need to spend some time gardening and clearing a patch as there’s no point setting our berley in thick kelp where we won’t be able to easily see the fish feeding on it. Thick kelp nearby is very good though as again it will make the fish feel comfortable having a covered escape route handy. The last piece of the puzzle is sun angle. You want to have your bait set so that you’ll be approaching it with the sun behind you. That way you will be able to see clearly but the fish will be looking into the sun to see you and will keep you hidden.
Once we’ve found our rock it’s time to start baiting it. There are two main ingredients for a good berley – kina and fish. Kina by itself works very well but only on smaller fish. I’ve seldom seen snapper over a couple of kilos feeding on a kina berley. I guess once they get big they can just crunch up a kina with their jaws any time they want so we need to offer them something a bit special to get them where we want them and the treat to use is fish. When we set the berley it needs to be concentrated in a small area so we know exactly where the fish are going to be so first of all we need to collect up an armful of kinas and put them in a small pile in the middle of our clear area. Then find a long rock to smash them up with. I’ve seen all sorts of silly devices designed to break up kinas but nothing is as effective as a rock. Most of them are designed to be used on the surface as well meaning that the broken kinas will be scattered all over the show as it sinks down which is totally counterproductive – it’ll attract the fish alright but we’ll have no idea where they’re going to be. Once we have our kinas smashed up we need a fish. I prefer to use a butterfish but anything handy will do. I like to get a little bit of berley going from the surface to disperse the smell a bit quicker but its important not to chop up big chunks that will drift off that the fish can eat without coming where we want them. Just a fine white ‘snow’ to get their taste buds going is perfect. Then cut it up a bit and stick it under a rock with the kinas so that a big snapper can’t just swim off with it to eat in a hole somewhere. I’ve seen people take berley cages and other stuff with them but again it’s just more clap-trap to tow around when a rock will work better anyway.
Now we need to give it time to start working. Before you swim off do a couple of dives to your sniping position to get it clear in your mind how to approach the berley and where the fish are going to be. I like to mark my approach with a couple of white rocks to act as a pathway to follow. Make sure you’re going to be able to find your rock again! The easiest way is to tie your float off a few metres away but being able to use landmarks to find good spots again is the mark of a seasoned spearo and is a skill well worth developing. Now give it time to soak. It needs at least half an hour so be patient. Go away and look for crays for a while or better yet swim another 100m away and set up another berley.
When you come back take a moment to compose yourself and get your breathing rate down if it’s been a bit of a swim. Visualise the approach and where the fish are going to be. Take a big breath, spit your snorkel out and dive. I usually go straight to the bottom and pause for a few seconds to get everything calm and under control before approaching the ledge. Pull yourself along the bottom following your markers. Hold your gun back and peer through the weed at the berley. Lie still and give your eyes time to adjust to the surroundings. Look at the berley first and then scan all around it. Look through the stalks and take your time. If you spot a fish you want shoot it if you can but if everything’s not right back up quietly the way you came. Have a couple of minutes on the surface and try again. The nice thing about the berley is that if a fish does get edgy and drifts off it’ll most likely come back again. If you really spook them though and they swim off at pace they’re gone and you’ll need to give to another half or so before you give it another go.