Over the next three months we’ll see the best spearfishing of the year. Not because of good weather or good water conditions but because of the number of snapper and where they move to. Sometime during October the water temperature is going to begin ramping up and when it gets to about 18 degrees a major change will take place. The algae that has remained dormant over the cold winter months will spring back into life turning the water green. It will also wake up the big snappers that will move into the shallows to feed hard leading up to the spawn. It is during these few months that spearos have their best chance of landing a big fish as these moochers come out in force.
When you’re starting out snapper snooping seems a black art mastered by few who are hiding some secret from the rest of us. As is so often the case though the truth is that it is strict adherence to just a few, very simple and even obvious guidelines that make all the difference.
The first thing is to know where to look. When we target snapper we’re hoping to find the fish parked up right in the shallows practically asleep. Knowing this makes it obvious where to look. Snapper are cagey creatures, especially in shallow water so we’re looking for terrain that will make them feel safe. Rocky gutters with thick kelp are preferred. We can look at the shoreline to give us clues as to what the bottom will look like. Look for a jagged rocky shoreline. Areas with steep cliffs on the shore will most likely turn into steep cliffs under the water and just wall off all the way to the bottom without providing any sort of shelter. The next thing to look at is water movement. Snapper have as little love for being washed around in the surge as we do so look for calm surface conditions.
Now the game begins.
Snapper give no second chances and if they’re aware of your presence they’ll bolt. You must quietly work your way through the shallows, carefully looking over each rock as you go. Approach from over the top of the rocks looking down. Look for which part of the rock is catching the current. Small fish like demoiselles and oblique swimming triple fins will let you know the sweet spot. Work your way along with the sun coming from behind you.
Approach every rock quietly and carefully. Spit your snorkel out before you dive to prevent noisy bubbles and dive straight into cover minimizing your time mid water. Diving so shallow can be difficult so make sure you have enough lead on. You can hold yourself down if necessary and make sure you keep your feet down too. Making sure your knees are touching the bottom can be a good cue to prevent your fins from waving over your head.
The thing you must get your head around is that when snapper snooping you’re looking for a stationary fish, by the time your eye catches movement it’s too late. Concentrate on carefully scanning your surroundings looking through the kelp and taking it all in before moving on. If you find you put up a lot of snapper this is good as it means you’re putting yourself in the right places but the lesson is simple: you need to slow down as the fish are seeing you before you see them.
For most Kiwi spearos, their best snapper usually rates as their most proud capture and I’m no different. Mine was shot out at Great Barrier in October from the charter boat the RedQuarters a couple of years ago now. You can snoop snapper anytime of the day but the early morning is almost always the most productive. I began seeing plenty of snapper straight away and slowed right down to carefully check each rock. Snapper seem to move around in patches and when you come across a good patch it’s important to make the most of it. I made the most of it by completely stuffing up a sitter. I had glided down on top of a rock and after a couple of seconds a big, grey shape drifted out from the kelp beneath me. The snapper was so close I didn’t even extend my arm and fired from my hip. Big mistake. The shot went high and the fish bolted for good. I continued on with renewed concentration but I knew that the chance of getting a second opportunity like the one I’d wasted was virtually nil. Today however was my lucky day. Only a couple of hundred meters along I came to a shallow patch of rock that jutted 20 meters or so out from the shore before terminating in a wall that dropped down to six or seven meters before ledging out again. I had used a clump of kelp as cover and had dived to the edge of the rock to peer over. After a few seconds I prepared to slip over the edge to check the next ledge below but just as I was about to go I caught a glimpse of a luminous blue fish hovering just above the bottom a few meters to my left. I quickly reversed back from the edge and moved along to where I thought I could come directly over the fish before diving again. This time as I looked over I couldn’t see the big fish but in its place were scores of small snapper and demoiselles. These are a great sign but make things much harder as if you spook one of the sentries the big fish will bolt with them. I hastily retreated again. By this time my heart was in my mouth and beating hard. I knew that I didn’t have time to breathe up properly. The longer I hung around the more likely that the fish would sense my presence and move off so after a couple of quick gulps of air I dived back to the edge again. This time everything was right. The fish was facing away from me with his broad back providing an easy shot. The spear went in just below his dorsal fin and exited through his cheek in a great holding shot. Back on the boat he went 28lb and now takes pride of place hanging over my fire place.
Mine wasn’t the only trophy of the day though. My friend Long John had shot another monster in far more dramatic circumstances. He had gone out to a submerged pin that usually holds good kingies. Because he didn’t want to shoot a kingfish himself, Long John had left his float and line on the tinny to save potential tangles with the other divers. At the base of this particular pin is a cave that holds a resident school of golden snapper. The depth of the cave keeps these fish safe from most divers and while they are a target species the guys who know about them generally will have only taken one or two fish out of the school. Today when John dived to the cave he was surprised to find his ‘pets’ in a tight ball well up off the bottom. This was strange and needed further investigation. As he descended toward the bottom, well below the 25m mark, he saw the unmistakable back and extended pectoral fins of a granddaddy snapper parked up on the sand. This left him in somewhat of a pickle. Shooting fish at this sort of depth is hard enough even with a floatline or reel; keeping enough tension on the fish to stop it from holing up or tangling itself on the bottom is a big ask. But John didn’t have a floatline or reel so if he took the shot he would have to skull drag the fish up with him and risk having to ditch the gun attached fish and all or worse. Being a pig headed bugger and acknowledging that his faithful gun ‘Lightening’ was already in its twilight years he took the shot. Things went well and a 26lber bobbed along with him back to the tender with its swim bladder well and truly blown.
It is days like this that keep us going. So much of snooping comes down to faith. You have to have the confidence that you’re doing the right thing and that you’re in the right place. You have to believe that there is a fish over each rock and it’s just a matter of spotting him. Sometimes this is hard but guaranteed it will be the moment that you drop your guard that you see that big tail thumping into the gloom. It is a numbers game, if you look over enough rocks it is only a matter of time until you find your fish. So now as we head into the start of another snapper season it’s time to stop shooting the little ones and hang out for that wall hanger, he might be sitting just over that next ledge.