HOW DO I FIND SNAPPER?
Snapper can be located in a variety of areas; from open water to all types of reef structure. Your best chances of finding them and spearing them are in the shallow reef areas. Look for structures and rocky points with deep gutters extending from the shallows to the deeper water.
Snapper like to sit beside or under rocky structures and weed using it as cover to hide from any predators. There are a few main types of hunting techniques used for spearing snapper: these being snooping, midwater hunting and ground baiting. We’ll elaborate on all of these a bit more – but first there are a few factors that one needs to take into account when hunting this species.
TIDES + SUN
Working the tides and the sun are two of the most important factors when hunting snapper. Understanding the feeding habits of your prey will also increase your chances of landing a snapper. Snapper like to sit in the current looking forwards for any approaching prey; they use the current to sense /smell their next meal. With snapper sitting headwards into the current, your best approach is from behind; this means that you should swim into the current and your approach would bring you onto the snapper from behind. If you swim in the opposite direction to the current, you will most likely bump into a snapper face to face. Often a strong current is a good sign that there will be snapper in the area.
With your approach sorted, the next very important step is to swim with the sun behind you /on your back.
The sun hides your approach and body shape; if the snapper happened to turn and face in your direction - it would be blinded by the sunlight, giving you time to execute your shot. Always make sure the sun is behind you or on your back and that you swim into the current.
The most vital factor with snapper snooping is stealth! You need to be as quiet as possible in the water while snooping for snapper. Don’t chuck your kayak or boat anchor into the water – let it down slowly and quietly. A good point to remember - if you’re diving from a boat, get your boat-man to drop you 20-30m from your snooping grounds, then swim in so that your presence is unknown. Don’t jump into the water – rather slide in slowly to ensure that you don’t make any unnecessary splashes.
Make sure that none of your equipment makes any awkward noises or vibrations. Check that the mono line or rubbers on your gun don’t vibrate – a sure way to prevent this is to hold your hand over the rubbers and mono, about mid way up your speargun. Open-muzzle guns are also great for snapper snooping, as they hold the shaft to the speargun which eliminates any side to side movement or rattle.
Make sure your float doesn’t clank against any rocks or that your float line doesn’t get tangled on rocks and weed and make noise. A diver’s float line can also give him away as it offers a direct line from the surface to the diver. For this reason many spearos prefer to use reel guns with a drop weight on the end of a float line. This allows you to unclip your line and leave it behind; this is also particularly useful for marking burley spots. With no line attached to your gun it offers freedom to move and sneak up on your prey without getting tangled up on any objects.
You have to become very conscious of any little sounds that you/your equipment make. Concentrate on having a silent entry and exit in the water for each and every dive that you do. When surfacing, never blow through your snorkel to clear it – underwater this sounds like a loud foghorn to the snapper; rather tilt it backwards on the surface to empty the water out.
When descending, remove your snorkel from your mouth so that it doesn’t make any bubbles or gurgling noises while filling up with water. To avoid splashing, try to descend quietly by submerging yourself /sinking into the water – rather than duck diving. Ensure that your fins don’t clank together or touch one another while finning and, to avoid making unnecessary noise, try to pull yourself along the bottom, where you can, using the weed. When moving through the water make sure your movements are very slow and quiet. Ensure that you don’t bang your gun or weightbelt against rocks, or clink your gun handle against the lead on your weight belt etc. Stealth is paramount in this game - if you are loud, you will have compromised all the ground that you have just covered. After every dive ask yourself if you or your gear made any noise, and try to avoid it on the next descent /ascent.
Remember the current and the sun; you need to find a very calm dive spot with little swell and good rocky structure. Swim as close to the rocks as possible - so close that you could pull yourself along with your hands. Snapper are very alert and will always spook with any sign of danger or noise. With the sun on your back, using the rocks and weed as cover – always try and remain in the shadows (if there are any). You need to hide your profile, using cover as much as possible – camouflage wetsuits help with this as they break up the diver’s shape. Move along quietly, scanning the weed and rocks for areas which snapper would hide in or sit beside.
Sometimes only a slight fin movement will give them away. You need to treat every gut and rock structure as if there were a big moocher hiding in it or beside it. Your movements need to be so slow that you are almost drifting. Pull yourself along and stop for a few seconds – scan the area and then carry on doing the same. Treat it as if there were all the time in the world. Snooping can take hours; you need to have no time constraints. When peering over ledges or around rocks, always have your gun tucked in so that it doesn’t extend out and give you away. Be ready for a quick shot and enjoy the stalk; snapper snooping can be one of the most rewarding types of hunting! When you learn to slow down in the water…. you’ll begin to see the fish.
GROUND BAITING (BURLEYING)
We use this technique in addition to snapper snooping. When you have discovered an area that is very fishy, and has smaller snapper about with a good current running through it - ground baiting (burleying) is a good way to draw in the bigger snapper. Ground baiting is like setting a trap for the fish so that you can ambush them. Burley could consist of anything from smashed-up kina (sea urchins), to chopped-up fish, or pre-frozen burley - a combination of all three works very well.
You need to find a good burley spot - a place where you can approach it without being seen by the fish - your approach is paramount; you need to be able to watch the burley without any fish seeing you. You also need to be able to move backwards or away from the burley spot without being seen. It’s important that the burley is set at a comfortable diving depth, so that the diver can have longer bottom times. A good example would be a nice deep gutter where you could lie on the top of a rock (with the sun on your back) amongst the weed and angle your shot downwards towards the burley and the fish feeding in the gutter.
One of the most popular methods is to gather up some kina (sea urchins) and break them up with a rock, or use a kina bomb. Place them at the selected spot and then retreat and allow the burley to ‘cook’ for 10-15 minutes… Then approach it quietly so you can sneak up and monitor the burley to see if any big fish have turned up. It’s also a good idea to set 2 to 3 different burley spots and work between them – normally one of them will be more effective than the other two and so you should then concentrate on that one.
You can also use the time spent waiting for the burley to ‘cook’ by collecting more kina and replenishing your burley spots. Open the kina with your knife and throw them onto your existing burley spots but remember to do this from a safe distance so that you can’t be seen.
Once you have set a few burley spots and made the obvious mistakes of setting them too deep, or forgetting where you set them, or approaching them incorrectly - you will eventually learn how to get all of the elements in place. Like anything, it takes practice but eventually, all the pieces will fall into place and you’ll stumble upon some real giants, which will remain etched in your memory forever! When you find a good spot don’t forget it- come back to it and remember the tides and the burley that you used. One day you’ll land that 20 pounder!
MIDWATER SNAPPER HUNTING
This is a technique that is not experienced very often or used widely but can be effective. It usually occurs in deeper water near structures/pinnacles. Often snapper can be found in midwater - most often sitting below other smaller species such as pink maomao or kahawai. If you can float very still on the surface, the fish below you will lift up, bringing the snapper with them. The snapper are waiting to feed on debris from the fish above. When the fish get closer, you can slowly drop through the pinkies /kahawai to see the snapper in midwater. You won’t get long to execute a shot so you need to be quick. It’s best to try to dive down at a 30-45 degree angle behind them so that you approach them in their blind spots. Mid body shots are your best bet - near the pectoral fin will ensure a good holding shot. Many snapper have been lost from unsecured shots. Snapper also have strong / thick skulls which have been known to deflect spears so again shot placement is important. Play the fish in gently as their delicate flesh can cause the shafts to tear out.
Always ensure you have good equipment - strong rubbers and sharp spears and above all remember you need to be stealthy and alert - patience is always the key to a successful snapper hunt.