Using live bait is usually reserved for species that are quite particular about what they eat, such as mulloway or yellowtail, but rarely snapper. But when the bite gets tough, I suggest ditching traditional bait in favour of live bait. I've found that snapper don’t always play the game despite the fact the sounder is indicating the presence of good schools of fish in the area. Often this is the best time to switch to live bait or squid.
Catching and keeping
It is most important that you only use live bait that is legal and by that, I mean you can't catch, keep and use live bait that is undersize. Hence why my best option for live baits is squid. Squid is one of the best live baits that you can use for snapper.
They are easier to keep alive in the live well and generally snapper just love them. There are of course other live baits that can be used legally in small sizes, including garfish, yellowtail or yakkas, scad, tommy rough, mullet and slimey mackerel. The scad and the mullet are very hardy and seem to be much easier to keep alive than the other species, but having said that, my two favourites are the garfish and calamari.
Ideally you want to catch your bait close to, or even better, at the location you intend to fish. This eliminates the need to transport live bait long distances and since the bait has come from the area that you want to fish; it is likely that the snapper will already be hunting it. Keep in mind that when catching your live bait, you want it to remain in pristine condition, so you should try and handle the fish as little as possible, avoid letting them flop around the floor of your boat or kayak, and try to have them out of the water for as little time as possible.
The best way to do this is to get the bait straight into your live well. A live well is an insulated, aerated tank in which the water can easily be replaced. Once in the live well there are three main factors that will kill your bait: a lack of oxygen, poor water quality and a sharp change in water temperature. Most of our modern sportfishing boats come with a live well, so it's not really a big issue for anglers to simply turn on the switch, fill the well and go catch some bait! For those who don't have a live well, there are plenty of options commercially available and it is also easy to make your own and to do so you only need three items: an icebox with a drainage port near the bottom, a small aerator and a plastic two litre measuring jug. The icebox itself is very well insulated and will help to maintain a constant water temperature and the aerator will keep the water oxygenated. If you have lots of bait in the icebox at once, or perhaps some inky calamari, the quality of the water can degrade quite quickly. If this is the case, then replacing the water periodically is essential. To do so, simply open the drainage port at the bottom of the icebox to allow the water to flow out, then refill the icebox with fresh seawater using your jug. I would suggest not changing more than one third of the water at a time since this may change the temperature too sharply and vulnerable species such as slimy mackerel just won’t survive. A small aquarium net may also come in handy when trying to retrieve a bait from the icebox.
How you rig your live baits is very important. A poorly rigged live bait will rarely result in a positive hook up, especially when targeting snapper that have relatively small, hard mouths. The disappointment that results when a live bait is taken but doesn’t hook up will certainly see you refining the rigging of your baits. If you follow these simple rigs, then your chances of a positive hook up will increase dramatically. For small fish, say less than 12 cm, a single hook tied to the end of a running sinker rig is perfect. Simply pin the small fish through the lips. Start by threading the hook through the bottom lip and have it exit through the top lip. Most predatory fish, including snapper, will smash a bait headfirst and will often connect with this hook.
If you’re fishing with larger baits, I strongly recommend the use of a stinger hook. If you are not already familiar with the sliding or adjustable snell, then simply type it into Google and watch any of the videos that show you how to tie it. I always use a sliding snell rig when fishing with larger live baits for snapper as it allows me to adjust the distance between the hooks depending on the size of the bait I am using. If fishing with calamari, where you pierce the bait is crucial if you want it to stay alive. I have found that if you puncture the body of the squid, it will not last long. A hook threaded through the top of the wings and one just beneath the skin at the top of the head will ensure the calamari will stay alive and will also provide you with excellent hook exposure.
You want your bait to be able to move around as freely as possible, so always use the smallest hooks and the lightest leader that you feel comfortable with. Most of the time I am using either 3/0 or 5/0 hooks and a 20 to 40 lb leader. My hooks of choice are the Gamakatsu Octopus hook or the Owner Mutu light circle hook. When trolling I will add a small ball sinker before the hook so that the bait travels lower in the water column. If I’m sitting at anchor or dropping live baits to fish, then I use a simple running sinker rig. Remember the most important thing is having good hook exposure, so before sending your live bait out make sure the hooks are not buried somewhere in the bait.
There are a number of different approaches that you can take if you're fishing for snapper. This usually depends on whether you are fishing in a bay, or offshore, a tidal flow or a relatively stable tidal area with little flow.
Fishing at Anchor
This is best if you’re fishing in big bays like Port Phillip, Westernport or Moreton Bay. You'll need your live well sorted and full of bait. Normally bait fishing for snapper involves waiting for the correct tides and time of day, anchoring up near some good structure or over known grounds, deploying the berley, casting out lightly weighted dead baits and waiting. In this situation fishing with a live bait can be much more action packed! One difference is that you will need to have less rods on the water. Essentially use only enough weight to get the bait down to the bottom. Generally, these bays are not much deeper than 20 metres, so you will only need a light sinker in low flowing tidal situations. But this may need to be seriously increased in high flow bays.
In most offshore situations I'll drift until I locate fish then deploy the electric and often spot lock if I find good concentrations. If I get no bites, I'll simple turn off the spot lock and continue the drift. Drifting with a live bait can be really effective when fishing over shallow inshore reefs between 5 and 12 metres. Slow drifting not only allows you to cover more ground, but it also seems to make the snapper more aggressive which results in better hook-ups. Drifting speed should be slow, ideally less than 4 km/h or thereabouts. Drifting too fast causes the bait to be dragged near the surface, which is not ideal. Using a drift chute (drogue) can help to slow you down.
Dropping and drifting
This is by far my favourite way of fishing for snapper using live baits. It is very interactive and can be very exciting. I simply watch the sounder to find the fish and when you find them, drop the bait straight down on them. For this technique you need to have a live bait rigged and ready to go, sitting in the live well rigged. Once you have located a fish on your sounder, simply lower the live bait straight down. Have the reel disengaged or have the bail arm open so that you can quietly feed line out as the live bait sinks towards the predators. Keep a slight tension in the line so that you can feel when the fish takes your live bait. Once a fish has taken the bait, let it run with no tension for a few moments before engaging the reel and starting the fight. This technique is fantastic, not only is your heart in your mouth each time you lower a bait down to a big arch, but constantly sounding around allows you to become very familiar with an area. Instead of sitting on the same old marks it will also force you to explore and find new areas, expanding your snapper fishing horizons. I was very surprised to start finding good fish in areas that I would not have otherwise considered a ‘good’ place to try.
When a snapper picks up your live bait it will usually race off with it, swimming 5 to 20 m away from the main school of fish. It will typically then turn the bait long ways in its mouth and try to swallow it. There is a reasonable chance that when the snapper first picks up your bait it won’t be hooked and if it feels any heavy weight or large resistance it will tend to spit it out. So, when fishing with a live bait it is a good idea to have your drag set relatively loose so that as the snapper runs it can freely take line without feeling much resistance, but at the same timeline will not fly off the reel and creating slack in the line. Time your strike well and wait until the first major run slows down or comes to a stop before setting the hooks.
When drifting, 9 times out of 10, a snapper will smash your bait headfirst, resulting in a positive hook up. However, if you get a good hit on the bait with no hook up it often pays to open the bail arm on your reel and let the bait sink slowly towards the bottom. This usually entices the predator to come back and finish off its prey. During the time that the bait is sinking keep an eye on the line feeding off the reel, if it suddenly starts to race off, wait about three or so seconds before flicking the bail arm over and engaging the reel to set the hook. If you don’t get a take on the drop then let the bait settle on the bottom and leave it there for several minutes as other fish will often be attracted by the action and come over for a closer look. There is every chance that they will pick it up off the bottom as an easy meal. If you still don’t get a bite then reel in the bait, if it has been killed then replace it with a fresh, lively one and repeat your drift over the same area as it is likely that the culprit will still be in the area.
Fishing at night
For many reasons night fishing is an excellent option for snapper fishermen and since live bait will be sending out lots of distress signals that carry well in the water, fishing at night is a fantastic option, especially if fishing calm still water where the scent of a dead bait may not travel very far.
Large snapper also seem to move into shallow water as night falls and so targeting the fringes of shallow inshore reefs is a prime way to pick up the bigger snapper. Drifting with live bait at night is also very effective, especially when the light from the moon is present as the snapper will not only be able to feel the vibrations from the struggling bait but will also be able to silhouette the bait against the lighter sky and more easily ambush their prey. In both Western Port and Port Philip Bay mulloway are far more active at night and they are always a welcome bycatch when targeting any species.