TOP 10: WINTER SOFTBAITING

Softbaiting in winter is still an effective method to target snapper and the editor’s favourite method for snapper fishing from a boat.  There are several things to consider over the colder months to change up your tactics to increase your success.

01 HUNT THE SHALLOWS

After summer and the large schools of snapper over the sand have moved on and dispersed.  It is now time to hunt the shallows and reefy terrain around islands and coastline.  Resident fish have taken up home in these areas and you will be casting and working your softbaits in water under 6m.  It still surprises how shallow snapper will venture looking for their kai and we have caught them in less than 1m and seen snapper attacking small baitfish in such areas on calm, winter days.  You need to keep extra alert as skipper when fishing shallow water while drifting for rocks, ideally the wind is coming from the direction that pushes you along parallel to the coastline, as you will be able to cover more ground  without having to start the outboard to reposition the boat.

02 QUIET STALKING

A key component to successful shallow water softbaiting is keeping your boat noise to a minimum and approaching areas as quietly as possible.  A four-stroke engine is a bonus for this and ensure you quietly idle the boat into the area, then cast your softies in from 30-40m out.  Often, we catch the biggest fish of the day on the first couple of casts as we have killed the engine, drifted the likely area with little noise and hooked a big moocher.  It is also vital to find areas of coastline early in the morning where no other boats are fishing or have disturbed the resident fish.  You want to be the first boat in the spot to work the area prospecting and casting through the zone to find the fish.  The sun’s angle can also be a factor in shallow water.  We have found after 10am when the sun is higher in the sky that the bites subside, this makes sense as the fish leave the shallows for deeper water as they feel wary in brighter conditions.  Overcast mornings can be better too and the fish hang around the shallows longer.

03 SKIPPER AT READY

When fishing shallow the skipper needs to be ready to jump behind the wheel if someone hooks up to a big fish.  In lean water these fish are freight trains and will head for the nearest bit of foul to try and snag you in the kelp and rocks.  We like to get quickly over the fish in these cases and the skip needs to follow the fish to help the angler when fighting the fish and then move out into deeper water.  We have still lost plenty of big moochers fishing this way, but it is fun and the scream of the small spin reels when a large fish has taken the softbait becomes addictive! Working as a team can make a big difference to your catch rate and it does pay to have one fishing while the other is at the helm and then switching, taking turns at the helm.

04 LIGHTER JIG HEADS

When fishing in such shallow water, it means you need to go down in jig head weights.  I prefer to fish with Ocean Angler’s Lightbulb jig heads as they provide excellent hook-up rates and have UV heads.  The heaviest I would use is ½ oz and go down to ¼ oz for very shallow water with a lot of foul present.  The downside to going to ¼ oz jig heads is it does cut your cast; this can be annoying when casting into the wind as you still want to get well away from the boat to work the lure back.  Using a ½ oz means you get a bigger cast and if you don’t let it sink too deep and work the softie back a bit quicker, you should be able to keep it out of the foul.  However, be prepared to lose a few jig heads and softbaits in the shallows as you will get the odd snag, but as you fish more with this approach you get better.

05 HEAVIER LEADER & BRAID

Summer softbaiting over sand and in work-ups in deeper water using 10-12lb braid and 15-20lb mono for leader was fine, as there was no structure for fish to break off on.  These combos just won’t hold up in the kelp covered rocky shallows and you need some better firepower to stop the fish!  A reasonable 2-3kg snapper will even test the angler in these areas and can be surprisingly tricky to extract from the harsh terrain.  Switch up to heavier 15-20lb braid, with 25lb minimum fluorocarbon for your leader.  It is also a good idea to double your length on the leader to around 10-12ft to give you better resistance against the sharp rocks when fishing.

06 SOFTBAIT SELECTION

I am a big fan of using Zmans as they are so durable, lasting over multiple trips and the fish like them.  Everyone has their favourites and so do I.  Over winter I have found darker colours work well in the shallows and the PaddlerZ range have been a good softbait to use.  The Redbone PaddlerZ has been an effective lure, with Nuked Pilly a close second.  I still use JerkShadZ lures in the shallows and the ever-consistent Atomic Sunrise 5” is probably my go to softbait throughout the whole year.  I also like switching to 4” sizes in winter, as the colder water means fish change their approach and diet.  A smaller lure offers a good snack to a lethargic fish and can be worked more slowly through the water, this is where PaddlerZ look so good with their erratic tail action when swimming.

07 SECRET SAUCE

This popular sauce additive is used by many keen softbaiters and is well known.  During summer I rarely use it and catch plenty of fish on softbaits.  With winter however, the fish can sometimes be fickle as their metabolism slows and they look to conserve energy.  Using Ocean Angler’s Secret Sauce is a good idea to help entice a strike from a fish, scent is a key sense for fish and this sticky sauce may provide you with a small advantage to help attract nearby fish to your softbait.

08 BACK-UP ROD

When fishing in the shallows and you start finding and hooking up on fish, it means if you break off on a snag that you don’t want to waste the bite time by spending precious minutes retying leader and jig heads on.  I like to have a back-up spin set at the ready with a softbait on and I can cast back quickly to enjoy the action.  The bite time can be quite short in winter, so it pays to fish hard while it happens and when the fishing buttons off or you are enjoying a coffee break from the Thermos you brought, then you can retie your busted set and leave it in the rod holder.

09 WARM CLOTHING

As you are fishing in winter with early morning starts, you need to have good clothing to keep warm and fish comfortably.  Take a hat, beanie and buff to cover the head as it is cold when travelling in the boat to your spots.  A good jacket and hoodie, with long sleeved shirt and t-shirt are sometimes needed for three layers of insulation on those freezing mornings!  I find a pair of fishing gloves invaluable as your hands freeze up and makes handling lures and tying knots difficult.

10 MINN KOTA ADVANTAGE

If you are fortunate to own a Minn Kota electric motor, then this is where it really provides a key advantage for anglers hunting the shallows.  I have been using one over the past couple of years now and can’t speak more highly of them, they are so good to use, and they give you complete stealth mode.  We use ours to quietly sneak around the coastline and spot lock us in areas where we can cast out and work the area.  They also provide better safety as you can stop your drift when the rocky hazards loom.  Our catch rates have significantly gone up using the Minn Kota and if you are a serious lure angler then I would recommend the investment in one, it will pay you back in kind.

MATHEW HEWETSON