Using live bait is usually reserved for species that are quite particular about what they eat, such as the mighty mulloway or the powerful kingfish. However, when fishing for a species such as snapper, that will readily take a dead bait, the live baiting technique is often overlooked.
But any snapper fisherman will know that their targets don’t always play the game and all too often one may sit for hours without a touch, despite the fact that the sounder is indicating the presence of good schools of fish in the area. It is during these times that the allure of a struggling garfish or the erratic pulsing of a southern calamari is too strong for the snapper to resist. And when the snapper are feeding, the effective deployment of a live bait often attracts the attention of the larger predators in the area.
My first foray into this technique came unexpectedly. I was fishing in my kayak out off Ricketts Point in Victoria; it was early in the season and early in the morning. It was still dark as I paddled out and the sounder was showing some solid arches sitting just off the bottom. With a sense of excitement, I started casting soft plastics and drifting fresh pilchards and calamari heads down towards the fish. I waited in anticipation as sunrise approached. But sunrise came and went and I hadn’t even had a nibble.
With the sun now well and truly up I drifted around speaking with fellow who had also failed to score a fish. The reds were still showing up on the sounder so I dragged a big hardbody around for another hour without a single hit before deciding to give up on them. As I was making my way back to the launch site I spooked a school of large garfish and one of them leaped into the air and landed in the kayak. It sent the mind racing… there might be another way.
I quickly returned to the fish, which were still showing up on the sounder, and slowly lowered the live garfish toward them. It didn’t even get to the bottom before line started peeing off my reel and the force of big heavy head shakes were pulsing through my rod. One of the big arches sitting near the bottom had decided, with no hesitation, to engulf the garfish and after a solid fight I had a beautiful 6.5 kg snapper sitting in my landing net. Needless to say I spent the next hour casting all kinds of lure and bait at the remaining arches, while subconsciously hoping another garfish would leap into my lap. Of course that didn’t happen.
From then on I started fishing with live bait more and more when targeting snapper and the results have been nothing short of rewarding.

KEEPING YOUR LIVE BAIT ALIVE

Live bait is most effective when it is alive and kicking. A barely breathing bait that sits lifeless on the bottom is not even half as good as an active and energetic one. For some the challenges presented in keeping bait alive on a kayak is enough to put them off the technique altogether. But if you follow these simple techniques you can have a ready source of live bait at your fingertips.
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.
I have had success using the following species as live bait: small salmon, yellow tail scad, slimy mackerel, mullet, King George whiting, garfish and calamari. 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.
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 kayak, and try to have them out of the water for as little time as possible.
The best way to do this is to plop the bait straight into your livewell. A live well is an insulated, aerated tank in which the water can easily be replaced. Once in the livewell there are three main factors that will kill your bait: a lack of oxygen, poor water quality and a sharp change in water temperature.
Livewells are commercially available but do tend do be a little pricey, and often rely on heavy 12V batteries, making them less appealing to kayak fishermen. Fortunately, it is very easy to make your own and to do so you only need three items: an esky with a drainage port near the bottom, a small aerator and a plastic two litre measuring jug.
The esky 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 esky 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 esky to allow the water to flow out, then refill the esky 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 esky.
A livewell obviously takes up a fair bit of space and may be impractical for some kayak setups. An alternative, and far simpler method is to use a bucket. Start with a 10 to 20 litre bucket and drill a series of holes in the bottom third of the bucket. Then attach a length of pool noodle around the bucket above the ring of holes. The pool noodle can be easily attached by drilling holes above and below it in order to threading a zip tie through which will secure it nicely.
Then all you need to do is attach it to your yak with some strong cord and throw it over the side, letting it sit in the water beside you. Seawater is free to pass through the holes that you drilled, keeping your bait happy and alive. Using a bucket is practical when you can catch your live bait where you are fishing for snapper.

RIGS

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 head first and will often connect with this hook.
If you are 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 knot, 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 (see photo).
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 am 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.

SETTING THE HOOK

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 time line 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 head first, 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 feed 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.

TECHNIQUES

Fishing at anchor

Now that you have your live well sorted and full of bait, you are ready to go. Normally bait fishing for snapper involves waiting for the correct tides and time of day, anchoring up near some good structure or over known grazing grounds, deploying the berley, casting out lightly weighted dead baits and waiting. Well fishing with a live bait is no different, and can be used in conjunction with dead baits, but remember that having more live baits in the water, means that more stress signals are being sent out, increasing your chances of attracting some big beasty snapper.

Drifting

Drifting with a live bait can be dynamite 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

This is by far my favourite way of fishing for snapper using live baits. It is very interactive and can be very exciting. The term ‘sounding’ refers to the act of moving around likely areas while watching your depth sounder for the presence of any fish.
For this technique you need to have a live bait rigged and ready to go, I usually keep them in my live well, or swim them next to the kayak while I sound around looking for fish. 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.

VICTORIA’S SNAPPER HAUNTS

As mentioned earlier, you can include a live bait in your spread of rods wherever you normally fish for snapper. In Port Phillip Bay I love drifting live garfish over the shallow reef systems from Mordialloc to Black Rock with Ricketts Point being a top location. Further west in Corio Bay, sitting at anchor with a live mullet or salmon on the edge of a channel in winter is dynamite for catching those really big reds that lurk around in the cooler months.
In Western Port I have caught snapper on live bait almost everywhere, including some relatively shallow water. Fishing in less than three meters of water in Coronet Bay under the cover of darkness often sees some big snapper coming in during the early season. Anywhere from Corinella through to Lang Lang on the eastern side of Western Port is perfect for catching some big reds and also provides the potential for tangling with big mulloway.
During the main season, fishing from Tooradin to Hastings also produces good numbers of big snapper that are more than happy to take live baits with Lysaghts and Long Reef being two locations worth investigating.
Live baiting for snapper is incredibly exciting. Not only does it tend to attract bigger fish, it will often trigger a bite when the snapper just won’t feed on anything else. But perhaps the most exciting thing of all is hearing your drag scream off because you know that no matter what has taken your live bait, be it a big old man snapper, mulloway or kingfish, you are in for a serious battle.