SA Snapper Season

South Aussie fishos just love catching big snapper and as Ben Knaggs explains, the opening of the SA snapper season on December 15 is a date keenly anticipated by those eager to get amongst the hottest big red fishing South Oz has to offer.
11:30am on opening day at one of SA’s more famous and well known snapper drops. Things are about to get hectic!

11:30am on opening day at one of SA’s more famous and well known snapper drops. Things are about to get hectic!

– Releasing a typical SA snapper. These fish are susceptible to barotrauma, so if you’re planning on a catch and release session, try to stick to the shallower grounds below ten metres deep.

– Releasing a typical SA snapper. These fish are susceptible to barotrauma, so if you’re planning on a catch and release session, try to stick to the shallower grounds below ten metres deep.

It’s 11:59am on December 15 and a pensive, exited buzz pervades a collection of boats all clustered together over a small blip of structure on the seafloor not far below. As the clock winds down to 12 midday, glances fly fast to sounder screens which seem to reassure their crews with showings of big, wide, arches stacked up like the paperwork back on shore many of our protagonists have neglected via sick days and annual leave just to be out here. As the last, agonising seconds tick by, a countdown breaks out. “…three…two…one…CAST!” Somebody with a sense of the absurd fires off an airhorn as a barrage of baits and lures hit the water in unison. This is it, the South Aussie summer snapper season is open! This is scene repeated across any number of well known snapper hot spots throughout South Australia’s twin gulf waters on that day of December 15 each year. From the big name destinations like Whyalla or Arno Bay on the west coast of Spencer Gulf, through to boring old metro Adelaide or O’Sullivan’s Beach in the south-east of St Vincent Gulf, this arbitrary start time is keenly anticipated by a legion of big red aficionados, both from SA and interstate. What typically follows this opening day countdown is a flurry of heavy hook-ups as anglers deprived of their beloved big reds for the month and a half long closed season take advantage of untouched schools of 10kg plus snapper that SA is justifiably famous for. When all goes to plan and you find yourself on the right spot on opening day, the carnival-like atmosphere can be as surreal as it is enjoyable.

Politics & Snapper Pros

What’s created this strange ‘opening day’ situation is a patchwork of puzzling fisheries management. Without getting too much into the yawn provoking detail, SA’s famous snapper stocks aren’t presently in the condition we’d all like them to be. Rec fishing take has certainly played some part in this, but if you look at the official Primary Industries & Resources South Australia Fisheries (PIRSA Fisheries) catch data figures over the last ten years or so when this problem has presented, it’s pretty clear rec fishos are being lumped with an unfair proportion of the blame. The introduction of a Total Allowable Commercial Catch (TACC) seems to be an obvious panacea, but I digress. The end result of some lacklustre fisheries management is a spawning snapper biomass that evidently needs protecting if both snapper size and number is to be maintained. The primary mechanism PIRSA has adopted for this is a closed season during the summer spawning period when big reds school up and make their run up into the shallow reaches of both Spencer and St Vincent Gulfs. Initially two ‘closed’ months were implemented, these being November and July, but the ‘out of season’ July period was quickly scrapped, and the November timeframe has recently been extended out into December to create the current month and a half closure. This has created a date on the SA sportfishing calendar few local fishos are willing to miss. But that’s not the end of the red tape. In 2013, with stock assessments still showing catch and recruitment declines, a series of five ‘spawning spatial closed zones’ were implemented in addition to the state-wide closed season. In these areas – almost all of which are all well known snapper aggregating shipwrecks – snapper fishing is prohibited from midday December 15 through to midday January 31. Then you’ve got the 84 brand spanking new Marine Park ‘no fishing’ Sanctuary Zones to contend with that even PIRSA Fisheries tell us have nothing to do with fisheries management. Confused yet? Maybe even a little angry? Join the club.
Even when fishing relatively shallow grounds, release weights are a must to allow those fish with partially inflated swim bladders to get back down to the bottom where they can regulate.

Even when fishing relatively shallow grounds, release weights are a must to allow those fish with partially inflated swim bladders to get back down to the bottom where they can regulate.

Cracking Thirty

Once the SA snapper season is open, a summer sunrise over a new moon tide set is THE prime time to score a big red like this. This first fish of the day nailed a bait before the rest of the school keyed into the lures which is a fairly typical scenario, and good reason to fish both methods.

Once the SA snapper season is open, a summer sunrise over a new moon tide set is THE prime time to score a big red like this. This first fish of the day nailed a bait before the rest of the school keyed into the lures which is a fairly typical scenario, and good reason to fish both methods.

Anyhow, all this is not the end of SA snapper fishing as we have known and loved it for decades. What is now the ‘season start’ is, and always has been, right amongst prime time to score a hooter SA red over the magic mark of 30 pound, or 110cm if you’ve made the moral move to catch and release. What this ‘opening day’ situation does provide is a chance to experience a burst of crazy, big snapper action even on the most well known and hard fished hot spots. These ‘drops’ as SA snapper fishos term them, are usually wrecks or artificial reefs that the gulf dwelling reds are almost magnetically drawn to in an environment with very few natural fish attracting features. Having been left alone for a month and a half, you can expect a frenetic few days fishing on these popular drops at the start of the season, before boat traffic and heavy commercial harvesting sends the schools off elsewhere. This is a factor few folks seem to understand about big SA snapper. When schooled up for their summer run up the gulfs, these fish are constantly hounded by great white sharks, so tend to move on quickly as soon as they are disturbed. Therefore, the smart snapper fisho takes the time to relocate them at the beginning of each new session. Use of your sounder is an imperative part of SA snapper fishing. In fact, sonar sweeping likely snapper territory is probably the most valuable way to spend time out on the snapper grounds. Look for any isolated structure on the typically featureless sand/mud seafloor, or showings from the fish themselves which can often be away from any significant features. Once found, the hard part is over, and the system for success is pretty simple. SA’s gulf waters are highly tidal, so accurately anchoring up just up-tide of the fish is a must to allow you to fish effectively. From there, rely on a stable berley stream to aggregate the fish right below the boat. I find a frozen, minced berley block in a weighted mesh bag provides an effective, low maintenance and continuous trail, especially when complemented with the odd dump of cubed up baitfish sent down to the seafloor via a trap-door style berley bomb. With the berley going, expect the action to start fairly quickly and then gradually intensify, with the bigger fish usually rocking up midway through the bite. Lures, and particularly stickbait style soft plastics, tend to produce the bigger reds, although it can pay to fish both natural and artificial. Some days the fish will totally ignore lures and only have a taste for the baits, and vice versa. While SA’s big, gulf dwelling snapper can be caught right through the day or night, if you really want to experience a hectic monster SA snapper bite, fishing a summer sunrise over a new moon period is when it is most likely to happen. As we all know, the good old snapper is a nice table fish, but the true trophy reds deserve more respect than that. The catch and release ethic is spreading through SA recreational fishos quickly, to the point where letting those big brutes go is now almost the norm. However, big snapper are surprisingly fragile fish, especially when pulled from depths much over ten metres where barotrauma becomes a problem. So if you plan on letting your reds go, try to stick to the shallower grounds, utilise a release weight to mitigate barotrauma issues, and employ circle hooks when fishing baits.  
Ben Knaggs

About Ben Knaggs

Born and bred in South Australia, Ben’s love of fishing developed from a very early age and evolved to become an obsession which would ultimately shape his life. Actively involved in fishing related journalism from his mid teens, Ben has written articles for most Australian fishing titles and served as editor of Saltwater Fishing magazine for eight years.

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