Catching Snapper – On pilchards

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Although plentiful, they can prove fickle when it comes to giving them something they can’t resist eating.

It’s logical to kick off with pilchards. They’re probably the most effective and easily used snapper bait, day-in, day-out, as well as being readily available and reasonably cheap to buy. By presenting them in a variety of ways and on different rigs, it’s possible to make them more appealing to specific sizes of snapper. This means that an angler can gear up or down to catch the size of fish that the bait is likely to attract (although with fishing being such an imprecise science, there will always be the odd exception).

In all cases, do not start your fishing day by thawing your pilchards out! Those rock-hard, frozen pilchards might make baiting up a little more difficult, but they also resist bites better and aren’t so prone to falling off the hook. Personally, I endeavour to have just the edge taken off them so they’re what I like to term ‘crispy frozen’. This is achieved by taking just a dozen or so pilchards out of the chilly bin at one time, especially during the summer. Keep in mind, too, that free-flow pilchards are a better product than those frozen in a solid block. The difference in quality is particularly apparent when the two types are thawed, as the block baits turn to soft mush while the free flow pillie remains quite firm.

Frozen pilchards are available in a variety of sizes but as a rule, most of the pilchards from Australia tend to be small to mid-size, while New Zealand and Japanese ones tend to be much bigger. The various pillie bait recipes that follow pertain to Aussie pillies (ie small to mid-size) unless otherwise stipulated.

Half Pillie ‘Bites’

I always thought that those who used half pilchards were miserly and targeting pan-size or undersized fish. Now I know different. It seems that a half fish releases juices and oils more readily and when placed on a single hook they are nicely ‘bite-size’, encouraging a quick grab and run.

On occasion they can be more effective than a whole bait, especially when the predominant fish in the area are in the 1 to 3.5kg bracket. Both halves of the pilchard can be effectively utilised and by cutting the pilchard across on a 60° angle, there is more bait length for hooks and traces to be sewn or half-hitched around. This makes the bait stay on better through casts and bites. For those with the inclination (or very soft pilchards), the use of cotton or Bait Elasticised Roes an excellent job… but I prefer to keep things straight forward and my bait in the water. Tying up the baits with cotton and then removing all the strands later, takes up a lot time in a fishing day.

Half pillie baits are mostly used in conjunction with a single hook in a 4/0 or 5/0 size, the style or brand being determined by the function and situation. The most popular time for using half pilchards is when fishing relatively shallow ‘small’ snapper spots (1-3kg fish) with light tackle (3-6kg). Excellent results are achieved by placing one or two small, pea-sized sinkers directly on top of a slim diameter, chemically sharpened ‘beak’ type hook. The sinker position provides the angler with direct contact with the bait, enabling good bite detection as well as the ability to set the hook with minimal pressure. Good examples of these hooks can be found in the Gamakatsu, Wasabi, Owner and Mustad ranges.

An alternative, for those who like to kick back, is to use ‘Kahle’ type hooks instead and leave the rod in the rod holder. The small bait is easily swallowed and the snapper takes all the slack and stretch out of the line with its own momentum. The power of the rod slowly comes on and the fish is hooked in the mouth. Actively striking when using such hooks will decrease your success rate. Kahle shaped hooks are widespread throughout the various brands, and must include the differently shaped KL series from Black Magic.

Half pillies work on ledger rigs, too, from the boat or shore. Although some anglers use beak hooks, Kahle hooks are generally preferred, particularly if the reels are being left in gear. This set-up is perfect for high current situations or in order to allow long casts (as the baits are small and streamlined), especially when targeting school snapper to 4kg.

Whole Pillie (au naturale)

A single whole pilchard is the most common way to fish for snapper and everyone has a different way of doing it. The following methods work for me, but very different techniques are used by my fishing buddies and they often do just as well.

When using a pilchard, the first decision is whether you will use: a two hook rig with sliding ‘keeper’ ; a fixed two hook rig; or a single hook. (Keep in mind that if you wish to conform to IGFA specifications, you cannot have a hook that slides up and down the trace – it must be permanently attached to the line).

Two Hook Rig with Sliding Keeper

For your run-of-the-mill snapper fishing, most prefer a two hook rig with sliding ‘keeper’ , the reasons being that a high hook-up rate is achieved and it’s quickly and easily made up. (As an aside, the reason for the quotation marks on the word ‘keeper’ is because although the term is still popularly used, the role has changed. Instead of this hook being much smaller than the ‘main’ hook and used as a means to ‘keep’ the bait in place, the keeper has evolved to become a second hook that is just as likely to hook the fish as the main. N.B. Small keeper hooks do catch fish but are far more likely to bend or break).

For line weights of 4 to 6kg, a 5/0 main hook is complimented by a 4/0 or 5/0 keeper, and for lines over that, a 6/0 main is combined with a 6/0 or 5/0 keeper. These sizes have been determined by the size of the pilchard and the amount of line pressure they may have to take. Although there are some excellent snapper fishers around who use much bigger hooks, and do well, I prefer my hooks to remain hard to see, so they’re less likely to be felt and are easier to set into hard mouths.

When using a double hook rig with sliding keeper, it seems logical to attach the pilchard by going from the tail to the head as the tail is a nice anchorage point for half hitches and presents the fish headfirst for easy gobbling (not that it really matters with snapper – they’ll eat a pilchard any way they can, whether it’s upside down, back-to-front or sideways!). More importantly, the more attachment points you make into or around the pilchard, the better it will stay on. Consequently, I sew the main hook two or three times (depending on the size of the hook) up along the pilchard’s back, just above the lateral line, with the main hook ending up positioned just back from the gills. Don’t worry too much about the hook being set quite deep in this instance, as it is easily ripped out on the strike – but I do like to have the kirb and point of the hook angling up and away from the pilchard’s back.

The second hook is then slid down until the hook eye reaches the point where the trace disappears into the pilchard. Place your second hook in this position, again remembering to have the kirb of the hook pointing away from the main bulk of the pilchard. Next come the half hitches. The half hitches around the tail take the pressure off the stitches and hook positions, keeping the bait nicely intact after the cast. I usually use two half hitches as this spreads the load better and makes it less likely that the tail will get cut off on the cast. However many half hitches you decide on, make sure that they always progress up the trace towards the main line or you risk the half hitches knotting up on themselves. If small ball sinkers are being used, they should be trapped in place between the eye of the hook and the half hitches.

Singles Club

For those who prefer just single hooks, it is the same procedure as the one above but without the second hook being placed in the rear. Single hook rigs are usually used when the snapper are big, the snags very bad, or a mixture of both. It is also simple to make up and IGFA legal.

The Fixed Double Hook Rig

The fixed double hook rig has a lot going for it but I don’t use it. This is mainly due to a question of time: just like tying baits on with cotton, I would rather forgo the extra hassles involved (in this case having to snood two hooks the correct distance apart from one another) so that my gear is in the water for the maximum time possible. But, there are a couple of major reasons why you should bother: for a start, baiting up is much quicker – simply place one hook through the skull of the pilchard (a very tough area) and impale the trailing hook further down the body. This rig seems to get eaten just as much as the reverse-hooked rig and, when retrieved, the bait is brought in headfirst, often proving attractive to kingfish – a nice bonus. Thirdly, it’s IGFA legal, so can be used for club and world records.

The Pillie Magnum

When there is the possibility that snapper in the vicinity could be large, it usually takes a bigger than usual bait to catch them. This means using either one of our big New Zealand pilchards or multiples of the much smaller Aussie ones. Our monster Kiwi pillies are great. They are so big that they generally deter the smaller snapper from sampling them, leaving them relatively intact for when that Big Boy finally shows. In keeping with this focused fishing effort, traces must be a minimum of 24kg and tough (this means that your old mainline is usually not good enough for this), and the hooks should never be less than a 6/0, with 7/0 and 8/0 hooks being even better.

As these big fish are often found in rugged territory, a single hook rig will snag up less and your hook supplies will last longer. When using just the one hook on a big pillie, a hook of 8/0 to even 10/0 is recommended. If the snapper are unable to get their mouths around these size hooks, they’re not the fish you’re seeking anyway. Again, I favour sewing the hook from the tail to the head and the sinker being trapped between the keeper hook eye and the half hitches. The main hook should end up being positioned deeply in the pillies shoulder. A deep shoulder hook makes the possibility of a snag less likely, as less of the hook is protruding from the bait.

(Although the skull of the pilchard is another good hook anchoring point, it is sometimes the only part of the pilchard that remains after two or three bites from a big snapper. You don’t want your hook left behind).

Pillie Double Trouble

Using two or more standard-sized pilchard works pretty well on the bigger fish, too. In this instance I like to use a 6/0 to 8/0 double hook rig and at least a 24kg nylon trace. This is best done with pillies of a similar size, as they are treated as a single fish, and it’s important that after sewing the hooks up the pilchard’s bodies, that the two tails end up next to each other for the securing half hitches – otherwise they’ll come undone and your bait will fall apart on the cast. There are two differences when rigging up multiple pilchards instead of singles.

For a start, the leading hook should end up being placed through the bony cartilage in front of the pillies eyes, the reasoning being that even if all the rest of the bait is taken, the two or three pilchard skulls left on the hook should still be a tempting morsel. The second is to not worry about trying to get the keeper hook through all the bodies – just burying it deeply into one of them will be fine, but again, this is dependent on the tails being firmly half-hitched.

What I like about multiple pilchard baits is that they are almost self-berleying: there is enough bulk in this type of bait to allow some bits to get bitten or broken off, and this can encourage fish in the vicinity to take what remains more positively.

The Pillie Starfish

This is one of my favourite big snapper baits and it’s very simple. Get a single 7/0 to 8/0 hook and place it across and through the noses of several pilchards. Whether you use three, four or five pilchards will depend on your pilchard supply and the size of the fish you hope to catch, but in all cases the last pilchard should be hooked down through the nose and out between the gills, locking the others on the hook.

Although this bait rig is terrible for casting long distances (as they splay and hold up in the air), they make up for this disadvantage by being irresistible to big fish – including kingfish and sharks as well as lumpy old snapper. I’m not quite sure why it works so well, but possibly the total effect may look like a small school of fish feeding on something as they gently float down, triggering a strong predatory urge. Whatever. All I do know is that the pillie starfish is often taken well before it reaches the bottom, and often by very big snapper.

Pilchards are truly a wonderful bait, but I really hope we don’t go down the same track as the Australians. Over there, the pilchards are given a real hiding by netters as not only are they in big demand as bait, they’re also used in vast quantities to make cat food. This has quickly resulted in many of the closer schools being wiped out and now the offshore schools are under huge pressure.

If we wipe out this basic source of food, not only do we lose the pilchards, we also lose all those fish that rely on them as their primary food source.

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