Where are those Tamar River snapper?
A family tradition of fishing on the Tamar River has given Steve Suitor an intimate knowledge of favourite haunts for many species. This article throws some light on the infamous Tamar River snapper.
The snapper population in the Tamar River would seem to be concentrated in the area between Egg Island and Point Rapid. There have been isolated reports of fish caught from East Arm, Bell Bay, Beauty Point and Kelso, but the most consistent catches are made around the reefs and deep holes adjacent to the abandoned oyster racks in the Spring Bay, Whirlpool Reach and Moriarty Reach. Snapper have been caught in the deep water of the Craigburn boat ramp, just above, and below the Batman Bridge, near Drumstick and Redwood Island, off Bonney Beach, Davis Cove and West Bay. Snapper is essentially a summer fish in the Tamar, appearing around mid October with a few catches occurring after March. Opinion is divided as to what snapper do during the winter, with some anglers believing that as the water temperature falls snapper retire to the deepest holes in the river, becoming sluggish and torpid as their metabolism slows down. The rival school of thought is, that the first flood in autumn causes a drop in both water temperature and salinity, which, combined cause the snapper to move to the off-shore reefs. No one can say for certain but given what is known of snapper movements into and out of bays and estuaries in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales I am inclined to support the latter theory.
Snapper numbers in the Tamar River are probably much higher than current catches indicate. It is known that they do breed successfully in the estuary. It is not uncommon to catch cod which contain tiny snapper the size of goldfish. These fry could not have travelled any distance and thus must have been hatched in the river. The Spring Bay, Moriarty Reach and Whirlpool Reach areas of the Tamar River are subject to fierce tidal flows and this combined with the huge numbers of oysters, fishing is a hazardous affair. The light rods, reels, lines and sinkers which are standard in Port Philip Bay are not in the hunt here. The majority of snapper caught in the Tamar River are in the 4 kg to 10 kg range, with fish to 14 kg recorded. The size of fish and the unfavourable conditions dictate the use of heavier tackle than is usual on the mainland. The usual rig is a fast taper 1.6 to 2.1 metre boat rod matched to a medium sized overhead or large fixed spool reel. A minimum of 10 kg lone should be used, but most spool up with 15 kg. A 1.5 to 2 metre trace of 24 kg mono or jinkai is attached by mans of a size 2R bearing swivel. A suitable size snapper lead is threaded onto the trace and a single 4/0 to 7/0 beak or tarpon hook is tied or crimped on. An alternative rig is a suitable size pyramid or snapper sinker on the bottom with two 4/0 to 7/0 hooks above it on short droppers. The rig has, however, caused some loses when a hooked fish manages to snag the free hook on oysters.
Snappers will take a wide variety of baits with the best being whole or cut pilchards, whole bottle squid, small squid, small mullet, small garfish, and silvery fish fillets - small couta fillets are ideal.
Snapper can be caught at any time of the day, but experienced anglers agree that early morning is the peak fishing time, especially if it coincides with slack water. Some of the prime snapper holes in the Tamar River can only be fished at a turn in the tide. Some enthusiastic angler are currently experimenting with unweighed lines fished on stationary down riggers as a means to overcome the large sinkers required to hold the bottom around the Batman Bridge area.
Many fish are lost by angler failing to use sufficient force to keep them out of their oyster covered holes. It is imperative to winch a freshly hooked snapper clear of the bottom, then allow it to tire itself and bring it to the gaff. A gaff is an essential item for the size of fish you may encounter. Don't attempt to gaff the fish in the head - it is rock hard. It is far better to gaff the fish in the soft under belly and minimise damage to the edible flesh. A work of warming here, a modest snapper can crush oyster in its powerful jaws, and can quite easily take off your finger - be careful. Snapper are a relatively fast growing fish, an eight kilogram specimen presented to the University's school of Aquaculture was aged at six years old. They are also fine table fair, and should be killed and bled immediately once they are boated. In recent years a number of ten to twelve kilogram fish have been found floating or swimming, or swimming feely, near the surface. These fish showed no signs of injury and their condition and subsequent death are an unsolved mystery.
I have an unproven theory; It is known that shellfish in polluted areas sometimes contain high levels of heavy metals and one theory is that of such a size might have consumed sufficient shellfish to have built up heavy metals in it's liver or bloodstream in concentrations to prove fatal. If anyone finds a snapper in this condition is asked to freeze it and contact me at Charlton's Sport Store in Launceston. I will them arrange to have it collected and tested.
The snapper anglers biggest bug bear is the hundreds of cod that will be caught. There is little that can be done to avoid this and all you can do is release them. The use of berley will compound the cod problem by about 500%. Gummy sharks are also a common catch when snapper fishing. Due to the fact that the Tamar River is a shark nursery you must release all gummy and snapper sharks. A badly hooked shark, or one that is difficult to handle should be cut off as close to the hook as possible. Sharks, as do most fish, suffer few after affects and soon dislodge the hook. Stingrays and skates are also possible catches, and being poor table fare, should also be released. The snapper is a sporting fish, good table fare and a worthy opponent. There are many trophy specimens in the Tamar River and as more angler fish in the right spots, with the right gear and the right techniques I am sure a lot more will be landed.