The Snapper Countdown

The Snapper Countdown

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Flashback.  Date: 22nd December 2005.  Trip: The Pre-Xmas Bash.  I was diving with three other members of North Shore Underwater Club: the fish magnet Mike Bonnici, the human fish Antony Judge and the silent hunter Wayne Judge.  We were diving in phenomenal 20m+ visibility over scattered white boulders and it was a particularly fishy day.  Whilst stalking a moving reef of mulloway, my eyes were diverted by a school of ghostly pale fish swimming in midwater.  Their light pink flanks reflected sunbeams in every direction, and there was no mistaking their identity as the school of large snapper drifted away with a beat of their oversized blue-laced tails.  The fish seemed to move effortlessly through the water, always wary, suspicious eyes cast over their shoulders towards the diver finning ungracefully towards them.  This was the first time I had ever seen big snapper, a school ranging between 5 and 7 kilograms with the bony foreheads and angry expressions that are characteristic of this prized species.  I longed for the school to turn around, to come within range, or at the very least to turn around and give me another look.  I was mesmerised, and from that point my mission for a good snapper had begun.

Date: 28th October 2006.  Trip: October Reconnaissance.  Sometimes it seems the more you want something, the more elusive it becomes.  It wasn’t due to lack of opportunities however.  I can recall on one day diving up the coast the water had a milky, but not quite murky visibility.  Burley is not a technique I commonly employ while hunting fish, but on this day small chunks of fish trickled down the water column and were rolling over the reef below.  I tucked up and dove to the top of a ridge where the burley had settled among a school of small yellowtail.  It was not a deep dive, perhaps 10m at the most.  I found my position and lay flat on a rocky slab, watching to see if any hungry fish had caught scent of a free meal.  This was my chance: a snapper of approximately 2kg was swimming towards me, totally unaware of my presence.  With a flick of its tail the fish turned broadside, urging me to take a shot.  I recall that at the time I was thinking of the fish in the esky, the relief of landing my first snapper and the bragging rights, rather than focussing on aiming.  Not surprisingly, nerves got the better of me and I clean missed the shot.  My spear sailed high over the dorsal fin and some metres past the target.  The old adage “don’t count your chickens before they are hatched” rung true that morning.

On the way back to the boat, I descended with a full breath in 12m of water and lay patiently.  No fish, so I looked towards the surface and directly above me was a 4kg snapper, gently finning in the current.  I rose off the bottom, and the snapper spotted me and casually began to glide away from my outstretched speargun.  I took a long shot on an upward trajectory and the spear dropped below the fish.  In what seemed like a final taunt, the snapper still did not bolt away.  It cruised off nonchalantly, untouchable.

The snapper I keep seeing get bigger and bigger with each encounter.

Date: 27th May 2007.  Trip: End of Autumn Assault.  On another trip away I was on the reef/sand edge, lying on the bottom with a 1.3m reel gun.  I’d spotted some spangled emperor and my eyes strained to pick out their ghostly silhouettes from the settling sand.  Just before ascent I was schooled by over 50 gold-spot and sawtail surgeons.  They were smothering me and so curious that they were literally inches away from my mask and fins.  Sheer laziness took over diligence and I ascended through the school and spun to look over my shoulder, gun at my side.  Naturally, this was the one time when a single 5kg snapper had joined the surgeon fish to check out the camo-clad foreigner to this patch of reef.  I hastily bring the gun into firing position, but this snapper did not get this big by being stupid!   My prize was no where to be seen by the time my gun was levelled.

Date: 19th December 2007.  Trip: The Pre-Xmas Bash.  I was tormented while diving for kingfish at Fish Rock.  The first occasion  was a clear, sunny day with blue skies above, grey nurses top to bottom below.  I dove through the sharks, searching the water for a cruising kingy.  I was 5m from the surface in 25m of water when a large samsonfish dodges a grey nurse shark and makes a beeline for me – typical for a dopey sambo.  The fish then turned broadside (within range) and the long pectoral fins, iridescent blue spots and large tail betrayed its identity.  It was the closest thing to a 10kg snapper that I had ever seen – this fish was truly immense.  Snapper are a protected species at this spot, so it was a cool sight but I was not any closer to taking that snapper trophy for the year.

Date: 26th January 2008.  Trip: Australia Day Bash.  I spiralled through a school of undersized kingfish on one of those rare days with no current at Fish Rock.  I sunk towards the bottom in 25m of water and another “samsonfish” swam out of the murk towards me… another snapper pushing the 10kg mark.   Fish this big look prehistoric and out of place.  Snapper at this spot must know they are protected.

Every spearfisherman knows that to get the fish, you need to spend the time in the water.  Every dive that you try something new, dive a new spot or try out a new technique – you learn a little.  Every five minutes in the water is five minutes closer to that fish of a lifetime.  My snapper countdown timer was fast approaching zero.

Date: 11th May 2008.  Trip: Festival Boys Weekend.  Magic can happen when you least expect it.  On the last day of a successful weekend at Coffs Harbour with the NSUC party crew consisting of Chi, Angus and Ads we tucked into a dive location which has plenty of washy gutters – it was jewfish hunting time.  This spot had produced jewfish on many occasions in the past and I really wanted to land a big one to close off a great weekend.  Rather than blasting in from above and spooking everything, I was diligent enough to dive early and approach a classic jewfish gutter from the side.  I pushed my 1.3m reel gun ahead of me before peeping around the cunje-encrusted rock.  There were no sleeping jewfish in this particular gutter, but there was a long, slim fish; that had a bluish hue and was resting just off the bottom.  I dismissed it as a netted sweetlip until it swam off the bottom and down the gutter away from me.  There was no mistaking this fish was a snapper with a prominent hump and long, wispy pectoral fins.  Like I said, magic happens and the fish seemed to follow my thoughts.  The snapper turned 180 degrees and swum up the gutter directly towards the flopper on my spear tip, as if in a trance.  I fired and the fish was secured through the pectoral fins, the spear tip lodged into a boulder and the other end of the spear still in the muzzle.  3.85kg of snapper.  Finally, and success could not taste any sweeter.