The question is often asked: How big do snapper grow? Are there real "old men snapper" out there lurking in the depths? Giants that smash the line when hooked, defying all efforts of the best fishermen to bring them to the boat?

The short answer is - not likely. As with all things maritime, stories and myths abound, including one report of a 60-pound-plus snapper caught by a commercial boat in the Firth of Thames once. There was even an old, blurred photo of the monster fish hanging on the rail of the boat. But hard evidence is lacking.

We talk in old imperial pounds in these circumstances, mainly because the fish in question appeared in the days when such language was in vogue.

Aucklander John Wentworth told the story of a monster snapper caught by his mother-in-law about 80 years ago. Their family ran the boarding house at Whatipu and spent many happy years there.


"She was fishing off the flat rock in the bay at Whatipu one day, using a 12oz cotton handline," he said. Her two sons were with her. They were looking for crays under the rocks when she pulled in this massive snapper. The fish weighed 34lb the next morning, and had been gutted and gilled as soon as it was caught.

"If one allows, say, 3lb for drying out overnight and another 4lb to 5lb for gills and guts - that fish would have weighed an estimated well over 40 pounds. My wife, her daughter, took it to the Huia post office and they took it into the city where it was weighed at Tisdalls sports shop in Queen St at the 34.5lb weight," he said.

The world's biggest snapper come from the waters around Norfolk Island and South Australia, where fish of 40lb and more are reported but, in terms of accessibility and numbers of fish, our waters are hard to beat. We just don't get as many of the old fish that exceed 30lb (13.6kg) any more, which is not surprising as they are slow-growing and a fish that size could be 50 years old or more. They are known to grow to 60 years of age.

Like all fish, animals and people, snapper put on weight depending on the amount of energy they have to expend to get their food. So, when grazing on a rich paddock, so to speak, where they can mooch along picking up kina, shellfish, small fish and crabs, they will be in top condition. Water temperature plays a part, as does their ability to adapt to just about any available food.

The world record catch is a fish of 16.2kg (37lb) caught off Tauranga in 1999 by Mike Hayes. Larger specimens have been caught, but not entered as a possible record.

The fish pictured were caught about 20 years ago off Cape Runaway at Waihau Bay in the eastern Bay of Plenty. The angler, Brent Pearson, joined other locals who knew that every year in October and November big snapper followed spawning kingfish which congregated off the cape. They could be hooked on jigs dropped in the strong currents around the headland. These two snapper were caught on one trip, and weighed 25lb (11.4kg) and 38lb (17.3kg).

Shore-based fishermen who send long-lines out to sea for 1km or more, using electric torpedoes or kites, know that every year at about this time there is a run of huge snapper up the west coast from Taranaki.

Some beaches are well known for producing fish over the magic 20lb (9kg) mark, starting at Mokau and moving north to Karioitahi Beach at Port Waikato, Muriwai and Piha at Auckland, Baylys Beach right up to Ninety Mile Beach.

As always, the more remote the spot the better the chances of scoring big fish.

Another established "big snapper" beach is at Whirinaki, north of Napier where, every year at about this time, a torpedo long-line competition is held.

A couple of years ago, dozens of 20-plus fish were recorded in one day.

Some boat fishermen are also expert at targeting the big ones, travelling to places like Cape Colville, Cuvier Island, Horn Rock, Great Barrier and Little Barrier Islands, the Mercury group of islands and other locations up and down the North Island coast.

They generally fish with powerful berley trails and big, fresh baits on floating lines; casting into the shallow reefs.