For those with a desire for red snapper fillets--pretty much all of us without a fish allergy--the opening of the season in June is cause for celebration. And thanks to extended negotiations between the Gulf states and federal fishery managers, this year's season is the most promising in years because it's likely to provide an extended opportunity to harvest these tasty fish, more in line with their apparent numbers.
The 2018 recreational season opened June 11 and is expected to close July 21, depending on the reported harvest. The season for charter and party boats is June 1 through July 21. While that's not a lot of time, it beats the heck out of the four-day seasons in federal waters in the recent past.
The great thing about red snappers at present is that it does not take a trip over the horizon to get at least a few keeper-size fish; they have again become abundant on some inshore structures in as little as 60 feet of water, well within sight of the beaches. This makes it possible for those of us who own single-outboard center consoles to get at them in relative safety. (However, venturing offshore in iffy conditions is always questionable and all the usual safety gear should be aboard anytime a boat gets outside the inlet, including a DSC-enabled VHF radio that will tell the Coast Guard where you are at the touch of a button if you get into serious trouble.)
How to get 'em
Red snapper are generally pretty cooperative, which is one of the reasons they are so easily fished down to levels lower than biologists like to see. However, there's definitely an established regimen for finding and catching them. Here are a few tips, most given to me by Captain Tommy Butler, longtime commercial hook-and-liner and charter captain out of Madeira Beach:
1. Snapper are not "bottom fish" like grouper--they're usually found above the structure rather than directly down on it.
2. Look for the "Christmas tree" image on sonar, small and the top, large at the bottom above structure, to indicate a school of red snapper. The top of this tree may be as much as 40 feet off bottom in a big school.
3. Motor-fish where possible: It's difficult for most less expert anglers to drop the anchor in 200-foot depths and get the boat positioned right in wind and current on the first try, and repeat drops can spook the fish.
4. Have a chum bag ready: Snapper frequently come up to take advantage of a chum stream, and when they're in the chum, they're usually easy to catch, though you may have to switch to unweighted hooks on spinning tackle for these fish.
5. Avoid catch-and-release fishing--as soon as everybody on board has their 2-fish limit, pull off the spot. That way there's less chance of other anglers discovering you and moving in to clean it out. It's also a good idea to "rest" a school for several days before hitting it again, though given the pressure that's likely on nearshore reefs, this may not be a good plan this summer.
6. In calm, clear water, it pays to lighten up on gear--opt for 40-pound-test tackle rather than 60, giving the fish less visible leader and smaller hooks to fool them.
7. Don't fish below the fish. Snapper will come up to get a bait, but they won't go down as a rule--note where the fish are on sonar and stop your drop above bottom to put it in their face.
8. While there may be keepers over the 16-inch minimum on inshore reefs, if you want fish over 10 pounds, it means a trip out to 150 to 280 feet of water. The inshore fish get caught before they become lunkers.
The right baits and rigs
Cut cigar minnows are a favorite of many experienced snapper-chasers--a piece about 3 inches long on a 2/0 to 3/0 circle hook is the ticket for inshore "chicken" snapper, while the big momma's offshore require 5/0 to 7/0 hooks and larger baits.
Note that by law, only circle hooks without an offset are permitted for reef species. The idea is that the circular hooks tend to slide out of the throat but the point catches on the lip of the snapper, thus it's less likely to mortally wound fish that are to be released.
Red snapper eat a wide assortment of other baits, with squid and cut menhaden also effective. Some expert skippers like Captain Mike Parker of Silver King Charters in Destin carry along several dozen select live shrimp when they go snappering--the shrimp are all but irresistible to the fish, apparently. Anglers fishing farther south, where scaled sardines are abundant, have done well by using these silvery live baits to lure the snapper, as well.
Snapper that have not been hard-fished can be caught on artificial lures, with the shrimp-scented DOA Shrimp in 4-inch size and the Berkley GULP crab among the more successful offerings--they're fished below heavy weights, just like live bait. For adult fish far offshore, giant jigs from 4 to 8 ounces with 8-inch plastic tails, sometimes dressed with a mullet or bonito belly, lure fish off reefs over 200 feet down.
The usual rig for fishing cut or live bait is an egg sinker between 3 and 8 ounces above a swivel of suitable strength, then a 5-foot length (or more in clear water) of mono or fluorocarbon in 50 to 60 pound test, then the hook.
Finding snapper spots
The Panhandle has hundreds and perhaps thousands of “private” reefs, that is junk that skippers have dropped on otherwise barren sand bottom to attract snapper—old washing machines, steel drums, all sorts of bulky trash. It’s not legal any more, but there are still many of these reefs around, and smart skippers have dozens of them in their GPS machines—all very carefully protected from other skippers who might want to pirate “their” fish.
There are also numerous legally-placed artificial reefs, including tugboats, barges and ships as well as demolition rubble, that attract lots of fish; these can be found on any good offshore chart, or visit www.myfwc.com and type “artificial reefs” in the search box.
Party boats and charter boats
You don't have to have your own boat to go red snapper fishing; the Panhandle area between Panama City and Pensacola has one of the largest and most active reef fishing fleets in the nation, and any angler interested in a trip can readily find just the right boat for his buddies or his family. Prices range from around $350 for a half-day to $800 for a full day, and that fee can be split by up to six anglers on most boats.
Party boats or “head boats” are also numerous in Panhandle ports, and these big boats can handle up to 45 anglers, at prices typically around $60 each for four hours, $90 each for eight hours. The longer trips go out farther and catch the bigger snapper. Kids under 5 are not accepted on some offshore boats—check in advance. Most partyboats have snackbars and air-conditioned lounges where you can cool off between spots.
Note that during the snapper season, it can be hard to get a spot--it's best to reserve by phone or on-line in advance because everybody wants to bring home a few snappers while there's an opportunity.
Take your Dramamine in advance--they won't come back if you get seasick. (ReliefBand is a watch-like strap-on device that sends tiny electrical shocks into your wrist to prevent sea-sickness--it sounds like snakeoil, but it absolutely works; I've seen it cure some folks who absolutely could not get offshore otherwise -- www.reliefband.com.)
Releasing red snapper
Fish caught from deep water frequently have issues with the rapid pressure change as they are brought aboard--they blow up like a balloon, and are unable to swim when put back over the side. Since the limit on red snapper is just two fish daily, it's common for anglers to release much of their catch these days, and improving survival of these fish makes good conservation sense--as well as being required by state and federal law.
Improving survival depends on several steps:
1. Use circle hooks so that the hook is unlikely to be swallowed. (This is required by law for all reef species anyway.)
2. Get the hooks out promptly with an efficient hook-removing tool or long-nose pliers. (These are also required when fishing for reef species.)
3. If you want a photo, make it quickly.
4. Use a deep-release "descender" device like the Seaqualizer (www.seaqualizer.com) to help the fish get back down to bottom safely. Descender devices include large weights to which the fish is hooked and lowered back to a comfortable depth, then released.
5. Let the fish go promptly--time out of water are the biggest enemy to survival.