Red snapper are assuredly the fishing headliners for the Panhandle in June, with more liberal harvest seasons being extended in federal waters thanks to an agreement between NOAA Fisheries and the five Gulf states. The population of these tasty reef fish appears to have made a dramatic rebound after years of severe fishing restrictions.
The re-opening of the season is set for June 1 continuing through August 1, for those fishing from charter boats, and June 11 through July 12 for anglers on their own boats. These season openers are for both state and federal waters.
Most anglers out of northwest Florida ports are reporting red snapper literally so thick they interfere with fishing for grouper and other reef species, so the short seasons should see most boats whose operators have the numbers loading up quickly.
Red snapper show up in water anywhere from 20 feet deep on out to the edge of the continental shelf, and they are usually found in schools, like most snapper species. They hang around underwater structure—ship wrecks, ledges, artificial reefs and other bottom breaks attract them by the dozens. Florida’s list of artificial reefs is a good place to start: https://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/artificial-reef
As with all reef fish, anglers must use circle hooks to fish live or prepared bait for red snappers, and release tools and a descending device should be aboard to allow releasing over-limit or under-sized fish successfully.
Red snappers eat just about anything, but the can’t miss bait is live scaled sardines, aka pilchards, which can be netted on the grass flats in summer—fish them on a size 4/0 hook inshore and 30-pound-test fluoro dropper-style leader, with enough weight to get them down to the fish—in the 30-foot depths 2 or 3 ounces. Offshore, move up to 60 pound test leader, 7/0 circle hooks and up to 8 ounces of weight at 100 feet and more. Inshore fish can be caught on spinning tackle with 20-pound-test braid, but offshore it’s best to go to standard revolving spool bottom fishing gear and 60-pound-test.
When live bait is hard to get, frozen sardines, threadfins, squid or cigar minnows usually get them—putting some chum down with the bait can turn on a slow bite. They can also be caught on butterfly jigs, and on artificial shrimp like the 6” DOA—add it to the dropper line and fish it like a live bait.
Sonar is a must for finding snappers and their habitat of course, and the snapper are usually well up off the bottom, sometimes in a sort of “Christmas tree” shape small at the top, wide at the bottom.
Remember that you usually don’t “set” a circle hook—when a fish bites, just crank very fast and the hook typically slides into the corner of the fish’s mouth and sticks.
Anglers fishing from private vessels must get the Gulf Reef Fish Angler designation on their license. For-hire operations that do not have a federal reef fish permit and are limited to state waters only for red snapper fishing must get the State Gulf Reef Fish Charter designation on their license. Learn more about these programs and how to obtain these designations at MyFWC.com/Marine by clicking on “Recreational Regulations,” “Reef Fish” and “Gulf Reef Fish Survey.”
The quota for red snapper in the Gulf for both the commercial and recreational sectors is 15.1 million pounds whole weight. The recreational sector is allocated 49% of that total, which is 7,399,000 pounds whole weight.
For individual anglers, the limit is two fish over 16 inches long daily.
Other June action in the Panhandle
If reef fishing is not your thing, there are plenty of kings and Spanish anywhere from a couple hundred yards off the beach to 20 miles out—catch them on live or cut menhaden, pilchards or cigar minnows put out in a chum slick or slow-trolled around the inlets and artificial reefs. Plenty of Spanish and some kings are also caught off the piers, mostly on cut bait.
Tarpon have arrived along the beaches and will be here until early October. Live mullet or crabs will catch them best, but they also take the Berkley GULP Crab well. Fly rodders can sight-fish them with cockroach or other streamer patterns.
Reds and trout are both active in the bays in June, with trout on the shallow grass at dawn, where they’ll hit topwaters or the Mirrodine, and dropping off into the holes as the sun gets high—switch to 1/8 to ¼ ounce jigs. Both trout and reds also hang under the many private docks around the bays, ready to take live shrimp or the DOA version and there are usually large reds around the bridges—find them by trolling large diving plugs close to the pilings. Also keep an eye out for bait slicks—both reds and trout gather under these oily patches in open water.
Offshore, dolphin action picks up this month—find the grass lines and you’ll find the fish. Sails hang around same area, as does the occasional marlin, blackfin or wahoo. This is specialized fishing that requires some expertise as well as large, twin-engined boats—best bet is to hire one of the many charter boats found in Panama City Beach or Destin.