Red snapper highlights great July fishing
Offshore anglers are seeing red this July as the red snapper season is slated to continue through July 25 for private and charter vessels in state waters, and through August 1 in federal waters more than nine nautical miles offshore for charter boats with a federal reef fish permit.
Finding snapper is a matter of checking lots of wrecks, reefs and other hard structures in water depths anywhere from 30 feet on out to the edge of the continental shelf at 300 feet. In general, most of the keeper-sized fish (over 16 inches long) get caught off the nearshore reefs early in the season, requiring longer and longer runs offshore as the season progresses.
Snappers eat pretty much any sort of fish, and many are caught on frozen cigar minnows or menhaden. Squid is another favorite bait. Some anglers who specialize in catching larger snapper like to carry along a well full of live baits, which can be anything from threadfins and scaled sardines to pinfish. Some anglers also swear by a long strip of fresh bonito belly as a secret lure for big snapper; the bonito can often be caught trolling on the run offshore.
Snappers tend to feed above reef and wreck structures rather than on the bottom like groupers and other reef species. Where there’s a school, anglers often see a “Christmas tree” effect on their sonar screens, showing the school massed above the cover.
Near-shore snapper anglers who are after fish just above the minimum size often downsize their tackle to fool the fish, particularly when the water is clear. Spinning gear with 20-pound-test braid and six feet of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon is a good start. Further offshore, most opt for conventional tackle and 60-pound-test braid with a mono topshot to deal with the much larger fish that may be encountered.
Snapper anglers are required to carry venting tools to allow undersized fish to get back down to their depth after being rapidly hauled to the surface, and successful anglers are required to report their catches.
Get the Fish/Hunt Florida mobile app, which gives easy access to the free but required reef fish survey needed for red snapper harvest, at gooutdoorsflorida.com. The limit is two per person per day 16 inches or greater.
Inshore action this month
While red snapper are by far the favorite table fish of summer, there’s also good action on trout and redfish in inside waters.
For bull reds, fish the bridges on strong falling tides within three days of the new and full moons. The fish hang on the downside of the pilings and pick off crabs and shrimp that come drifting past; free-line an offering into this zone with heavy tackle and hang on. This same tactic can work around the jetties. Remember all reds over 27 inches long must be released.
Keeper-sized reds prowl the grass flats, where they can be caught on Rapala Skitterwalk type topwaters as well as DOA Shrimp and the LIVETARGET Scaled Sardine.
The same lures also pick off sea trout on the edge of the flats, as well as around piers reaching well out into the bays. Trout also school in open water around bait schools at times; look for “slicks” indicating these feeding zones. A live shrimp under a popping cork is a sure thing when cast into these schools, but the fish also grab the usual assortment of one-eighth to one-quarter ounce plastic-tailed jigs and jerkbaits.
Tarpon prowl the beaches throughout July and August; ride outside the bar and look for rolling fish. One of the best lures for these fish is an eight- to 10-inch long soft plastic jerkbait in pearl or white. Live sardines or threadfins also work well, but the artificials give much better casting distance. In general, the tarpon are found well away from the inlets; they don’t like the boat traffic. Most anglers use 40- to 50-pound test braid on 5000-size spinning reels and eight-foot rods to whip these giants.
Kings and Spanish are also still around in good numbers, and will be until mid-October. Look for diving birds anywhere from a quarter-mile off the beach to 20 miles out for these speedsters. Best action is often at dawn when they can be caught by casting into the schools with jigs. Later in the day, the fish go deep and it’s easiest to catch them by trolling.
For Spanish, a Clark spoon behind a 3- to 4-ounce trolling lead does the job, while for kings, a 6 inch Drone spoon behind a number 2 planer is usually successful. Some larger kings also hang around the channel markers and color change lines near the passes all summer. Most of these are caught by slow-trolling large live baits including ladyfish and mullet.
In short, no matter what your angling preference, you can enjoy great fishing this month in Panhandle waters.