Snapper, it’s What’s for Dinner
Snapper, it is what’s for dinner. The summer spawn of the mangrove snapper provide a virtual guarantee that an easy dinner will follow if you will only follow a few simple steps.
The mangrove snapper leave the relative safety of the mangrove roots and channels of the backcountry and gulf side of the Keys to rendezvous on the outer edge of the reef line out on the ocean side. This annual migration is for the purpose of procreation. The spawn can be found anywhere from reefs in as little as 15 feet of water out to the deep edge of the outer reef in 100 feet or more.
Some years the aggregation can go on and on for months while other years it seems that after about a month or so the fish scatter around the Keys again. Once you have found a spot where the fish are congregating, you can return year after year and fish the same spots. If and this is a big IF, you do not overfish the spot. I have had spots that have been “discovered” by others and fished relentlessly until the school has been decimated. Once the majority of the large breeding members of the school have been removed it is likely that the remaining members will look elsewhere in subsequent years for a place to spawn.
It pays to have several spots in your arsenal to spread the catch out over the course of the season. Ideally, each spot should be visited only occasionally and allowed to rest as much as possible. I know the temptation to go where you have had success in the past but if you want it to last you should exercise some discipline.
The spawn in the Lower Keys along the reef line is evenly divided between State and Federal waters. The rules regarding the taking in terms of size and bag limit vary greatly between the two. Approximately east of American Shoal Light the reef line is in Federal waters and to the west of the light the reef line is in State. There is a five fish bag limit in State waters with a ten inch size limit. In Federal water the bag limit doubles to ten with a twelve inch limit.
Whichever side you fish, you will want to maximize your catch and choose the largest fish that you can bring home. To do this, I recommend using larger bait so as to make it tough for the smaller members of the school to handle it. Live pinfish are one of my favorite baits. They are relatively easy to come by, hardy in the bait well as well as on the hook - and the fish love them. The silver dollar-sized pinfish are often referred to as snapper candy for a good reason. I, however, like to go one size larger to reduce the number of smaller fish that I have to deal with. If you would rather have dead bait to handle cut ballyhoo plugs work great also. Do not try to get more than two baits from a medium sized ‘hoo, and small ‘hoo render only one bait. While it is a no-brainer that snapper love shrimp, I advise against them because you will end up with a pile of smaller fish.
I like to use a larger live bait hook. 4/0 hooks are what work best for me and I like the stronger 9174 Mustad for the job. I tend to shy away from circle hooks when fishing on the bottom when I can because it takes longer for the hook to set than with a J hook. You will lose more fish to the bottom if you cannot set the hook forcibly and start moving the fish right away. Large snapper are masters at getting into the bottom fast. If you think that grouper are escape artists, you haven’t seen anything yet.
The bite is often great during the day however at night, when the light fades it can get a little insane. The larger fish that have been hiding far back in the chum line and along the bottom will come right to the back of the boat and nose up to the chum bag. Speaking of chumming, that is the best way to find snapper spots in the first place. I like to find a low profile reef, anchor up and put the chum in the water. If there are mangrove snapper congregating in the area, they will be seen up in the chum line in a matter of minutes. If they are not up in fifteen minutes, it is time to get moving and try another spot.
When fishing during the day in clear water the fish can get fussy about the leader that you are using and fluorocarbon becomes worth its weight in precious metals. At night it wouldn’t matter if you were hand lining with eighty pound line, the fish are just that aggressive.
If you are fishing with more than a few friends, it is important to keep an accurate count of the fish that you have put into the boat. It is easy to lose track and end up with a few extra which can be very expensive if law enforcement stops you on the way home. And no, I haven’t experienced this first hand since the last thing that I do before upping anchor is to do a recount to make double sure that an extra fish hasn’t slipped into the box.
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