Not the biggest, not the fastest, however they may be the tastiest and most plentiful inshore and near shore fish in the Keys. Mangrove snapper are getting ready for their annual migration to the outer edge of the reef for their annual spawning event. The actual spawn usually doesn’t occur until the end of July and beginning of August, however the fish will start to aggregate in the back country for their annual push through the Keys. It seems that fish that are either migrating or spawning are working overtime which makes them very hungry.
Any structure such as channel edges, ledges, reef or wreck will be likely spots to get in on the snapper bite. The back country is a particularly great area to target mangrove snapper this time of the year. You can stop on the ledges on the very edge of the Gulf anywhere between the Content Keys and Sawyer Key and most likely also anywhere west of those spots and you will find fish staging to move through the Keys. These rocky ledges are where the Gulf of Mexico juts up from about fifteen feet of water to five feet. Whether the tide is running in or out, positioning yourself up current of the flow over the edge and deploying chum will bring schools of these tasty treats to your boat.
Big snapper did not get that way by being careless. You will rarely see the larger specimens come right to the boat. I always cast my bait far back into the chum line to make sure that I have presented to the big boys. As with most inshore fish, if it is worth catching it is worth putting out larger bait than the conventional wisdom will call for. Avoiding bait like shrimp and squid will help reduce the large number of small fish. The bottom line is that shrimp are too effective and you will waste too much time with small fish of all species. I always start my trip with a well full of pinfish. These can be fished whole if they are smaller, say half the length of your outstretched hand. Larger pinfish can be fished as cut bait.
I usually cut them diagonally from right in front of the throat up to just in front of the tail. This exposes a lot of scent and allows the tail to flap in the current which implies movement.
The only bait that is possibly better than pinfish is fresh dead ballyhoo. Cut into plugs and fished on the bottom, ballyhoo are an all time favorite. Catching ballyhoo while chumming these spots is relatively easy if you are prepared. You can often see the ballyhoo dimpling the water far back in the chum line well before they are within range of a net or hook. Hair hooks with a tiny piece of bait drifted back to the school will usually get a quick bite. The trick is to reach the ballyhoo without it being picked up by the myriad of small snapper crowding the chum line. Better yet is to throw a cast net once the fish have balled up behind the boat. Be patient. Wait until plenty of fish are right at the boat. Ballyhoo will often scatter and stay just out of net range after the first throw so be sure to make it count.
Since the State of Florida has, in its wisdom, seen fit to reduce the bag limit of the most populous inshore snapper to just five fish, I recommend that you do what you can to exclude the smaller fish from biting by using larger bait. You can also practice culling of the fish in a live well by releasing the smallest and replacing it with a larger fish. You need to remember that when fishing on the Gulf side of the Keys bridges and targeting either Grouper or Snapper you must use non offset circle hooks. Try to select a hook large enough to have an exposed barb when the bait is properly impaled on the hook. A buried hook point will seldom properly engage in a fish’s mouth.
As the next few months roll by, you can follow the migrating fish out to the reefs. Next stop will be the bridges and after that the patch reefs in Hawk Channel. Finally out to the outer edge of the reef where they will remain in great numbers until the business of making baby fish is complete. Once the fish have emerged into the Federal waters of the Lower Keys you may take the more reasonable limit of ten fish per person, however the size limit does go from the ten inch state limit to the twelve inch Federal limit.
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