Mangrove snapper are undoubtedly among the most common game fish encountered by anglers in Florida. From shallow backwaters to offshore structure, these fish seem to thrive in a variety of conditions and habitats. However, perhaps because of how common they are, mangrove snapper aren’t targeted with the same fervor as other, more glamorous bottom fish. That said, savvy anglers know exactly how much fun these fish are to target on light tackle. Furthermore, their outstanding table fare is something to behold as well. In the coming months, these fish will perform their annual spawning rituals, resulting in one of the hottest bottom bites the Sunshine State has to offer.
Mangrove snapper (Lutjanus griseus), also known as gray snapper, are year-round targets for many anglers around the entire state. These fish are relatively easy to find, taste great and fight hard, making them a common sport fish for the masses. While just about anyone can go out anywhere in Florida and catch a mang, it takes a special kind of approach to find and fool these fish when they’ve reached the top of their growth potential.
With a 10-inch minimum total length in state waters and a 12-inch minimum total length in federal waters, these fish can be harvested well before they reach full size, making it fairly easy to put together a tasty haul. However, as these fish mature and grow, they become harder to catch. While improper presentations consisting of subpar baits and poor terminal tackle once got the job done, a full-grown “mango” won’t even look at an offering that doesn’t appear natural. Even when the conditions are in your favor and you achieve a beautiful, stealthy presentation, big mangs are notorious for dishing out frustrating refusals that can drive anglers mad. Believe me, I know from experience.
One of the most alluring aspects of the statewide mangrove snapper fishery is that these fish can be found, caught and harvested year-round. So, if you ever need fresh fish for dinner or simply want to but a bend in the rod, mangrove snapper fishing is a safe bet. But, like any other fishery, this one has its peak season that provides the best possible opportunities to get connected with the big ones. Fortunately, that peak season is upon us and although many might not revere these fish as much as others, I highly recommend you give fishing the mangrove snapper spawn a shot.
While the spawn takes place in the state’s southern reaches, July and August are excellent months to target these fish from any port of call. Warm water, lots of food and calm conditions that allow anglers to reach distant waters make the coming months perfect for mangrove snapper fishing, whether you’re fishing the spawn or choose to target these fish elsewhere. It’s also worth noting that while “the spawn” most anglers talk about occurs near the Florida Keys and other areas in the state’s southern regions, mangrove snapper have been known to take advantage of prime spawning conditions all around the state over the course of many months. Typically, these conditions occur when waters warm and a full moon is present.
Large mangrove snapper can be found in water as shallow as a few feet, but the largest fish are usually encountered in deeper water over wrecks and reefs that offer plenty of water flow and for – age. However, anglers fishing from land or smaller boats can target large mangs at large inshore structures like bridges and deep channels, too. For the best re – results, though, your best bet is to find some promising bottom further from land. Another tip: If you can, fish at night, as these fish become very active after dark, particularly when spawning.
Their statewide presence is certainly one of the things that make these game fish so desirable, but in July and August, the Florida Keys and a few areas nearby are where you want to be. In the Keys, there are seemingly countless venues for excellent mangrove snapper fishing but, during the spawn, finding the right ones are incredibly important. Any month of the year, these fish can be found on nearby Atlantic patch reefs and on the Gulf side in Florida Bay. There is no shortage of mangrove snapper habitat in the region, and that can make it difficult to pinpoint a hot bite during the coming months. So, what should you look for when trying to find the action?
Well, the short answer is the vibrant reef system on the Atlantic side. Here, just before the Gulf Stream, an intricate system of coral reefs offers a sanctuary to a variety of marine organisms, including various prized bottom fish. These reefs vary in depth and offer different fisheries from yellowtail to grouper and beyond. Mangrove snapper call these areas home year-round, but they also use these venues as their spawning grounds in the coming months. Generally speaking, this is where you should focus your efforts, but there’s still more to it.
Just any reef won’t do. During the spawn, you’ll have to find areas where various conditions coincide to provide these fish with the perfect breeding ground. First, let’s talk depth. You can find these fish in a variety of depths, but the heaviest spawning activity usually occurs between 30 and 50 feet of water this time of year. Furthermore, many anglers find that certain types of reefs are more likely to hold fish than others and, believe me, not all Florida Keys reefs are the same. In this case, you want to be on the lookout for not just vibrant areas with plenty of life, but also reefs that provide more structure than others. For ex – ample, an abundance of coral heads is a great sign that predatory bottom feeders are nearby. Additionally, ledges are excellent habitat for mangrove snapper, particularly during the spawn.
To find these areas, study your charts thoroughly to determine where there are sharp changes in depth along the reef line, as these usually indicate areas of good bottom. Fortunately, anglers in the modern world have access to different tools that can significantly help in the effort to find fishy areas. CMOR Mapping (cmormapping.com) provides users with high-resolution seafloor maps that show every little piece of structure or bottom contour in the coverage zone. This aids in many fisheries, including the expansive reef fishery in the Florida Keys. Strikelines (strikelines.com) provides a similar service but allows users convenient access to seafloor mapping and charts through an app compatible with a variety of mobile devices. That’s right, we’re living in an age when you can simply whip out your smartphone and find new areas to fish in a few taps. However, even when you find the right areas where the spawning mangs are stacked up, there’s still work to do.
First comes boat positioning and getting set up correctly. When fishing the mangrove snapper spawn, anchoring is your best bet. However, for the protection of the reef, be sure to drop anchor up-current of the reef in the sand or grass. Remember that the wind can be a factor as well, so keep it in mind when you approach the area you want to fish. Once you’re anchored, I suggest you immediately begin a steady flow of chum. Chum is an important factor in any reef fishery but spawning mangrove snapper respond particularly well to chum. In addition to traditional ground chum, glass minnow, silverside or pre-cut chunks really get the fish fired up. I should also mention that this is not a time to skimp on chum. With a steady current, you’ll go through block after block rather quickly.
With chum in the water, bait is your next consideration. You have a few options here and I suggest you have as many of them as you can ready to go. These fish can display different moods from one day to the next and can even change their preferences as you fish for them. Live bait is a great asset in this pursuit, with jumbo pilchard and small pinfish being your best bets. You may think these baits are too large, and they are for some of the smaller snapper, but they’ll get you bites from the larger fish you seek. If the fish become wise to live bait or just won’t cooperate, a fresh dead offering can also be very effective. Ballyhoo plugs are my personal favorite in this fishery, as there are large mangs present that can easily take down the larger offering. Additionally, cut pinfish, goggle-eye, speedo or butterflied cigar minnow will do the trick. You can never have too many options!
As far as tackle is concerned, this is largely a light tackle fishery. 6’6” to 7’ medium action rods with mid-size spinning reels are my personal favorites, but those who prefer conventional gear can opt for a light setup in that department. Either way, 30 lb. braided main line and rods with sensitive tips are recommended. For your leader, striking the right balance between stealth and strength is incredibly important. With so much unforgiving structure nearby, you need some abrasion resistance, but these fish are also wary and won’t bite if your leader is too heavy. Start with 30 lb. fluorocarbon and adjust as needed. For your hook, I recommend a live bait J-hook that matches the size of your bait. When using dead bait, I like to conceal the hook while leaving the barb exposed. Knocker rigs and heavy jigheads also do very well here, but use the rig you’re most confident in. The key is to use just enough weight to hold bottom.
Mangrove snapper may not be the most glamorous game fish out there, but Floridians can experience an upgraded quality of mangs in the coming months. This is when the big ones bite. Whether you’re headed way offshore in the Gulf of Mexico or plying the vibrant reef system of the Florida Keys, be sure to stack the odds in your favor by preparing the right tackle and bait and hitting the right areas.