Throughout the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic, any angler who has ever cast a line is familiar with one or more of the snappers. Universally good to eat, sometimes easy to catch, other times maddeningly picky, and found from the mangrove shorelines out to deeper reefs and rocks, this varied group holds universal appeal.
Most commonly known as mangrove snapper when inshore, they often assume their real name—gray snapper—once they reach maturity and make the move offshore onto reefs and wrecks.
The Mississippi Delta’s forest of oil-industry structures presents an ideal habitat for giant gray snapper. From simple well heads with four to six legs to multi-unit platforms with crew quarters, the structures give these snapper a lot of cover and a veritable food magnet—and that makes for happy fish.
Capt. Mike Frennette of Venice, Louisiana’s Redfish Lodge targets 35- to 50-foot depths until summer swelter ushers the fish out to between 50 and 100 feet. Water temperature pulls them even farther out, but Frennette stresses that depth doesn’t change the game.
“They’re not on the bottom; I think they just move out deeper so they can go down into some cooler water,” he says. “But we still fish them at the surface no matter what depth they’re in.”
Hands-down, live croakers top the bait choices for jumbo snapper, but live shrimp or pogies also produce. Cut bait is an option for finicky fish because the scent stimulates feeding. When Frennette needs an extra dose of attraction, he hangs a chum bag or tosses a handful of cut pogies.
Frennette always positions up-current so he can drop baits back toward the rig. Mangroves are warier than their crimson cousins, so while red snapper often patrol a rig’s perimeter, those brown snapper like metal over their heads.
Frennette fishes live and dead baits on a stout 7-foot spinning rod with a moderate tip, and a 5000 to 7000 reel loaded with 50-pound braid. This is relatively close-range fishing with a species that’s not going to make long runs like a kingfish, so line capacity is far less important than cranking power.
“Because the rigs are vertical structures, not horizontal like rock piles or reefs, it’s game-on when these snapper hit, and you’d better be ready to muscle them out,” Frennette says. “You can’t just let them run. If you let them get 10 feet on you, you’re done; they’re going to break you off.”
Frennette prefers a basic slip-sinker rig comprising a weight positioned above a ball-bearing swivel linking the main line to about 10 feet of 40- to 60-pound fluorocarbon leader and a circle hook sized to the bait.
A 3/8- to 1/2-ounce sinker does the trick. In light current, Frennette often free-lines baits. When swift current requires a couple of ounces of lead, it’s time to do something else.
“I don’t want my baits to go too far into the rig,” Frennette says. “If I can keep it 5 to 15 feet inside the frame of the platform, that’s as far as I want to go.”
Frennette’s advice on fighting a hooked mangrove snapper: “You want a tight drag, and you gotta walk to the front of the boat as soon as you hook up to pull that fish into open water.” —David A. Brown
A favorite among bottomfishermen, mutton snapper are known for being both discerning and delicious.
Capt. Walter Mason of Islamorada is not a biologist, but after 45 years of fishing and diving in the Florida Keys, he probably knows more about mutton snapper habits than most scientists.
He does a lot of little things to catch more than his share of this prize species.
“We used to use 30-foot leaders; now it’s 50-foot leaders because the sinker spooks fish,” Mason says. “It’s crucial not to bang your sinker on the bottom because it freaks out the big muttons.”
Mason keeps the sinker from stirring up sand by raising and lowering the rod with the boat motion, with the reel in free-spool or with the bail open.
The best fishing for muttons is during the spawn in June or July. “If the full moon is in the first week of June, the best fishing is probably going to happen in July. If the full moon is after the 10th of June, it’s probably going to be in June. That can change at different locations.”
Alligator Light in Islamorada, American Shoal in the lower Keys, and the Dry Tortugas are among Mason’s top spots.
The next-best time of year to catch mutton snapper is October through December, when early cold fronts lower the water temperature.
“When the wind blows out of the north or northwest, and Florida Bay cools, all those fish move to shallow patch reefs in 10 to 15 feet,” Mason says. “The next two fronts push them out to the 25- to 40-foot patches. And by January and February, you’re catching them in deeper water off the edge of the reef: the 135 ledge, the 180 ledge and the 200 ledge.”
Mason favors light tackle, such as a light- or medium-action 20-pound spinning outfit with 30-pound fluoro or pink mono leader. On patch reefs, he attaches 5 feet of double line to 15 feet of leader with back-to-back uni knots, with a 1/4- to 1-ounce egg sinker above a small J hook.
A ballyhoo with the tail cut off at an angle, which keeps it from spinning, is a favorite fall bait. Another is a tail-hooked live pinfish with the spines cut off. When you get the bite, Mason says, let the fish run. “People miss mutton snapper because they don’t give them a proper drop-back. Muttons pick up a bait, hold it in their mouth and swim away. When they feel that it’s safe to eat it, they turn the bait and swallow it headfirst.
“As long as it’s an unrestricted drop-back, you can drop it back forever. It’s all about resistance. If a mutton feels any resistance, it will spit that bait out.” —Steve Waters
The largest of all the snapper species—they can grow to over 100 pounds—cuberas are generally sought for their trophy status.
Night-fishing for cuberas off Key Largo in the Florida Keys is a decadeslong tradition. Between July and September, spawning congregations gather around a wreck between 200 and 250 feet deep off Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, one of the few known spawning sites for these fish.
The proven tactic is drifting a live lobster over the wreck, where cuberas show up on sonar. It’s important to stem the current when fish are located, giving baits prolonged soak time in the strike zone. If you miss a fish on the strike, pause for a minute; the remains of the lobster will likely be consumed by the same or a different fish. Competition can be fierce.
When cuberas school above the main wreck, the odds of catching them are not good. The best chance comes when a school is off the wreck. Sharks can be overwhelming on certain nights. Though the bite can go off at any time, the four days leading up to the full moon and the four days after the full moon are prime. Prior to the start of lobster season in August, live blue crabs get the nod. (Anglers can’t possess lobster out of season.) Live and fresh finfish, such as blue runners and grunts, are prone to sharks.
A cubera rig consists of 15 feet of 130- to 150-pound monofilament crimped onto a 10/0 extra-strong hook. A second 10/0 hook is crimped onto a short length of the same-test mono, with its opposite end crimped to the eye of the lead hook. A three-way swivel joins the leader to the 80- or 100-pound-test braided main line. The third swivel eye is for the weight, a bank sinker (typically 24 ounces) secured with a few feet of 40-pound mono.
Run the lead hook up through the lobster’s carapace and out between its horns. Embed the stinger hook in the tail and you’re set.
Key Largo cuberas range between 30 and 60 pounds, with some real monsters in the mix. They need to be stopped before reaching the main wreck or any snags. Stand-up rods rated for 80- to 100-pound line and quality, two-speed conventional reels filled with either 80- or 100-pound-test braid are the ticket.
Catch-and-release fishing is strongly encouraged. Large cuberas are just OK as table fare, plus there’s the risk of ciguatera. Your best bet is to eat your leftover baits! —George Poveromo
American red snapper are eagerly sought in Gulf and South Atlantic waters for their excellence on the table.
A coveted catch for private anglers and charter captains along the central Gulf Coast, red snapper have clearly rebounded despite the federal management debacle, and these crimson kings are so sought after for two reasons: powerful fights and delicate flavor on the table.
Capt. Tim Kline routinely puts his clients on quality reds aboard his Contender center-console based at Day Break Marina in Pensacola, Florida.
“I love the visual aspect of the strike,” Kline explains. “So, I like to fish in 50- to 100-foot depths and chum. It’s too much fun watching 10-plus-pound red snapper swimming right behind the boat. It makes you giddy!”
Kline cuts up pilchards and bonito into small pieces and tosses them overboard a handful at a time. He instructs his anglers to pitch their baits up-current and let the snapper pick them up. Live cigar minnows, small pilchards or menhaden in the summer months are the top bait choices.
“Chunking is what I do, so a little current is needed. The bite shuts down on a neap tide, and when the current is ripping, we have to switch to fishing big rigs on the bottom,” he says. “Ideally, I like a new moon. The few days before a full moon are also good.”
Kline targets live bottom, the low-relief -limestone shelves and overlapping plates that form crevices and holes. Locals call it “cheese bottom” for its Swiss-cheese-like appearance. It also offers variety, with triggerfish, grouper, and mangrove and vermilion snappers mixed in.
For surface presentations, Kline employs Penn Battle II spinning reels in 6000- to 8000-class sizes matched to 7-foot graphite rods. He loads his reels with 30-, 40- and 50-pound braided line, makes a Bimini twist on the end, and adds a 12-foot shock leader of 80-pound monofilament connected with a Yucatan knot and finished with a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce jig head.
For bottom rigs, he uses Penn Fathom conventional reels spooled with 50-pound braid, also with an 80-pound shock leader, and 3- to 4-ounce egg sinkers. The leader is tied to a 100-pound-test swivel using an improved clinch knot, followed by another section of 80-pound leader tied to a 4/0 to 5/0 Mustad circle hook with a loop knot. Baits include live grunts, menhaden, pinfish and cigar minnows fished from top to bottom.
“Our stock is extremely abundant,” Kline explains. “Nearshore, you can pretty much catch your limit most days, but the public numbers do get hit hard. The deeper you go, the larger the fish, with 10-plus pounds the average. Five- to 7-pound fish (18 to 24 inches) are the best eating. I encourage my anglers to release the big sows to maintain a healthy population.” —Dave Lear
Of all the Florida Keys species, the most iconic just might be the yellowtail snapper, the perennially popular resident of the reefs.
“Most people I take fishing want snapper,” says Capt. Jimmy Gagliardini of High Caliber Sport Fishing in Marathon, Florida. “They’re challenging, fun to catch and good to eat.”
Yellowtails inhabit drop-offs, ledges, and especially the main reef paralleling the Keys. “Anywhere you see a drop, you’ll find yellowtails waiting for the current to bring them a meal,” Gagliardini says.
Moving water is a prerequisite for yellowtailing. “You need at least a half a knot of current,” he says.
The best time of the year is spring and into summer during the spawning months, when yellowtails of all sizes aggregate. While abundant, yellowtails get pressured from both commercial and recreational anglers. In response, they’ve gotten smart.
For bigger yellowtails, Gagliardini fishes deeper water. “You don’t catch big ones inside 60 feet.” A big one is anything over 18 inches. “They get to 27 inches, but you’ll seldom land those. I target 70 to 100 feet, outside the reef. That’s where you get the biggest ones,” he says.
Though the strategy is simple, it’s far from casual.
“I thaw a block of chum the night before, break it up in a half-bucket of water, and add oats to give it more body so it spreads out and clouds the water,” Gagliardini says.
He sets up and throws out a handful of chum every 60 seconds, then watches the ’tails come into it, noting their aggression. That determines how he rigs.
“The more aggressive, the heavier line I use,” he says. That ranges from 10- to 15-pound fluoro leader, 20 to 30 feet, which he ties directly to the main line with a Blood knot.
Gagliardini loads his spinning rods with 12-pound mono. Because braided line is visible in the water, it can spook an entire school of feeding fish. When they see it, they vanish.
Favored baits are pieces of shrimp or cut bait such as bonito. “Dolphin blood line is my favorite,” he says. “It blends into the chum, which is important.”
A No. 4 or 6 J hook concealed in a chunk of bait the size of the end of your thumb rounds out the rig.
Another tactic involves chumming with live pilchards. When yellowtails feed on pilchards, they’ll also hit a swimming plug cast through the school.
“That’s the most fun way to catch them,” Gagliardini says, “but few anglers go on the reef with 1,000 pilchards in their livewells.” —Glenn Law