Targeting Red Snapper on Florida’s Emerald Coast
If there’s one fish you think of when you think about Destin, the red snapper has to be it. This is easily one of the most recognizable fish, even a kid from the city can identify one when we pull one over the boat. They’re on restaurant signs, company logos — hell, you can’t even drive down Highway 98 without seeing a couple of them plastered on the side of buildings. But there’s a reason why: They can be huge, they fight back, they make for great pictures, and they’re just about everywhere. It’s the most abundant and most accommodating fish in the northern Gulf — the red snapper.
Think about it: a white boat, emerald green water, you with a cheesy smile on your face, and a big brightly colored red snapper. You’re looking at him like, “Wow, that was intense,” and he’s looking back at you with a “what just happened” look. If you’ve caught a good one before, you know they’re shocked to see you. Just look at the pictures attached to this article. If you’re lucky enough to catch them during the season, you’re in for a treat. There’s (almost) no wrong way to cook these things.
I’m not going to get into stock assessments and politics and seasons. Chances are, if you’re reading this magazine, you already have an opinion on that. But I can tell you this — if there was one fish that I could guarantee we catch (weather permitting) every single day of the year, this would be it. Consistently, there are guys with great catches on kayaks, and there were even anglers last year catching them off the surf. I know one guy who caught one with some fishing line around a Gatorade bottle while standing on the beach! I’m OK with whatever regulations we get — this fishery seems healthy to me and fishing on my boat is more about the fight than the filet.
I tell everyone on my boat, “You’ll know when he’s on.” It feels like something is trying to pull you over the gunwale. Line can peel off, the rod doubles over. It’s just that genuine “oh sh*t” look on someone’s face that I’m always chasing. We fish pretty light tackle for the Gulf, so the hook-up can be pretty aggressive — but that first moment can sure dictate the outcome of that fight. Sure, a lot of guys use heavier gear and they catch a lot of fish, but if there’s one thing I’d suggest — doubt those people who insist it has to be done a certain way. When I moved here, all I heard was “leave that little rod in the truck” and “live cigar minnow, 8 oz. egg sinker.”
Why? Why can’t we use jigs? I’ve found these fish will consistently eat jigs, live baits, frozen baits and flies. That might not be my preference of the order I use, but you get the point. I’ve even caught them trolling, and last year we had WEEKS of fishing where we’d catch them on the surface with baits, jigs, flies and top-water plugs. Every day can be different — sometimes they only like a specific live bait, sometimes they want only a certain color jig, but try a couple of different things this year — I think you’ll be surprised with what happens.
My favorite way to catch them is similar to the yellowtail fishing down south in The Keys. These fish are just a lot bigger. The world record is over 50 pounds and was caught in the northern Gulf, and it’s not uncommon to see 20-pounders all over the docks in the afternoon during season. A mix of a chum block, sometimes using cut baits, and sometimes adding oatmeal and sand to the mix can bring them up to the surface in a frenzy. Our water here is so clear. It’s amazing to see the size of some of them swim up behind the motor — seeing their red backs mixed in the green water can be hypnotizing. I never get sick of it, and I think everyone on my boat knows that.
Next, you realize a 15-pounder ate your tiny little bait and now you’re locked into the fight. We can get away with very light tackle — if we’re getting surface bites in 80 feet of water, you have the entire water column as an arena to steer him around before he gets back into the bottom. You don’t have to be a very good fisherman to get away with this. It might be a little more work to get the bite than just cranking them off the bottom, but I find people remember some fish more than others. Plus, with that much bait and excitement in the water, you never know what else will be attracted. Mahi, wahoo, kings, mangrove (black) snapper and, of course, sharks can always show up.
- Shimano Terez-BW and Saragosa 6000.
- 40 lb. PowerPro to a 3-way swivel.
- 60 lb. leader to 7/0 owner hook.
- Weights from 6 oz.-10 oz., depending on depth. 1 oz. for every 10 feet of water.
- Bait: live or frozen cigar minnow, herring, grunt, pinﬁ sh. Bonita strips or squid.
- Shimano Ocea Jigger 2000NRHG and Game Type Slow-J or
- Shimano Trevala-PX and Saragosa 6000
- Whatever weight jig you need to stay vertical. For state water, I prefer the 120g Butterﬂy Monarch.
I tend to rig my bottom fishing snapper set ups a little differently than most. I have noticed a trend in the lighter direction, but most guys use conventional reels, with an 8 oz. lead sinker above a 60 lb. leader and a 7/0 hook. That just about gets the job done for any fish that might be swimming by. I prefer spinning tackle, and I think it’s a lot more fun. With live or dead bait, I run somewhere around 40 lb. PowerPro for my mainline, to a 3-way swivel.
One branch of the swivel is to the hook — about a 6-foot leader of 60 lb. — and I connect a snap-weight to the other eye of the swivel. This way, if we’re fishing deeper, I can clip on a heavier lead, and if we’re moving spots, I can unhook the weight and not worry about weights swinging around in the rod holders. I also think a lot of guys who lose fish to the bottom actually have their weights stuck in the bottom. If I don’t have a snap lead — a little loop of 20 lb. mono to form a breakaway weight has paid off in the past!! I always feel like a genius when this works and we get a fish in the boat without a lead attached. Our jigging combos and set ups deserve their own respect, but there’s enough information about slow pitch jigging out there to cover that. I size them just heavy enough to stay vertical. I still lean toward gold and glow colors for my jigs. I think a lot of people fish with jigs that are too big. At the filet table, I always take note of the stomach contents of these fish and see what they’ve been feeding on. A lot of people like to see that stuff, too. Weirdos.
If we’re keeping them, I’ve tried to harvest things a little differently over the last few years. I think processing the fish in the right way can go a long way, and that starts on the boat. A quick Google search will tell you everything you want to know about ikejime, but the process is pretty simple. Brain spike, bleed out, destroy the spinal cord (wire), gut, fillet. We did a lot of this in Japan, but I’m glad to see companies adopting and promoting the process in the U.S.; it can really change the colors and flavors of the meat. At the fillet table, don’t forget the throats. I’ve grown to almost prefer the fattier meat in the throat, grilled in my Kamado and drizzled with a homemade unagi. The rest of the fillet is pretty hard to screw up. You can grill it, blacken it, fry it, bake it or turn it into an awesome ceviche.
If releasing, keep an eye on barotrauma. There are new laws in effect this year about carrying descending devices, and there are some groups out there offering free devices and venting tools.
As a charter captain, I’m on the water almost every day. I absolutely love it. But you’ll know when snapper season is open. Every boat in Florida will be out on the Gulf. It seems like people come from all over the country for their chance for the fight, the pictures and the fillets — for good reason. I feel like the more fish people catch and the more experience they have, the less they care about those “limit” pictures and start to care more about the fish and the experience. These fish are awesome, they’re always here and they’re fun as hell to catch. Keep that in mind this season. Try dropping a jig, try catching them on the surface and only keep what you need.
Destin Fishing Captain of the Year 2020
30A Light Tackle