Along the Forgotten Coast of Northwest Florida, fishermen
have a serious fever and it is spreading at the speed of
light. Red snapper fever afflicts anglers of all ages and
sexes and there is no medical cure. The only temporary fix
for this malady is to enter the deep blue sea called the
Gulf of Mexico, wet a line and pump and wind on chunky red
snappers until the fever subsides. One could make a good
argument that the Florida Panhandle has the healthiest American
red snapper fishery in the state, if not the entire Gulf
coast. The season for recreational anglers runs from April
22 to October 31, with a bag limit of four fish per person
per day, at least 16 inches overall length. The Florida
state record fish stands at 46 pounds, just off the world
mark of 50.
WRECKS, REEFS AND RIGS
On the Florida Panhandle red snapper habitat is plentiful. They
live on artificial and natural, live bottom coral and limestone
reefs. The five Air Force alphabet towers provide excellent opportunities
for big sow snappers, especially during the summer spawning season.
Old shrimp boat wrecks are priority waypoints for snapper addicts.
Out of Apalachicola, there are numerous popular wrecks available
with lat/long coordinates available in the public domain. Every
year some of the most productive wrecks include the Angela, Gilmore,
Kendra, Stormy Seas, Flaming Star, One More Time, Miss Jem, Paula,
Endeavor and Empire Mica. A secret employed by wreck pros is to
look for offshore shrimpers anchored up during daylight hours.
They commonly anchor over wrecks and you should punch the numbers
into your GPS for future use.
Many moons ago, one would dive a wreck prior to wetting any
fishing lines. It was important to know how various species of
fish oriented to the wreck, as well as how much old rigging and
superstructure remained. This information facilitated the anchoring
process. Today, color sonar, bottom machines give us a clear,
on-screen look at what is down there.
GET A HOOK
One of the most important techniques used by snapper pros is correctly
positioning the vessel at anchor. Normally, the area around a
wreck is sandy bottom. Your standard Danforth anchor will work
in sand, provided you have sufficient chain and anchor line to
get a good bite in wind and current. If you don't have sufficient
scope and drag your anchor, it is possible that it may hang up
in other artificial reef material that has been deployed around
the wreck over the years.
Depending upon factors like water depth, wind speed and velocity
of the current, your best boat position may be 100 feet up current
from your marker buoy on the wreck. Snappers will orient to the
up current side and this will allow your chum/chunk baits to drift
back to target fish.
Another successful anchoring technique is to use an aluminum
wreck anchor and intentionally drop it into the wreck superstructure.
The aluminum tines will straighten and come free under power and
they are simply bent back into the proper position. An old trick
is to drop a weighted treble hook on heavy mono into the wreck
and cleat it. This method will not work in heavy seas or strong
currents. Also, remember that snappers are experts at running
you down into the wreck and breaking off.
Once you are anchored, you can find new fish by turning your
outdrive back and forth in the current. And moving forward and
back on your anchor line will sometimes put you over a new show
of fish. This simple process can be very rewarding.
LURE 'EM IN
All snappers respond well to chum if it is fresh and presented
properly. Mangroves (gray), lane and beeliners (vermilions) are
other targets of opportunity on wrecks. Chumming and chunking
will put more quality fish in your box. Favorite chunk baits will
include cigar minnows, sardines, pogies (LY's) and fresh
cut baits like bonito. When snappers are on the bite, they will
eat almost anything. Cigar minnows are pricey, when sardines sometimes
work as well. Have a designated bait cooler for large quantities
of precut chunk baits. Separate your chunk baits in freezer bags
and keep them on ice and out of the sun.
An excellent tool used to introduce large amounts of chum in
the water is called the Chum Churn. It is a plastic tube with
holes cut in the side. Small fish and cut baits are loaded into
the tube where stainless blades slice it up with a churning action
in the water. The tool simplifies the effort of cutting large
amounts of chunk baits onboard.
Once at anchor, begin chunking slowly. The basic objective is
not to feed the fish, but induce them into eating by sight, smell
and sound. A quality pair of polarized sunglasses will enable
you to see chummed-up fish near the surface. Larger red snappers
will swim to the sides and below schoolie fish. Adding a small
egg sinker to your flat line baits may be necessary at times.
Large snappers can be so leader-shy that they will not take baits
presented on 20-pound fluorocarbon leaders. The solution is to
tie a small live bait hook directly to your running line. Just
be aware that it will twist in current with no barrel swivel.
Chumming the fish up near the surface is the easy part. Getting
them to eat your offering is the trick. Sometimes you will see
fish that will not eat. We'll call them "lookers."
Others may be smaller, schoolie fish swimming together. We'll
call them suspenders. Then you will see your primary targets:
the biters. They are always the most aggressive eaters who are
super competitive and chase other snappers and triggers away,
as they take multiple chunks. Presenting your bait to one of these
teased-up, individual targets in cobalt clear water is the ultimate
sporting challenge. This exciting fishing experience is a highly
sensory one, simultaneously visual and tactile.
Tackle for chunky snappers varies based upon the size of the targets.
It runs the gamut from wispy fly rods to 50 pound meat sticks.
Generally, 20 to 30 pound class gear is appropriate. There is
one absolute in snapper fishing: lighter stuff with fluorocarbon
leader will "out catch" heavy gear. Having said that,
heavier rods and reels will give you a chance at a quality fish
on a wreck full of snags. Many charter clients are comfortable
with 20-pound spinning outfits like Penn 9500s and Shimano Spheros
14000s mounted on stout graphite sticks. Silky smooth drag systems
are necessary, especially when a king or cobia swims into the
chunk baits and wants to play. Sharp out of the box, small circle
hooks work just fine and allow for a healthy release of short
fish. Small, 100-pound class barrel swivels work best for leader-shy
Live bait catches more and bigger snappers. Over the years the
best experiences have been with small pogies, finger mullet, cigar
minnows, pinfish and hardtails. You can trap your own pinfish,
castnet pogies and mullet, and sabiki cigars and hardtails south
of the Cut on navigation buoys and live bottom. Spending extra
morning time catching live bait always pays off with a better
overall day's catch.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) put a moratorium
on the issuance of all new guide permits for the taking of Gulf
reef fish in federal waters. That includes red snappers. Whether
the species is being over-fished depends upon who you ask. The
age-old finger-pointing process will not end. The average fisherman
claims that commercial fishermen are allowed to over-harvest this
valuable marine resource. The commercials blame the guides and
recreational anglers for decimating the fishery. Shrimp trawls
are blamed for taking tons of juvenile fish. Historically, the
trend of fisheries management in the Gulf is likely to continue.
When fish stock assessments are done and decisions implemented,
the result typically is that recreational bag limits are reduced
and size limits are increased.
One proactive and revolutionary program is underway that is
successfully stocking red snappers in the Gulf. It is a mariculture
center that catches sow snappers and raises their young in captivity.
The juvenile fish are transplanted to select reefs for ongoing
study. If these types of stocking programs are successful on a
wide scale, the future of red snappers and other species may prove
to be a more sustainable marine resource.
Resource information for a red snapper fishing adventure to the
Splash your vessel: Ten Foot Hole (Apalachicola
City docks and boat ramp, downtown )
Transient Marina (full-service): Scipio Creek
Marina (850) 653-8030
Helpful info: Apalachicola Chamber of Commerce
Great eats: Owl Cafe (850) 653-9888
Beach rentals: Prudential Resort Realty (850)
Comfortable accommodations: Bridgette's
Bed and Breakfast (850) 653-3270