An often fast-paced and highly visual pursuit, snaring mangroves within a rod length of the transom defines “cool,” but it’s also practically advantageous.
Normally, when a guy tells me my fishing day will involve glass minnows and pompano jigs, I assume we’re talking flats and beaches. Such was not the case on a recent trip with Dan Hayes, a longtime fishing buddy who put that combo to a very different and much deeper use.
Turns out that Hayes had mangrove snapper on his mind; and because mangrove snapper always have food on their minds, the odd pairing of minnows and jigs co-starred in a fun little game of catching these feisty fish at the surface. An often fast-paced and highly visual pursuit, snaring mangroves within a rod length of the transom defines “cool,” but it’s also practically advantageous.
For one thing, there’s minimal chance of less desirable reef rats stealing baits intended for mangos. Moreover, when hooked snapper needn’t ascend many fathoms, you’re far less likely to lose them to opportunistic goliath grouper.
Now, surface success depends on certain conditions aligning favorably, but this is hardly a rare occurrence. Weather forecasts and lunar phases will steer you to the right kind of day. Beyond that, it’s just a matter of convincing mangrove snapper that tip-toeing topside meets their risk-reward criteria.
STINKING UP THE PLACE
Let’s start with the obvious: snapper like to eat and their ultra-sensitive noses are right on par with their keen eyesight. Glass minnows play to this fish’s preferences, as the shiny slivers flutter through the water column, spreading an alluring scent and offering tasty tidbits that snapper can actually eat.
Once the fish follow this trail to the surface, a frozen chum block will help keep their attention. However, Hayes notes that a chum block’s influence holds mostly in the upper part of the water column. To ring the dinner bell for deep fish, you’ll want to send a few freebies to their doorstep.
Fellow snapper trapper, Capt. Billy Nobles likes chumming with fresh pilchards. For shallow spots where mangos can easily see to the surface, he’ll toss out stunned baits and let these easy targets coax the predators. In deeper water, he’ll cut baits into fingernail size chunks. Options vary, but consistency is the key.
“What holds snapper in the neighborhood is constant chumming,” Hayes said. “You always want one person designated to do that. If you stop, they’ll go back down. I’ll throw out a handful of glass minnows and as they disappear, I’ll throw another handful. You gotta keep it going. Don’t stop or the fish stop.”
In deep water, say 150 to 200 feet, Hayes may jump-start the snapper by attaching a chumbag to a downrigger, lowering it to the bottom and cranking up 10 feet at a time. Similarly, dropping cutbaits to the bottom on fishfinder or knocker rigs will also help coax snapper topside. Hooked fish often regurgitate recent meals and schoolmates will follow closely to pick off the second-hand snacks.
“That’s not always necessary,” Hayes notes. “I’ve gotten snapper to come to the surface in 160 without any deep chumming efforts.”
Ours was just such a trip. Within minutes of the first glass minnow deployment, we noticed fish marks rising increasingly higher on the sonar. Soon, we could make out dark specters climbing through the water column, and as they reached the sunlight, these apparitions began taking form and color; rusty browns, slightly auburn tinted. Soon, they rose high enough for us to make out those telltale eye bars of mangos on a mission. In no time, rods were bending with stud snapper in the 3- to 5-pound range, many of which yacked up wads of glass minnows.
On this day, Hayes forgot his chumbag, but no worries—a simple adjustment kept the party going. With the chum block sitting on the transom, Hayes used a fillet knife to push a wad of melting chum overboard as needed to complement the minnows and keep the fish interested.
In rougher seas, the propensity for your chum block to slip overboard runs high.
While this concentrated chum bomb may yield a brief flurry of activity, it’ll be short-lived and the fish may be focused more on the descending chunk than on your baits. Avoid such possible spills by keeping the loose chum block in a 5-gallon bucket. Grab a pinch of the melting mass every minute or so and toss it overboard.
WHERE AND WHEN
Hayes chums up snapper from the same reefs, wrecks and rockpiles he’d fish with bottom rigs. From his Tierra Verde canal, he typically runs 15 to 20 miles offshore and finds plenty of mangos in 60 to 90 feet. Nobles runs out of Apollo Beach and looks for similar structures, but he’ll also work shallower versions in 20 feet or so—sometimes inside Tampa Bay, or within eyesight of the beach. In any scenario, success starts with proper positioning.
Hayes wants his stern about 10 to 20 yards from the target structure for two reasons: First, this allows his chum to descend at an angle and flow across the structure. Sitting right overhead means most of the chum will drift past the site and possibly pull some fish away from his reach. Also, you can yank a few sideshow grouper away from the structure with less entanglement risk.
Of course, even ideal anchoring can’t overcome the decreased visibility of choppy seas or the show-stealing dynamics of screaming current. Remember that stuff about weather forecasts and moon phases? Hayes did, and the calm, clear day he picked offered the right amount of current to stimulate the mangos and enable us to capitalize on their gluttony.
“Everything bites best when the tide is moving, but you don’t want it moving too fast,” Hayes said. “There have been days when the current is just too strong for this. If you look back and your baits are just spinning on top of the water, it’s time to go do something else.”
When in doubt, make a test drop with a 4-ounce knocker rig and note the angle at which it descends. A current that rips that weight back at a wide angle is probably too strong for effective surface action. Hayes also tests his chum movement by dropping a handful and noting how quickly it progresses downcurrent. He definitely wants a good drift, but if the chum moves too fast, it will miss the hard bottom and coax any interested fish out of effective presentation range.
FOOLING WARY FISH
When chummed-up snapper tarry close astern, drifting baits into the chumslick is the way to go. Drop a heavy bottom rig into the slick and it’ll race past a bunch of fish preoccupied with the buffet line. Think small rigs and stealth presentations. This is finesse fishing for snapper.
In light currents, a bare 3/0 circle hook and a chunk of cutbait may suffice, but you’ll typically need a lead escort. Quarter- to 1-ounce Doc’s pompano jigs worked great for this, as they slowly sank into the chumslick with a side-to-side wiggle that probably helped grab the snappers’ attention. Essentially a keel-weighted hook, this type of jig slides easily into a chumslick. With these or traditional lead weights, it’s all about pacing the presentation.
“You want to pay attention to how fast the chum is moving and you want your bait to fall at the same rate, so pay attention and adjust your rig accordingly,” Hayes said. “Use the smallest hook possible to keep the presentation streamlined and natural. It is a must to hide the hook in the bait as well as possible. These mangos are one of the smartest fish in the ocean.”
Simplest is a splitshot above the hook. Start with one and adjust size and number as needed to effect the proper drift rate. A knocker rig with a small egg sinker above the hook can also work. The Invisible Sinker, in clear or pink, is especially advantageous for minimizing snapper-spooking intrusions. To this end, Hayes bypasses swivels and links his main line and leader with a surgeon’s knot.
“Less is more, but start with the heaviest (rig) you can get away with,” Nobles said. “Snappers are smart. They get wise quick. If you start super light you have nowhere to go—you can’t downsize. As they wise up, lighten the leader, hook, and other rigging.”
Hayes adds: “You just want to keep a bunch of jigs and weight sizes available because you’ll be constantly adjusting to get your bait drifting at the right speed.”
For cutbait, Hayes prefers fresh Spanish sardines caught with sabiki rigs near channel markers, or in open water schools. The shiny scales make this a good option for chumming, as well as chunk baits. Frozen baits are fine, too, but Hayes recommends sticking with the sardines. Menhaden and Boston mackerel definitely appeal to snapper, but their higher oil content will also chum up the sharks.
Medium- to medium-heavy spinning gear with 10- or 12-pound mono and 24 inches of 20- to 30-pound fluorocarbon leader works well for this game. Essential is the presentation form—flip your bait into the slick, keep the bail open and gradually pay out line.
“Don’t just cast and close the bail or the bait just stops in the current,” Hayes warns. “Keep the bail open and pay off the line for a natural presentation. When line starts ripping off the reel, I’ll aim my rod at the fish, close the bail and lift my rod tip. A snapper will hook himself.”
On these clear, calm days, choosy anglers can often target a specific snapper in the chumslick. Just make a targeted cast, drift your bait onto his radar and let appetite do the rest.
Keep the appetizers flowing and get used to the sound of hefty mangos hitting the deck. Only drawback is all that yacked-up chum you’ll have at your feet—a small price to pay for a limit of tasty snapper.
Offshore Tactics Inshore Application
Wherever snapper reside, these wily predators will leverage water flow for feeding opportunities. South Florida angler Lou Volpe sees this in his Everglades City canal, as keeper size snapper frequently rise to gobble the 3-inch Rapala Trigger X Ghost Shrimp he drifts on 3/0 circle hooks.
Outgoing tides bring a daily delivery of shrimp that wash out of the bays and create a floating buffet for hungry snapper. Juvenile tarpon are the main target of Volpe’s drifting artificials, but mangrove snapper often intercept the baits and offer a tasty dinner option.
“The shrimp are washing through the canal and the fish are eating them,” Volpe said. “You’ll be drifting your (artificial) bait through the middle of the canal and all of a sudden, there’s a big blow up. Sometimes, it’s a mangrove snapper. We always say, ‘Tarpon are good, but a mangrove snapper tastes better.’”
In the Flamingo backcountry, Keys guide Rich Tudor practices a similar tactic by chumming tidal cuts between mangrove islands. Snapper stake out the edges of these food funnels, and respond aggressively to the sudden scent and food appearance.
Anchoring upcurrent, Tudor hangs a chumbag from the stern of his bay boat, peels the shell from a fresh shrimp tail and drifts the bait into his chum line on 2/0 circle hook. The bait usually meets with a swarm of little brown figures—and then the rod bends.
Mangrove (Gray) Snapper Limits:
How do you reconcile the differences? If you’re fishing out in federal waters and wish to retain more than 5 gray snapper per person, plan on returning directly to port after fishing, rods stowed, without stopping in Florida state waters. If, on the other hand, you’re fishing in state waters and retaining mangrove snapper between 10 and 12 inches (under the federal minimum), do not stray beyond state waters boundaries during the trip.
Where you are intercepted by law enforcement determines in large part which set of regulations you will be held accountable to. At the dock you can make a persuasive case that you were in federal waters; at anchor on an inshore wreck or bridge, you cannot.
First Published Florida Sportsman July 2011