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Drift-and-Drop Tactics to Catch the Biggest Mangrove Snappers

Mangroves that rank at the top of their class are prized trophies on both coasts.

Drift-and-Drop Tactics to Catch the Biggest Mangrove Snappers

Mangrove snappers have outstanding eyesight, and a lengthy fluorocarbon leader plays a crucial role in your success. (Capt. Joe Suroviec)

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Opinions vary on what qualifies as a “big” mangrove snapper. My personal definition of a big mangrove was cauterized into my memory in 1989 by an old-timer named “Yellowtail Joe.” Back then, I was a newcomer to the Florida Keys. Walking into a bait and tackle store in Marathon, I noticed a man next to a few 5-gallon buckets, tails protruding from them. Curious, I inquired, “What are those fish in the bucket?”

The stranger, Yellowtail Joe, replied, “These are mangrove snappers and some real dandies! Mangrove snappers that have tails that can stick out of a 5-gallon bucket are the real trophy fish here in the Keys. You can have all them tarpon and sailfish you want, but you can’t eat those!”

At the time, I was a newly transplanted, semi-pro bass fisherman from Ohio. As I stared at these fish in the white buckets, I vividly recall their poodle-like teeth and bodies dressed like they were in a one-piece tan and gray church suit. It was certainly a handsome fish.

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mangrove snapper
This chunky gray was caught with Fishing Florida Charters out of Pete’s Pier in Crystal River. (Capt. Joe Suroviec)

Yellowtail Joe further shared his wisdom as he instructed, “When mangroves reach that size, they are extremely wary and have a sense of survivability which rivals any fish in the local waters.” It became clear that catching such fish was a testament to one’s angling skill. These were indeed a real trophy.

Any good bottom machine can differentiate hard ledges from sand, so these areas are where I usually like to deploy a few lines, then drift until I’m hooked up or mark some fish activity on the depthfinder. If I get a few fish, or even a few hits on a pass, I will drop the anchor upcurrent of that area and chunk-chum for 10 minutes or so before dropping a line. I prefer chunk-chumming to bag chum because the bag chum is slow to reach bottom and seems to draw undesirable predators. I use cut chunks of fresh ballyhoo or torn-in-half fresh pilchards.

Just remember to chunk-chum only when a possible good area has been located. Log these coordinates in your GPS and these spots can be “farmed” in the future by taking a few fish then moving to another spot. These specific spots are best worked by drifting because it keeps the “spot stealers” from pinpointing your honey hole when you are drifting. If you anchor, you might as well be a marker buoy for the lazy guys who drive around and steal numbers instead of working for them.

For big mangs, I use Falcon Coastal Clearwater heavy-action spinning rods paired with Daiwa BG5000 reels, spooled with 50-pound-test PowerPro and a 30-foot section of 40-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. A no-name-knot attaches the leader to the small double line formed with a Bimini twist in the braid. This rig does a fantastic job at sweeping a hook into a big mangrove from topside and the rod has the backbone to keep any stray groupers or muttons from finding a hideyhole to break you off. I opt for a circle hook for less experienced anglers and a Gamakatsu short shank 6/0 J-hook for myself.

Keep in mind that when fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, it is mandatory to use non-offset circle hooks when targeting reef fish with natural bait. This requirement also applies to Atlantic waters north of 28° N latitude, approximately around Melbourne.

Additionally, in both state and federal waters along both coasts, anglers are required to have a dehooker, and descending device or venting tool rigged and readily available for use.

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The no-stretch PowerPro lends itself well to a circle hook set, and that 30-foot section of fluorocarbon leader affords the last portion of the battle some stretch. When drifting, I employ a three-way swivel rig to control leader length and weight. I base the leader length and the weight on two factors: water clarity and the speed of the current. If the water is clear and the current is swift, I recommend a long leader—preferably at least 10 feet.

Weights used on these three-way rigs are adjusted by noting the speed of the current, and the depth of the water as well as the line’s angle into the water behind the boat. The bottom of my three-way rigs have a large snap swivel so I can easily change the weight. I prefer the bank-type sinkers that have a teardrop shape and small hole at the top of the weight.

While drifting, position your rods so that lines run at a 45-degree angle. You can also stagger the rods out of the stern with a lighter rig farther back and the heavier rig closer to the boat; that way if the heavier rig gets a hit or has a fish, you can leave the lighter rig in the water for a few more minutes to try and hook a second fish (sometimes the action of the first hookup provokes another fish to bite). The rig closer to the boat usually does not tangle with the distant, lighter rig. Be sure the bails on your reels are closed when at anchor or when drifting and your drag is adjusted accordingly. Proper setting of the hook requires a long upward sweep with your rod while winding when using the standard 6/0 hook, and only do that once you feel the fish has taken the bait and has swallowed it. When using a circle hook, all you have to do is wind and lift as the fish usually hooks itself in the corner of the jaw.

Big mangroves tend to hang out in smaller groups, and they are all usually in the same size range. When they get large, they do not tolerate any pipsqueaks trying to muscle-in on any potential meals, so they run them off. It won’t be long before these nuisance fish learn their place and stay away. I can confirm this by personally observing big mangs while freediving for lobsters and watching how these fish react to smaller gray snapper, as well as other fish. The initial rush and take of a mangrove is vicious. If you like to hook a pinfish, or pilchard lightly through the lips, then you will most likely miss the hook up if you strike when you feel the hit. You need to wait until the mangrove has hammered the bait senseless and turns it to swallow. The 40-pound fluorocarbon will bring the fish to you, but nothing happens without a good hook up. Fresh cut bait also works well once a bite is on and be sure to hook the bait firmly so it does not get torn off during the strike.

Remember that big mangroves usually hang with other larger species, so don’t be surprised if a mutton, grouper, or amberjack takes a swipe at your offerings. In any case, you’ll experience an exhilarating fight, gazing into the blue depths, anticipating whether the emerging fish is tan, pink, or silver. There’s nothing better than “seeing color” and realizing it’s a substantial mangrove on the end of your line. They have a dogged fight on the initial hookup and your drag should be tight! I prefer to net all the big mangroves because they often clamp down on the bait without having the hook in their maw. When you try to lift your prize into the boat, they tend to release the bait and return themselves to the depths.

Once the fish is in the boat, put them into a cooler filled with a brine made of saltwater and ice. Keeping the catch chilled and fresh will pay dividends at the cleaning table. You can also strain the remaining cooler ice with your bait net to keep your fillets chilled during the cleaning process. Use just enough saltwater to prevent the ice from sloshing around in the cooler on the rocking boat; excess water can scale the fish.

Back at the cutting table, I personally like removing the red meat out of the fillets where the lateral line is usually at. The darker blood line can have a bit of a fishy taste on these larger fish. Also, those sweet white firm fillets you get off the 10-inchers is the same taste on the larger fish, you just need to learn to use a bigger fork at the table next time bucket list mangroves are on the menu.

Today’s vacuum sealers do a great job at keeping any leftover fillets from freezer burning and we always vacuum pack our snapper catches to keep them fresh or give them away to friends later.

Not everyone can limit out on mangroves with tails protruding from a 5-gallon bucket, but with practice, determination, and these tactics, you’ll soon become the seasoned angler at a tackle shop with a bucket boasting tails sticking out.

How Big Can They Get?

The current Florida state record for mangrove (gray) snapper is 17 pounds, caught off Port Canaveral in June 1992. The IGFA All-Tackle record is 18 pounds, 10 ounces, caught off Louisiana in July 2015.

Your bucket list mangrove may not require a tape, but keep in mind that if you’re in federal waters, where the limit is 10 gray snapper per person within the 10-snapper aggregate, plan on returning directly to port after fishing, rods stowed, without stopping in state waters.


  • This article was featured in the February 2024 issue of Florida Sportsman magazine. Click to subscribe.



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