June 17, 2021
By Florida Sportsman Editor
When NOAA announces an Atlantic snapper season, best make plans for an early start.
"Six feet of 100-pound mono," Kevin Dall replied, when I asked about a leader for red snapper. Seemed a tad heavy; I used to think 50-pound was plenty.
However, having been humbled by monster red snapper in past seasons, I listened. I was determined not to be bent over the gunnel, watching line scream off before unceremoniously snapping. I beefed up my tackle, bought a crimping tool and made rigs out of 100-pound mono, as advised. After all, we were heading out to where behemoths roam.
By Kevin's orders, the alarm went off at 3 a.m. When a fishing season is only a handful of days long, you count on company out there—and you must prepare and make sacrifices (lost sleep) to succeed.
The night before, most supplies had been loaded onto Kevin's 25-foot Kencraft. Longtime friends Rick Rule and Joe “Shorty” Berardino arrived in the morning and put their gear aboard. Shorty brought John Raffo, of Flagler County Fire Rescue Station 41. We were out of the driveway before 3:30. What faced us now was the time to get to the ramp and the slow speed zones before finally clearing the inlet.
When we arrived at a Volusia County reef site approximately 10 miles offshore, Kevin considered the wind, current and the structure below to carefully anchor. We weren't the first boat there, and Kevin knew from experience the crowd would get larger. Thus, drifting in this spot was not really an option. The depth was 75 to 85 feet. The main habitat down there was concrete rubble (the best for red snapper, in Kevin's experience). It took several minutes, but Kevin marked fish and positioned us well.
When it comes to snapper on the reefs, the morning bite is a real thing
“Last time, we caught all of the big ones early, on flatlines,” Kevin said. For this approach, a heavy spinning rig works well. I used a 6-foot, 7-inch custom Ugly Stik rod, paired with a Shimano Socorro 8000F spinning reel, spooled with 50-pound braid. For bottom fishing, it's strictly conventional gear because of all of the reef structure. Here we use a Shimano TLD25 or similar spooled with 65 pound braid on a stout, 7-foot-plus rod. Experienced offshore guys taught me to opt for the longer rods, for getting big fish off the bottom quick.
We had lines in the water before 7 a.m. I heard “Fish on!” as I tried to bait up. I grabbed the net, and Kevin's first cast resulted in a beautiful sow red snapper flopping on the deck. He'd caught it on a freelined menhaden, using that “6-foot 100-pound mono leader” and a 7/0 extra strong circle hook. I decided to use the same, but the other guys went straight to the bottom, where fish also awaited. Shorty battled one, then Rick. They were red snappers, but not large enough for the box.
“Whoa… look at that,” Rick said, pointing straight down over the gunnel. A large red snapper was clearly visible about 30 feet down. It cruised by slowly, then disappeared. We saw this happen frequently for the next hour. Those upper water column fish quickly discovered our flatlines. We did not have a chum block deployed; it wasn't necessary. We were completely surrounded.
“I need the belt!” I heard John exclaim, pole bent over the gunnel. Shorty put a fighting belt around him, and as John struggled the rest of us hurled verbal insults and unflattering comparisons. He persevered, and it was another fine red snapper. Fist bumps followed, and as I turned back to my rod I saw that my line was moving fast. I picked it up, reeled and felt weight. The drag screamed as the fish bulldozed toward the bottom. Suddenly my line stopped moving, seemingly snagged; I was rocked up. I could feel the fish, surging on the other end. I tried for several minutes to force him out, but although the line would twang occasionally as it moved across rubble, the fish did not budge.
“Give it some slack,” Kevin said calmly. “I've had them swim out before, once they thought they were safe.” Although it was hard to stand idly by, I let it sit and helped land the crew's fish. Every ten minutes I would try my rod again. At last, 30 minutes later, after another twang across rubble I gained some line—and it kept coming.
“What you got there, Petey?” Kevin asked.
“Think I see color… oh yeah!” When we finally got it aboard, missing scales and rub marks revealed its tenacity. About that red snapper tenacity: Much later when cleaning fish, we discovered not one, not two, but three circle hooks in one snapper. Hey, nobody said you were gonna land them all! But a 100-pound leader sure helps.
As the sun rose higher and more boats arrived, the curious fish became cautious fish, and they descended from view. After that it was a bottom-fishing game.
For red snapper bottom fishing, Kevin basically adds one piece to the aforementioned flatline rig. He adds another 3-foot leader to it, with a sliding weight trapped between the two barrel swivels. This weight ranges between 4 and 12 ounces, depending on current. It was calm that day, so 6 ounces was the weight of choice. We dropped live grunts, menhaden plugs (tails cut off to avoid spinning) or cut grunt to the snappers.
The livies seemed the more surefire ticket to getting big snapper bites. Several fish never got halfway to the boat, humbling various crew members along the way. Smaller baits got smaller snapper, or were pecked off. To obtain live bait, Kevin used a dropper rig with 2/0 circle hooks, 20-pound mono and a 4-ounce pyramid sinker. He used FishBites strips for bait.
I noticed Shorty was huffing and puffing, cranking hard on a fish. It was a stunning, broad fish that needed no measuring—its immediate destination was a cold, 125-quart Yeti. Shorty's catch put us one fish shy of our limit. Kevin remedied that with his final flatline fish of the day.
“Who says you can't catch fish off the bow?” Kevin said as he hopped down. The huge snapper glided into the black mesh net, signaling our journey's end.
HEADED OUT TO THE HIGHWAY
One of the best parts of an early start is that it allows for an early return! When we arrived back at the ramp before noon, we were pretty much alone. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) was there to greet us and inspect our fish. The year before, the FWC had been there and handed out free circle hook packs. Beginning this year, a free State Reef Fish Survey permit is required for anglers targeting red snapper and other reef species. You also need a fish-descending device aboard to safely release fish (visit myfwc.com for more info on these).
Red snapper was basically all we caught, aside from a few brave vermilion and grunts. The reef is a dangerous place for those small fish—where hungry, tackle-busting red snapper dwell. I hope you'll be able to get after them soon. For now, we're all just waiting to see what our 2021 season will be.
The Usual Suspects
Will red snapper be on the menu? If so, that's an obvious target. But, artificial reefs and natural ledges along the Atlantic coast host a wide range of edible species. Using either a chicken rig or fishfinder rig made with 40- or 50-pound fluorocarbon leader, and size 2/0 or 3/0 sharp hooks, baited with squid or cut bait, some of the other desirable fish you may encounter include:
Gray Triggerfish – Often found in same habitat as red snapper. Notorious bait-stealers. Sorta tough to clean – but well worth the effort.
Black Sea Bass – Also common in same waters as snapper and grouper. Aggressive; scale down gear to enjoy the fight more – great tablefare.
Assorted Snappers – It's always nice to see different colors in the cooler, and along much of the Florida east coast, it's likely you'll find mutton, lane, mangrove and vermilion snapper sharing turf with “genuine” reds.
Fishing with live baits and heavier rigs, you might successfully connect with gag or black grouper, greater amberjack and cobia.
South Atlantic Red Snapper Season
For many years, the fish were managed at levels satisfying to anglers up and down Florida's Atlantic Coast under a simple, year-round 2-fish bag limit, 20-inch minimum. That is still the limit in Florida state waters on the Atlantic coast—however, state management of red snapper ends at 3 miles offshore on this coast, after which uber-complicated federal management takes over.
Kim Amendola, Communications Supervisor for NOAA Fisheries: “Federal regulations are written such that in any given year the commercial season starts the 2nd Monday in July and the recreational season starts the 2nd Friday in July. We announce whether or not these seasons can happen annually, sometime before their scheduled start dates. To provide an idea of the timing, in 2020, we announced the season on June 5.”
New assessments and more predictability are badly needed for this vital fishery. How about an Atlantic Great Red Snapper Count? (“Call to Action,” p 10.of the June 2021 issue.) FS
Published Florida Sportsman Magazine June 2021