Mid summer is the time of year that the Keys most plentiful and wide ranging snapper moves out to the reef line to perform their annual mating rituals. For most anglers the trick is not to catch their limit of snapper in a day of fishing, that is almost a given with any practice and patience at all, but to catch the largest snapper possible. With the rather miserly limit of five Mangrove snapper a day it pays to maximize your take by excluding smaller fish.
During the spawn snapper congregate over the shallow patches on out to the drop off at the reef line. The snapper will feed day and night so finding them in a feeding mood is not usually difficult. Over the shallow reefs, chumming during the day will usually bring smaller fish to the surface quickly. If you do not see small mangroves within fifteen or twenty minutes it is probably a good idea to pick up and try another spot. When you do find a spot with small fish, it is a good bet that larger fish are in the area. They did not get to be larger fish by being foolish. They will usually be found forty or fifty feet back, and hugging the bottom. The larger fish prefer to stay in the cover of the reef during the day. If you prefer to fish at night you should have no problem getting the larger mangroves to come right to the back of the boat.
To locate fish for night fishing, it pays to do a little homework during the day. The same spots that produce in day light will usually produce after dark. Another way to locate fish is to take advantage of any calm clear water day and scout reefs with the assistance of a viewing bucket. These five gallon or so plastic buckets are fitted with a clear Plexiglass viewing window in the bottom, and can be placed in to the water much like a dive mask would be utilized, but you get to keep your hair dry. By idling over shallow reefs you can get an idea if there are any mangroves on it. If you see any at all it pays to give the spot a try.
The most important part of targeting larger fish is bait selection. Choosing appropriate size and species of bait to fish with will greatly add to you success. The old adage that elephants eat peanuts is true, however mice also will eat peanuts and our goal is to exclude the mice. Two favorite baits, both for availability and durability, are pinfish and ballyhoo. Pinfish are readily available in most inshore waters of the Keys. A little chum released in four or five feet of water over a grass bed and a hair hook baited with squid is all that is necessary to fill a bait well with enough bait for a day of fishing. Most bait shops in the Keys sell live pinfish. Bait traps are also available for those who have the time to bait, set, and check them the day before. For those not wanting to bother with live bait and for those who want some variety, fresh ballyhoo is an excellent choice. Again, larger pieces are the best for filtering out smaller fish. Do not try to get more than two baits out of a medium ballyhoo or three from a large. Simply remove the head and tail and divide appropriately.
For those who haven’t had the opportunity to catch larger mangrove snapper you are in for a treat. Large snapper fight harder than most other fish their size. A three or four pound snapper will pull harder than a grouper of almost twice its weight and would pull most equivalent size fresh water fish around backwards all day long. Selecting tackle for the task is fairly easy. A Spinner with matching seven foot rod and twenty to thirty pound test will allow you to bring most fish from their cover before you are hopelessly joined with the real estate. Another plus with using twenty or thirty pound test is that you can forgo using a separate leader. Simply slide a ¾ ounce egg sinker on to your line and tie your hook directly. The sinker being right at the hook will not bother the fish because when the fish picks the bait up the line slides freely through the sinker and the fish does not feel the weight until the line comes tight. Select a hook of about three or four o/t and short shank live bait, like the Mustad 9174 bronze.
When fishing at night you can sometimes even forgo the weight and let your pinfish swim freely on or near the surface. For those longing to hear the strike of surface feeding fish this is one of only a few Keys opportunities.
Mangrove snapper have a unique way of taking a bait. If you attempt to set the hook on the first nibble you will almost always strike on “thin water”. Mangrove Snapper tend to strike a bait and spit it out several times before moving off with it to enjoy its meal away from the competition. If you do not have the patience to allow the fish to strike the bait and move off before setting the hook, you should try to leave the rod in the rod holder. Keeping the rod in the rod holder will give the fish precious moments to get the hook into its mouth, before you attempt your hook set. Wait until the rod starts to bend before retrieving it and strongly setting the hook.
By following these guidelines you will be able to get the most out of your snapper time and be able to say I will just have mine “super sized”.
Captain John Sahagian