Rubies of the Reefs, Wrecks, and Rigs

Ruben Villarreal
Rubies of the Reefs, Wrecks, and Rigs

With summer approaching and fishermen's thoughts turning offshore, I hear many stories of how the big one of yesterday got away. What comes to my mind is what can we learn from these experiences? In this article I will cover some the basics for hooking and landing red snapper. I hope these will make your next trip more successful.

To make it really simple as regards tackle selection; I classify snapper in four basic size ranges. First are the smaller fish, up to about five pounders. Next comes the medium size, ranging up to about twelve pounds. Next are the sows of thirteen to twenty-four pounds. Next comes what I call super sows, twenty-five pounds and heavier. Even if the fish are running three to five pounds, we are never sure what size the next one might be. Proper tackle selection can help prevent another "one that got away" story. Fortunately, it doesn't matter if you have a 21-ft bay boat or 36-ft Contender; opportunities to catch fish in these ranges can come your way with careful planning.

Tackle: Your tackle can be the problem that holds you back from catching bigger snapper. If you go out expecting to win a gun fight with a knife you are making a poor choice. Tackle up!

If you're after keepers and medium size red snapper, choose the right rods, reels, line, leader material, hooks and weights and lures. For this class I would go with a 6-6.5ft rod that's rated for 20-30lb monofilament. The reel I would choose would either be a star drag or smaller lever drag model that can deliver 16-20 pounds of drag and capable of holding 200 to 300 yards of at least 20-pound mono.
As for line, I would use 20 to 30lb mono or 40-50lb braid such as Power Pro, Stren Sonic or Sufix. I would use fluorocarbon or other premium leader material in the range of 40-60lb strength. I would choose a circle hook that matches your bait or lure and also matches your size of tackle.

Medium and sow size snapper require heavier tackle. Rod length should be 6-6.5 feet rated for 30-60lb line. Reels would be of either star or lever drag design, capable of a 20-28 pound setting. Heavier line is a necessity, so we'll suggest 30-60lb mono or 80-100lb braid. Leaders will also receive an upgrade. My personal preference is fluorocarbon of 80-130lb test or other premium leader material. Your swivel and hook should also be upgraded.

Finally, the class of fish everyone would love to catch, the super sow. This class of snapper requires even heavier and more specialized tackle. The rod I would select for this class of snapper is a 5.5-6.5 footer rated for at least 60lb line. The reel would again be a star drag or lever drag model, two-speed for maximum torque, capable of a 30-plus pound drag setting. The leader gets upgraded to 150-250lb fluorocarbon or other premium leader material. Heavier swivels and hooks are a must as well. Lures should also be upgraded in size and strength. Why such heavy tackle?
Very simple; we are trying to drag a strong and mostly bottom-dwelling fish away from structure that can cut or break your line in a fraction of a second. You need good gear and heavy drag settings working for you.

When: Currently, snapper can be caught and retained year around in state waters. Here in Texas the state water boundary is nine nautical miles. The 2009 snapper season in federally controlled waters (beyond nine nautical miles) will run June 1 through about mid-August. The closing date for this year's season has not been established. Check seasons and applicable bag limit for red snapper before you go!

WHERE: Red snapper are structure oriented fish. They love to hang on structure and therefore can be caught on rocks, reefs, wrecks, oil and gas rigs, wellheads and hard bottom locations. When getting ready for a trip, no matter if your boat is capable of only short runs of 10 to 12 miles or a very long run of 100 miles, mix it up, fish rigs and rocks and wrecks to catch your best fish.

For inexperience boaters, rigs make easy fishing targets and you do not have to anchor or tie up to be successful. Drifting the perimeter of the rig can be very productive. Given their height, they are easy to spot on the horizon and navigate to. But on the other hand, given these attributes, they can see a lot of pressure during peak fishing times.

Natural bottom such as reefs, rocks, and hard bottom are great places too. Fish are attracted to these types of structure, and can often be found in greater numbers as these spots are somewhat more difficult to locate and therefore receive less pressure. This is where good navigation electronics come into play.

Wellheads and hard spots are great places to find bigger red snapper but can be challenging to locate, even with a color sounder. Many of these are as small as only 2 to 10 feet in diameter. Good places to try from close in to far out are: nearshore oil rigs, Tall Rock area, Heald Bank, Middle21s,
any kind of wreck or sunken rig like H.I.480. Hilton's Offshore Atlas is a great source to begin to understand snapper structure.

BAIT: Having a livewell filled with frisky live bait can be one of the surest ways to get into solid snapper action. It is important to match your hooks to the size of the bait you are using. I would not recommend large, heavy hooks on small baits, nor small hooks on larger baits. Snapper can pull hard, they resist being pulled from the structure, and large fish can straighten a small hook or one fashioned of thin wire. Some fishermen believe snapper can be bait shy if too large a hook is used. I prefer piggy perch of four to six inches, live vermillion snapper, live croaker, live mullet, live sand trout, live ruby red grunts and live blue runners.

Dead baits can also be very effective. I recommend "butterflying" any that might die in your live well. Dead piggy perch, small vermillion snapper, and small blue runners seem to work better when sliced in this fashion. Larger species such as bonito, rainbow runner, and bluefish can be cut into steaks about one inch thick (i.e. sliced across the lateral line.) Running the hook through the tough skin helps prevent the bait being stolen. Whole squid, sardines and mackerel work well also. I like to take lots of variety to see what exactly the snapper want that particular day, (i.e. live bait, dead bait and lures.)

Finding hotspots near larger structure is often a ticket to finding bigger snapper. If by chance you are reeling up a good snapper and it breaks off or finds its way off the hook; pay close attention to the direction it swims. Sometimes a junk pile or abandoned wellhead lies near a rig and these can hold much bigger snapper than the major structure you have targeted.