The Offshore Alternative

Brian Bartram | Corpus Christi Bay Ecosystem Leader
The Offshore Alternative

For those of us that crave that sweet red snapper flesh but don't have the means to get offshore (or can't squeeze in the time to get offshore during the brief red snapper season), there are other options. Where there's a will, there's a way.and the "way" doesn't necessarily entail a 40-mile trip offshore.

Closer to home than you think, you'll find a more economical snapper, the gray snapper (Lutjanus griseus), also known as the mangrove snapper or black snapper. Muted in color but not in spirit, these scrappy snapper share an affinity for structure just like their larger cousins. Various structures will hold gray snapper including jetty rocks, breakwaters, pier pilings, and dock structures. Next time you're at a boat ramp standing at the dock, look down; there is a good chance you're standing within a few feet of a gray snapper holding tight to the pilings beneath you. During gill net sampling by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), we have also captured gray snapper over seagrass flats, proving that they will utilize a variety of habitats and don't always need to have a rock as their friend.

Gray snapper reach sexual maturity around eight inches in length. Spawning occurs offshore and activity peaks from June to August. The post-larvae are then transported back to the estuary via currents and, according to some research, they are dependent on seagrass beds for nursery habitat when they are about the size of your fingernail. Juveniles and small adults occupy inshore habitats and larger adults eventually move offshore to repeat the process.

Gill net surveys have shown good numbers of gray snapper in recent years, especially following mild winters. Dr. James Tolan and Dr. Mark Fisher with TPWD published a paper in 2009 documenting the increase of gray snapper on the Texas coast and the relationship between their abundance and our weather patterns. The take home message from their paper is that the gradual increase in surface water temperatures (specifically higher wintertime minimums) in our Texas bays and estuaries has provided favorable conditions for the establishment of gray snapper and increased recruitment success. This is evidenced by what our staff observes in the field during TPWD routine monitoring surveys. After a mild winter, we often see increased numbers of gray snapper in our gill net surveys the following fall. After a hard winter, numbers are reduced and it takes a healthy dose of summer followed by a mild winter before these snapper are once again present in appreciable numbers. In fact, we don't usually see many gray snapper in our spring time gill net surveys while the water is still warming up.

The southern half of the Texas coast is fortunate to have the lion's share of these snapper with 69% of the landings coming from the four southern-most bay systems (Figure 1). Of those, the Corpus Christi Bay and Aransas Bay complexes account for 56% of the coastwide landings. It is primarily a summer and fall fishery and once the mercury drops, these fish get scarce. According to TPWD angler harvest data, the highest numbers of gray snapper are harvested June through November (Figure 2), with angler catch rates (number of fish caught per hour) starting to rise in late summer and peaking in November (Figure 3). The Port Aransas jetties and other significant structures in the area are very popular and productive spots for anglers targeting these fish. When targeting gray snapper, think small; leave the offshore reels and broomsticks on the rod rack. Although the Texas state record sits at 18.67 pounds, most gray snapper caught inshore will be in the 1-2 pound range. Don't let that dissuade you from pursuing them–they're delicious. Use small hooks, small baits, and light tackle–but not too light. When you hook one, hang on, there's a lot of spunk in that small scaled package. They are notorious for taking your hook and plunging straight for the line-slicing structure they're holding to. Some anglers prefer to use fluorocarbon leaders to minimize visibility of their terminal tackle. Live shrimp is a popular bait, as well as small live fish and cut bait.

Currently, there are no size limits or bag limits for gray snapper, although I would ask the conservation-minded angler to use discretion when filling your cooler. Your back muscles will question your motives when you've been at the cleaning table for an hour. The flesh is light and delicate and deserves to be baked, grilled, or fried in a light batter. As an aside, if you catch a really small one, they make a fun and colorful fish to keep in an aquarium. Warning: does not play well others. They're aggressive, but fun to watch.

This fall, fish a pile of rocks near you and you may be pleasantly surprised. If you're like many anglers and economy factors into your fishing equation, then gray snapper provide the cost efficient answer.