Snapper Time

Snapper Time
Dale Fontenot from Vidor with a ponderous snapper. Barely visible is the short wire leader and big silver spoon he used to catch it.

June marks another short season where we can legally spank offshore snapper, without fear of retribution from various law enforcement agencies. It's a season too short that shows no signs of improving. Friends and I simply try to catch and freeze maybe a half dozen 12- or 14-pounders apiece, before the season ends. That's ten or 12 dinners, often an entire fillet with skin and scales still attached, cooked over a mesquite grill. Shrink-wrapped, they do well in the freezer. That means we can ration out a snapper dinner each month before the next season.

Texas does allow year-round snapper fishing out to nine miles, but that can be a sketchy call. Especially along the upper coast, where you can catch trout offshore, and not see a snapper the entire day. For consistent, state-water keeper snapper action you would need a fairly secret (GPS) number, which is a dicey proposition within sight of land. The best time for state water action is the off-season, like November through March when boat traffic is greatly diminished, compared to summer. There are small, natural rock formations off Padre Island only a mile or two offshore, but they're best kept secret, or they could be cleaned out. It is nice to know kayakers launching from the beach have legitimate shots at keeper snapper, however.

To address fishing in federal waters: It's now so easy to catch the daily bag limit of two snapper in June, there's no use even hauling bait out there. Unless you want to fish the easy way with dead bait, and catch and release lots of big snapper. Which doesn't sound too bad, if you can use (easy on the fish) circle hooks and release them quickly in good shape. With snapper, almost any bait will do; last summer I caught two or three gallons of 8- to 12-inch mullet with the castnet (they were schooling on top at the jetties) and so next morning hauled them offshore. These mullet were iced down, not kept in a live well no need to get extravagant with snapper. We anchored over a rock in 75 feet of water, and fought many big snapper until our bait was gone. That's fairly shallow water, and almost all of our released fish swam back down if we got them back in the water quickly. It was a glorious day, topped by 11 kingfish at the very same spot; out of bait by then, we used trolling lures. I'll cover some of that king action in the July issue).

With the snapper, what would have been sporting is if we'd used artificial baits, as well. (And maybe trout tackle). And why not? Catching red snapper on dead bait in June, in federal waters, is just about the easiest thing in the world if the wind isn't blowing. I've seen eight-year olds using circle hooks practically dragged out of the boat while trying to hang on to their rods. With circles, you don't even have to set the hook. On top of that we had an unusually calm June last year, which is historically a windy month in the western Gulf. I have theorized in the past that the Feds schedule snapper season in windy June, to hamper the harvest in our area. If so, it backfired on them last year.

This year we will try something different. Maybe chum snapper to the surface like a bunch of big goldfish, and try different tackle. Trout gear, using plugs or poppers. I even know guys who have caught big red snapper with fly rods. Friends of mine in Beaumont have been using these big silver musky spoons for 25 years out there on snapper, and one of them this past April caught and released a 28-pounder on a spoon. They've also caught all sorts of other fish on spoons, from sheepshead to kings. They use the big, old-fashioned flutter spoons, modeled after something we use in the bays, and those take a little while to sink deep, but they work.

A flutter spoon is a little unusual, and impractical when snapper are deeper, say 200 feet, and the current running. What more offshore anglers are turning today, especially in Florida, is what I call "heavy metal" jigs that are thin, heavy, and up to a foot long. These suckers will shoot down 600 feet to the bottom on braid line, and with that setup you can feel every hit even at that depth. We've used them off Texas in maybe 120 feet of water, and the metal jigs not only caught big red snapper, but bonus fish such as scamp and Warsaw grouper. Even kings, way down deep. Our guy Alan Reynolds using these jigs caught a better variety of fish than anyone else on the boat, including my usual two-ounce bucktail jigs, which I've used out there for 30 years. Anyway, jigs are more sporting. I was bent over the rail fighting big snapper, (we could see them milling around only 25 feet down), but Alan was getting bonus grouper even deeper. I'm always envious when someone catches a scamp grouper, a rare treat on the dinner table.

For jigging it helps to have a longer rod (eight feet seems ideal), to lift the jig quickly off bottom and let it drop back down. A long rod means a bigger sweep. I was on a Florida partyboat and the deckhand walked around, hooking fish for different people. He would yank that jig high overhead with one sweep, before letting it flutter back down. Then set the hook multiple times on a big fish. If he missed a strike, it was back to the overhead sweeps. It should go without saying that using mono line, with its inherent stretch, prevents a good hookset. Braid will knock the crap out a fish far below. I'm fond of 65-pound braid for that job.

There are a greater variety of metal jigs available today. Some are center-weighted, not shaped like a bread stick, and designed to flutter down on a slack line. They say you can use a rod only five and a half feet long for that work, so it's not quite so labor-intensive as using longer rods. If you have a bad shoulder, this energetic jigging can get tiresome in a hurry, although it usually doesn't take long to get a hookup.

If you're in decent shape, why not use jigs? Snapper off Texas are always hungry, not too smart, and almost always hit artificial baits down deep. Even in the early 1970s we used standard leadhead, brush-tail jigs off partyboats, and they could be deadly, especially on amberjack. But also snapper up to 18 poundsback when a snap of that size usually won the daily fish pot. Often on slow days, we had the only action going, while the rest of the group leaned against the rail, watching us.

Keeping only two red snapper in federal waters is a drag, but consider bonus snapper. Catching the much-smarter gray or "mangrove" snapper has become popular. You tie the boat up close to the rig and fling handfuls of chum inside the structure. Mangroves are seldom on bottom, they prefer working much higher in the water column. Chumming turns them on, and that's when you cast a bait chunk in there with 30 or 40 pound line, and a four-foot fluro leader with maybe a 4/0 hook hidden inside the bait. Just a line and hook, no hardware. When a snapper grabs on, you'd better try to pull his head off, because they really know how to find cover and cut that line in about three seconds. Trout tackle would be ineffective here, around all that sharp structure.

Vermilion or "beeliners" prefer underwater rocks in blue water, generally in 100 to 200 feet. They feed above bottom, have small mouths, and a small chunk of squid with small hook works best. The biggest beeliners are called "ocean liners" and hang out in their deeper range. They often feed after sunset; the biggest I ever saw were caught on a black night from an anchored partyboat at Candy Mountain off Louisiana, where the bottom comes up from 180 feet or so, to 66 feet. A jagged limestone mountain top down there; we dove it at mid-day to look around. The beeliners were only 30 or 40 feet below the surface, milling around day and night.

Lane snappers
are what we used to call "candy snappers." They look just like red snapper but have yellow horizontal stripes, as well. They stay right on bottom and eat cut bait. I've seen them schooling in small segregated groups around maybe one corner of an oil rig. One night before bag limits, years ago, we caught 200 pounds of nice three-pound lane snappers, at a small rock off Louisiana in 90 feet. It's been said that lane snapper have softer meat than red snapper, though I never tried comparing them on the table.