Red snapper season ready to kick off in the Gulf
By FRANK SARGEANT
The red snapper season opens Wednesday, but anglers who are not quick on the draw might miss it. The season is slated to end July 18.
Ironically, the federal fishery councils have determined that the snapper stocks are doing too well. The average size of the fish has increased so rapidly in recent years that fewer can be caught before the allowable poundage is harvested.
Many anglers argue with this counter-intuitive approach, but biologists say larger fish mean a healthier and more abundant fishery long term, so the short season is required to keep the stocks moving in the right direction. Management goals are set in pounds, not in number of fish caught, thus the tight regulations.
According to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, headquartered in Tampa, the average weight of harvested red snapper went from 3.32 pounds in 2007 to 5.34 pounds in 2010. The weight is expected to increase another 10 percent for fish harvested this year. Biologists estimate that the total allowable poundage — 3.525 million pounds for recreational anglers — will be taken on or about July 18, thus the early closure.
Anglers are allowed two fish daily, with a minimum size of 16 inches.
Red snapper are most often found in water more than 100 feet deep around ledges, rock piles and wrecks. They frequently gather in large schools, and anglers who find these concentrations can catch large numbers of fish in short order. Historically, before regulations were put in place, some “recreational” anglers brought home more than 1,000 pounds of red snapper in a single day’s trip — then sold them.
Excessive harvest, regulators say, is the reason tight limits are necessary.
In any case, for those in search of a red snapper dinner, the best bet might be to follow the gas pipeline that exits the mouth of Tampa Bay and runs northwest toward Louisiana. Snapper have swarmed around the line and adjacent rock piles since it was completed. A map showing the line is available at T.A. Mahoney’s in Tampa and other tackle shops specializing in offshore fishing.
Snapper frequently form a Christmas tree-shaped school well off the bottom, and anglers finding this shape on their depthfinder can be fairly sure they are in snapper land (grouper tend to hug bottom).
The fish can be extremely aggressive when they are lightly fished. Anglers chasing grouper the past several years have had trouble getting a cut bait down past the snappers to catch the gags below.
Red snappers eat frozen or fresh-cut baits, including sardines, cigar minnows and threadfins. They also readily take frozen squid. On tightly schooled fish, a 4- to 8-ounce jig tipped with a cigar minnow is a great offering. Some anglers increase the bite rate by suspending a chum bag or two well down in the water column. Cut baitfish is the usual chum material, and frozen blocks of this chum are available at most bait shops catering to offshore anglers.
Circle hooks are required for reef fishing offshore. Regulators say these oversized hooks are less likely to be swallowed by undersized fish, making live release more likely. A de-hooking device and a venting tool are also required when harvesting any reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico. The aim is to increase the survival rate of released fish.
Bay area skippers say the average size on red snapper is 5 to 8 pounds, but 10- to 15-pounders are not rare, thus fairly stout tackle is best. Most use 60-pound gear or heavier. Snapper are a bit leader-shy, thus the 100-pound-test used for big grouper might slow the bite when chasing snapper.
The standard tactic for hooking snapper is to drop a bait near the bottom, but not all the way down; 5 to 10 feet above the structure is often best, because that’s where snappers look for food.
When the angler feels a strike, the reel is cranked as fast as possible to set the hook. Jerking the rod rarely works in water 100 feet and deeper. Because snapper are frequently hooked well off the bottom, they put up a good battle all the way to the boat. They’re less frequently the victims of pressure change than bottom-dwelling grouper, though in water more than 150 feet deep, most fish do need venting for successful release.
Red snapper have a well-deserved reputation of excellence on the table. The meat is white, firm and moist, and goes great broiled, baked or fried.