Around Florida, a number of angling destinations are simply legendary. Take Government Cut for example. Miami is well known for world-class sailfishing that regularly unfolds in the shadow of the city’s scenic skyline. Key West is another icon. Among many other fantastic fisheries, Key West is revered for its proximity to the richest king mackerel grounds in the world where 50-plus pound smokers rule the Tortugas. Unbeknownst to many Florida fishermen, Ponce Inlet is famous for producing some of the most exciting snapper fishing known to mankind.
Located minutes from Daytona, Ponce Inlet rarely makes headlines when it comes to offshore fishing, yet monster mangrove snapper rule the reefs off a stretch of coastline far more famous for Bike Week, Spring Break and the International Speedway. Well it’s about time someone provided this underrated region with the recognition it deserves, because the hard fighting bottom dwellers inhabiting the natural and artificial reef formations along central Florida’s Atlantic Coast are abnormally large and brutally strong. Maybe it is because of an abundance of natural forage or the vast amount of prime habitat. Whatever the reason, the dominant members of the snapper complex encountered here are impressive fish at the absolute peak of the gene pool. Reef fishing outside Ponce Inlet, the area’s major port of call, isn’t child’s play where a measuring tape is needed to decide a fish’s fate. Ten-pound mangos are not unusual. However, just like every other trophy fishery around the state, consistent success doesn’t come easy.
In any case, the ultimate goal is to end up on the anchor up current of the selected waypoint with chum flowing toward the submerged structure.
Captain John Ellis, a local legend and owner of Rainbow Charters, has been soaking bottom baits off Daytona Beach for over 50 years, and remembers the glory days when double-digit mango were stacked like cordwood. Of course, with depleted fish stocks and recreational fishing pressure at an all time high, the score isn’t the same. Yet Ellis certainly knows there are still enough mature fish in the five to seven year old class that supersede the coveted 10-pound mark.
To really sink your teeth into this sensational fishery you’ve got to have the right attitude and really be prepared for serious battle. You can turn to light action outfits to catch bait, but not much else. Ask around and you’ll hear the same horror story time and again…determined sinker bouncers busting off quality fish on 80 lb. leader in 70 feet of water! Those who have learned the lesson the hard way and are out for revenge now show up with beefy 8’0″ grouper sticks matched to appropriate conventional reels loaded with 30 or 40 lb. mono. Their tackle bags are loaded with thin wire circle-hooks and a variety of leader material ranging from 20 lb. test—required when the water is crystal clear and fish are super finicky—through 80 lb. fluorocarbon used in murky conditions when fish are ultra aggressive. Even then, they know they won’t win every battle, but at least they stand a chance at preventing mature mangos from retreating back to their unforgiving lairs where sharp reef edges make short work of vulnerable leaders.
While you can certainly find cooperative fish and scrape together a catch during any day of the year, mango snapper draw the most attention from local and visiting anglers during the coming months, with the days leading up to and just after the full moon in July and August really piling up the fish. This is when mango snapper spawn and ultimately congregate in impressive numbers around well-known ledges like the Mango Hole and the Party Grounds, just like they have been doing for generations. The charter fleet knows the pattern well and while local skippers capitalize on the easy pickings for their patrons, they make it a point to never clean out any honey hole. With red snapper, the highly prized species that put Daytona on the fishing map currently off limits, the future of their businesses depend on the continued health of the mango fishery.
The strategy for mango success is straightforward, yet coming out on top requires anglers to pay close attention to the details.
Captain Bob Stone of Daytuna Fishing, another veteran fishing these waters for longer than I’ve been alive, tells us that while there are productive natural and artificial reef formations outside Ponce Inlet all the way to the edge of the Gulf Stream more than 35-miles offshore, the region boasts dozens of sweet spots barely a hop, skip and jump from the inlet. Many publically advertised GPS coordinates lie only five to ten miles off the beach in water only 70 to 90 feet deep, and attract big numbers of quality fish during peak periods. The seasonal pattern makes perfect sense since fertilization is optimized in depths with minimal current.
In any case, the ultimate goal is to end up on the anchor up current of the selected waypoint with chum flowing toward the submerged structure. This means the wind and current must be in your favor and your anchoring skills need to be on point, because missing the mark by even a few boat lengths can dramatically impact results. The idea is for the tempting chum to draw mature, and often very wary snapper out and away from the security of their rocky outcroppings, something that often takes patience and a few hooked fish before piquing the interest of the remaining bunch. Keeping this in mind, as long as you’re positioned properly with favorable conditions present, stick with it for a while before moving on.
While grouper diggers and AJ hunters swear by live pinfish and vermilion snapper as optimal offerings, mango masters tend to stick with sardines. Squid and finger mullet also work well, but there is just something about a sardine’s oily flesh that hungry snapper simply can’t resist. Whole or freshly cut, baits are typically deployed on fish finder rigs with 6 to 10 feet of fluorocarbon leader and enough lead to keep the carrot in the strike zone.
During ideal feeding scenarios when hungry snapper let their guard down and meander toward the source of the free tidbits, weight can be reduced or removed altogether and baits can be free lined into the hungry fish’s waiting mouths.
With oversized mango snapper in the double-digit range headlining the action, highly restricted red snapper are also an exciting draw. However, if 2015 is anything like last year, the recreational harvest of red snapper will be open in federal waters for a whopping eight days, so anglers only have a very small window to bring home the bacon. Yet despite charter captain’s best efforts to steer clear of American reds during the remaining 357 days a year, the aggressive fish are simply unavoidable and cover area structures. Local skippers tell me the reds are so thick they’re even becoming a nuisance to commercial king mackerel fishermen trolling metal spoons and jigs, but that’s a different story altogether.
Facts of Life: Mangrove Snapper
(a.k.a. Mangrove Snapper, Mango Snapper)
Similar Species: Dog Snapper, Cubera Snapper, Schoolmaster Snapper
Spawning Period: June–August
Min. Size: Atlantic & Gulf – 10″
Bag Limit: Atlantic & Gulf – 5 per day
Florida State Record: 17 lb. 0 oz. (Port Canaveral, FL)
All Tackle Record: 17 lb. 0 oz. (Port Canaveral, FL)
Pinfish: Easy to catch and keep alive, pinfish make for excellent bottom baits. While many choose to fish them as is, others trim their spiky dorsal fins before deployment.
Mullet: According to local charter captains, a live finger mullet is one of the best baits for jumbo mangrove snapper. Hooking through the nose is the most common presentation.
Spanish Sardine: The all-purpose dead sardine is arguably the most popular bottom bait of all time. Whether you choose to fish a whole bait or chunk, you can’t go wrong with this crowd favorite.
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