Mangrove snapper…gray snapper…black snapper…grovers…mangos…we don’t care what you call them. From the moment these fierce fish enter the aquatic world they are extremely aggressive. Schooling by nature, mangrove snapper must be competitive in the fish-eat-fish world as they grow and mature deep in the roots of mangrove-encrusted shorelines. Weathered docks are also favored hangouts for juveniles, and as the fish continue to develop they eventually reach a stage when they are more predator than potential prey. At this point small shrimp and baitfish simply cannot sustain their voracious appetites any longer. As this growth spurt continues along Florida’s Gulf Coast, it forces the growing grays to head west in search of more rewarding meals.
Along the way many take up temporary residence along any sort of submerged debris they can find. Jetties and concrete bridge abutments offer a short sabbatical for aggressive grays before relocating to near-shore wrecks and rock piles where they continue to feast on crustaceans and finfish. The routine continues as these structure oriented fish ultimately work their way to deep ledges and reefs beyond the 100-foot mark in an attempt to satisfy their insatiable appetites.
The Gulf of Mexico is alive and well and full of eager bottom fish ready to put your angling prowess to the ultimate test.
As a relatively easily accessible sport fish yielding excellent table fare, mangrove snapper are a key target around the state. Certainly the most common of all species in the snapper/grouper complex, mangroves sustain healthy fisheries around the entire state. On any given day boatless anglers can be seen targeting mangroves off docks, bridges, piers and seawalls. Boarding party boats from nearly any port on leisurely 4, 6 & 8-hour trips is another great way to target these canine-toothed denizens.
For boaters, even the smallest crafts can get in on the action with easy access to schools of keeper size grovers residing on reefs and rock piles adjacent to near coastal waters. However if you are seriously interested in really big mangroves, the world famous ledges, coral heads and springs of the Middle Grounds is the place to fish.
Open head boats regularly travel 100 miles to The Grounds and will eagerly put you on pristine hard bottom holding large numbers of trophy mangroves and more. This prime fishing area measures more than 450-square miles and is loaded with fossilized coral reefs that typically offer 10 to 20-feet of relief.
Boarding one of these 30-plus hour trips from popular ports like Hubbard’s Marina (hubbardsmarina.com) in Madeira Beach provide the easiest access to the distant honey holes, although you can certainly reach them on your own vessel with the right rig, ample fuel supply, safety equipment and ground tackle. These are serious trips that require serious preparation and a clear understanding of prevailing weather patterns and proper anchoring techniques, so don’t take a trip of this caliber lightly. One hundred miles from the nearest port is not the place to realize you forgot the anchor ball. It all boils down to the fact that convenience may just be the biggest advantage to dropping a few hundred bucks on a head boat, as the skipper will put you on the bite time and time again. You can also relax on the long ride to and from the fishing grounds and re-energize between spots. Freshly prepared meals and a cushy bunk never hurt anyone either.
Regardless if you intend to head offshore on your own boat or as a passenger on an open boat, tackle preparation is key to successful mangrove fishing. Tempting and subduing the largest mangroves requires the right stuff. Vets fish 8 foot rods with a soft tip to detect subtle strikes, as even the largest grays sometimes gently mouth bait. Rather than a typical 7 foot bottom rod, the extra length helps keep line away from a vessel’s jagged hull and also adds a bit more underhand casting distance. The right sticks also have enough backbone to haul big fish from the depths, as you never know when a live pinfish or whole sardine intended for a fat mangrove will get inhaled by a big gag grouper or tackle-testing amberjack. High-speed conventional reels with at least a 5:1 gear ratio make checking bait a snap, with 30 lb. or 40 lb. monofilament main line doing the trick.
Next on your agenda should be the right rig, which will require enough lead to get you to, and keep you in the strike zone upwards of 150 feet below. A fish finder rig with sliding egg sinker is popular, as is a dual hook rig that will require the use of a bank sinker. The appropriate size weight will be determined by the depth and velocity of current. Ideally, fish enough lead to maintain a vertical presentation, which will help avoid tangles and snags.
Now that you’re rigged and ready to put a few quality fish on ice, it’s time to get connected. It all starts with fresh bait—an extremely important factor for tempting the largest mangroves. While all head boats provide squid and sardines, the supplied bait is often thawed and mushy. Fresh is key, with ballyhoo, sardines and goggle eye all worthy choices. Live bait is popular, with pinfish the only viable option (head boats offer personal livewells).
Regardless of size, mangrove snapper are generally super aggressive. Respectable fish will attack and devour nearly anything they can fit in their mouths. What they can’t devour in one bite they’ll shred to pieces. This means that in order to persuade a true trophy your bait not only needs to be appealing, but it must withstand the barrage of attacks from smaller schoolmates. Think big when baiting up!
Once you are on the bottom, keep close tabs on your offering, with fingertips monitoring the line and eyes glued to the rod tip. Ignore the small taps and wait for hard thumps. With circle-hooks required by law in the Gulf, allow the fish ample time to consume the bait and turn before engaging the reel.
While targeting big mangroves out on these deep ledges, anglers can expect to encounter yellowtail, red and mutton snapper, red, gag and scamp grouper, amberjack, porgies and more. There is simply no way to exclusively target mangroves without tempting an assortment of other reef dwellers calling the same fertile ledges and drop -offs home.
Regardless of how you choose to access these rich waters, just do it! The Gulf of Mexico is alive and well and full of eager bottom fish ready to put your angling prowess to the ultimate test. Do you have what it takes?