As any gambler knows, the odds are always in favor of the house. However, when you are trying your luck on the reefs and wrecks dotting the northern Gulf of Mexico you can bet you’ll go home a winner—especially if you plan on plying the depths for succulent snapper. The rich waters off Pensacola and Destin, and everywhere in between, are famous for yielding hefty red snapper—when regulations allow—but to increase your odds of hitting the bottom fishing jackpot you better also be ready to bet on black.
Black snapper (commonly referred to as gray or mangrove snapper in other regions of Florida) feature a grayish-olive coloration with some taking on a dark rust color and others completely black along their backs. Juvenile black snapper occupy inshore waters around mangrove roots, docks, pilings and rock jetties and rarely exceed 3-pounds. When they reach maturity from 3 to 4-years of age, black snapper migrate to deeper wrecks and reefs where they occupy natural and artificial hard-bottom structures. If you’re fishing these near-shore fish havens you could easily hook an impressive black snapper that tips the scales over 10-pounds. Experienced bottom fishermen know that black snapper are notorious for holding tight to the same structures that house their red brethren, and with the onslaught of red snapper regulations in place it’s certainly in your best interest to pay close attention to these equally tough fighters.
Recreational anglers can now target red snapper on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only, through 12:01 a.m. November 22.
Red snapper on the other hand are similar in body shape to black snapper, although are easily distinguishable by their intense coloration. Both species have a sloped profile with spiny dorsal fins, but red snapper lack the upper canine teeth found on blacks. Both red and black snapper are demersal species and prefer the safety afforded by aggressive bottom topography such as natural and artificial reefs, rocky hard bottom, jagged ledges and dark caves. Red snapper vary in size from 15 to over 30-inches, and on just about any piece of high profile bottom in the northern Gulf it’s not uncommon to encounter trophy red snapper approaching the coveted 20-pound mark—likely to only be vented and released due to stringent regulations.
The current situation regarding recreational red snapper fishing is quite a predicament. Flawed data provided to fishery managers has resulted in the closure of this economically essential fishery. In 2010, Gulf regulations allowed recreational anglers to harvest red snapper from June 1 through July 23—a meager 53-days. While updated stock assessments suggest that red snapper populations are on the rise and anglers report stocks are at levels never seen before, strict rules continue to limit recreational harvest. To make matters worse, the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe resulted in fishery closures and cancelled fishing trips in both federal and state waters along the Panhandle. As a result, the recreational red snapper quota was not met along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Consequently, NMFS approved a supplemental season in state and federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Recreational anglers can now target red snapper on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only, through 12:01 a.m. November 22. This is a blessing for the Panhandle and couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The Gulf has suffered a severe setback and this extended season continues to provide a much needed boost to the coastal communities that rely on sport fishing. However by the time you are reading this, it’s unfortunate but this limited season could already be a thing of the past.
With area waters once again open after the oil spill I was anxious to see how our near-shore reefs and wrecks faired after what has been labeled the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. With red snapper off limits on this particular day, my target destination was also a consistent producer of trophy black snapper and tasty mingos. I planned on fishing a not-so secret spot approximately 8-miles southeast of Pensacola Pass known as Paradise Hole. This broad stretch of fertile water ranging from 80 to 100-feet features a jagged natural bottom made up of limestone and coral. When it comes to holding a variety of fish, Paradise Hole definitely lives up to its name. I prefer to drift here rather than anchor because of the vast number of coral ledges and rockpiles. It’s like a virtual smorgasbord for the wide variety of fish carousing the bottom. I’ve found that the only thing anchoring does is waste precious time while greatly limiting the number of productive pieces of bottom I can effectively target.
When reef fishing in the northern Gulf most anglers utilize conventional reels like a Quantum Cabo or Penn 4/0 Special Senator. Others choose to work medium-sized spinning reels like a Penn Conquer 7000 spooled with 50lb. braid. While both spinning and conventional outfits get the job done, the choice is yours and should be based on personal preference and comfort. Remember that if you don’t have confidence in your tackle and angling abilities you’ll have no chance of fooling finicky snapper. Other than the odd amberjack there’s not many fish you’ll encounter here that you won’t be able to stop, so a 7-foot medium-heavy action rod will suffice.
On this particular outing I was fairly confident I’d encounter red snapper, so I had my venting and release tools within easy reach. What I was really hoping to connect with were chunky blacks, but I was well prepared with an assortment of natural offerings to tempt both species. In my opinion, if you’re serious about catching black snapper then you need live bait on your side. Black snapper are much more finicky and at times, can be extremely challenging to coerce—especially when the reds are so thick you can barely sneak a bait past them. In my experience I’ve had the best success with large live shrimp and medium-sized pinfish. While live offerings help entice smart snapper, it also plays in your favor to downsize your terminal tackle. For picky blacks I suggest a Carolina rig with a 20lb. fluorocarbon leader and 2/0 circle-hook.
When it comes to bait selection, red snapper aren’t as choosy and will readily devour a variety of offerings from frozen cigar minnows to cut menhaden to fresh bonito chunks. When rigging for reds you can usually rely on the same basic Carolina rig, just beef it up a bit. Here it’s in your best interest to step up to a 5/0 circle-hook with a 40lb. fluorocarbon leader and enough lead to hold bottom. Season after season I’ve had some of the best strikes higher in the water column, so if your sounder is lighting up like a Christmas tree and you aren’t having much success with the Carolina rig don’t hesitate switching over to a knocker rig. This technique can help entice spooky snapper as it drifts naturally with the current. When selecting a sinker remember that in this application, less is more. To construct a knocker rig tie your leader right to your main line with a uni or Albright knot and slide on a 1oz. egg sinker prior to snelling your circle-hook. Deployed slowly with a careful touch, your bait will flutter enticingly slow, which often results in a strike on the descent. Knocker rigs produce big fish, but require finesse and a quick reaction for consistent success.
When it was all said and done I ended the day with numerous red snapper throwbacks, four keeper black snapper and a couple nice mingos to share the ride home. When the morning started I would have never wagered that it would’ve been such a productive day on the water. That’s the cool thing about fishing the Panhandle. Even with the odds stacked against you there’s no limit to the fun you’ll have…and that’s no bluff.