Across Florida’s varied inshore, near-shore and offshore venues, some species of game fish are much more intriguing than others. With a vicious temperament, wicked set of protruding canine teeth and the ability to reach impressive proportions with enough pulling power to bring even the most determined anglers to their knees, cubera snapper top the list. These menacing monsters rule area wrecks and reefs, but while you rarely read or hear anything about cubera snapper, you may be surprised to learn local waters house a healthy population for those willing to go to extremes to entice them.
I’m fortunate to have tangled with my fair share of cubera snapper—including a gargantuan 89-pound beast that would have surpassed the existing all tackle record of 78 lb. 12 oz. if weighed officially—though all of my encounters have taken place in the Pacific Ocean. Truthfully, I have yet to land one of these bronze beauties locally for one simple reason… I have never specifically targeted them, but that is about to change. To learn more about this excited and seemingly secretive fishery, I reached out to a reputable local captain who has been successfully targeting these impressive fish for nearly three decades—Captain Jim Barlett.
Truthfully, I’m not sure if there is any other game fish that is intentionally targeted with live lobster. I can’t help but wonder how many anglers are really willing to drop down such a precious offering in the hopes of enticing a menacing predator.
Barlett owns and operates The Beast, a 33- foot World Cat hailing from Miami. Barlett has been charter fishing since the early 1990s, and continues to put smiles on clients’ faces by keeping them connected to everything from sailfish, dolphin and tuna, to snapper, grouper and amberjack. Come August 6, the opening day of lobster season, Barlett’s focus takes a different course. It’s important to note that this is a seasoned vet and along with his deckhand Devon the two have nearly perfected cubera fishing through years of trial and error. While they’ve lost plenty of sleep, working together these guys have boated super snapper upwards of 76-pounds, and on more than one occasion they’ve released more than a dozen fish to 50-pounds in a single evening.
Now you may be wondering why the opening day of lobster season has any significance. The answer is because live lobster are the bait of choice when targeting beastly cubera, and other than a brief two-day mini season at the end of July, lobster cannot be legally harvested until August 6. En route to the fishing grounds, Jim anchors over shallow reefs where his deckhand literally dives in and scours the bottom to acquire the necessary bait for the night. Truthfully, I’m not sure if there is any other game fish that is intentionally targeted with live lobster. I can’t help but wonder how many anglers are really willing to drop down such a precious offering in the hopes of enticing a menacing predator.
Instinctively, cubera snapper consume finfish, crabs, squid and a variety of other tasty prey items, but so will nearly every other reef dwelling predator inhabiting Florida waters, which makes specifically targeting large cubera with anything other than live lobster a real challenge. Barlett swears that in all of his time spent cubera snapper fishing, with literally hundreds of trips under his belt, no other species other than the occasional shark will take a large live lobster, which means when you detect a strike chances are it is the right one.
Regarding season, it is believed cubera snapper take up temporary residence in the vicinity of deep-water wrecks and reefs from late June through mid-October, with August and September really marking peak season. During this time frame, fishing takes place from sundown to sunup when cubera let down their guard and prowl the surrounding waters for their next meal. Targeting these nocturnal fish during the witching hour makes perfect sense, as darkness is also when lobster walk across the seafloor in their hunt for food and new habitat.
While The Beast can generally be seen drifting around wrecks off Dade County, there is no shortage of cubera snapper inhabiting a much greater swath of submerged real estate stretching from The Florida Keys to Jupiter. Cubera snapper are structure oriented and typically occupy hard bottom and wrecks with substantial relief in 90- to 300-feet of water, but they will also wander well off the bottom to conduct their spawning rituals just prior to and after the full moon.
In order for anglers to achieve a proper presentation, boat positioning is critical. With many prime wrecks clearly revealed on nautical charts and online artificial reef locators, the goal once on scene is to evaluate the conditions and direction of drift before setting yourself up as far as a half mile up current of your target. From this point, a steady one- to two-knot drift will allow you to achieve a perfect presentation with your enticing bait drifting across the bottom directly in the strike zone adjacent to the submerged structure. Jim points out that it is extremely important to keep an eye glued to the sounder, as he often marks and hooks fish well off the main debris pile.
One undisputable fact is that cubera snapper are as mean as they come and incredibly powerful thanks to broad shoulders, a muscular body and huge broom-like tail. Because they are structure oriented, tackle must be capable of preventing determined fish from rocking you up, with 50 lb. class conventional outfits loaded with 80 lb. braid perfect for grueling battles. Terminal tackle and rigging is fairly straightforward. Depending on the velocity of current and depth of structure, a 16 or 32 oz. bank sinker is attached to a three-way swivel and 20 feet of 200 lb. mono is crimped to a 4X hook off the remaining eye. While a single hook rig works, Jim prefers a two-hook rig with the first hook impaled in the lobster’s tail and the stinger hook impaled at the joint where the antenna exist the head. With either, patience is a virtue as a striking cubera must be allowed ample time to crush and swallow the oversized bait before the angler locks up and cranks hard in an effort to drive the hook home. Once connected, it is a matter of endurance to coerce the powerful predator off the bottom, up through the water column and into the waiting hands of anxious anglers.
Targeting cubera snapper is no easy task and it is certainly a specialized tactic that takes a serious investment in time and effort to master. Plus, you can plan on losing some sleep. If you are really interested in this intriguing fishery, I highly recommend spending an evening fishing on The Beast with the master himself. In the long run, the minimal charter fee will save you tons of fuel and time by greatly shortening the learning curve. Jim has built a reputation on educating his clients while holding nothing back. Be careful though…land your first 50-pound cubera after a grueling battle and you’ll never look at lobster the same way again!
Rules & Regs
Minimum Size: 12″ (Atlantic & Gulf)
Daily Recreational Bag Limit: 10 per harvester/per day (Atlantic & Gulf) with no more than two cubera snapper over 30″ per harvester or vessel per day.
Captain Jim Barlett