Mangrove snapper are usually regarded as bait-thieving pests by inshore fishermen. Most offshore anglers look at them as bonus catches once they’ve got their limit of the target fish (mostly grouper, or red snapper when the season is open).
But that’s not really fair. Mangoes are a great target fish in their own right, especially this time of year as they’re getting geared up for the spawn. Let’s take a look at where and how to catch these under-rated fish.
Mangroves and docks
The trees that loan their name to these fish are excellent habitat for them. The tangle of prop roots provides both cover from larger predators and a prolific hunting ground for the crustaceans and small fish they prey on. Docks can be thought of as artificial mangroves, and the fish like them for the same reason.
Snapper grow up in the estuaries and then move offshore as adults, so the average fish under the trees is pretty small. Most of the year, babies from 4 to 8 inches are predominant. But from late June to early, we see a lot more legal-size fish in these locations. Like the little fellers, they will stay as close to the tangled cover as they can.
To target the bigger ones can be tricky, but here are some tips: Live baitfish are harder for the little guys to catch and bite off your hook. Light leader (15- or 20-pound) will get more hits from larger, warier fish. Small hooks (No. 2 to 1/0) make a more natural presentation. Remember that the law requires non-offset circle hooks for all snappers.
When you catch a keeper, you might assume it’s a good spot and stick around. But don’t put up a mailbox. Give it five minutes and then move, because these fish aren’t gathering at these sites.
Gulf passes that connect the Harbor to open water are used as meeting locations for fish that need to for spawning groups. We see it in tarpon, in redfish, in snook — and also in mangrove snapper.
No snapper species feels comfortable without some kind of cover. In the passes, that’s in pretty short supply. Some passes have docks on one or both sides, and these can be loaded with fish looking for structure. Most passes also have areas of hard rocky bottom, and these fish will utilize that habitat also.
Dock fishing is pretty much like elsewhere, with one exception. Strong current flow can make it hard to figure out where your bait is, so a small float is not a bad idea as it provides a definite indicator of that. The float also keeps your bait off the bottom, so some of the bycatch species here — flounder, whiting, juvenile black drum — may miss it.
Fishing deeper water can be a waste of time or very productive. It all depends on locating the fish. You can use your fishfinder or you can drift. If you choose to drift, try to stay at a consistent depth. If there’s no action, drift again a couple feet deeper or shallower. This is time-consuming, but when you hit the jackpot you can load up. A simple porgy rig works great. Use just enough weight to hold bottom, and the hook should be about 14 to 18 inches above.
This is where the spawning activity actually happens, usually over reef or hard bottom areas and around the full moon. Like other snappers, mangs start out their lives as planktonic predators. To survive, they need abundant food — and that means open, high-salinity water. Fish will spawn in water as shallow as 25 feet, but you’ll find aggregations out to about 50 miles.
There are other types of snapper also spawning in the Gulf at this time of year: Yellowtails, lanes, reds, cuberas, schoolmasters and a dozen or so less common species. To prevent hybridization, snappers generally segregate themselves. One ledge will have only mangs; the next, only lanes. Accidents do happen, and hybrid snapper are regular if not exactly common catches.
Finding ledges and other natural hard bottom in the Gulf isn’t always easy. If you have marked the locations of stone crab trap lines, you have an advantage. Simply cruise those lines at slow speed and watch your bottom machine. If you don’t have any of those marked, stone crab season is open Oct. 15 to May 15. Drive a zigzag through the line and create a trail that follows the trap line.
Artificial reefs and wrecks will also hold spawning snapper, though often fewer as these areas get hammered. The fewer anglers fish a spot, the better it will probably be. You can also blind-drift or run at a speed your fishfinder will work at and look for peaks of fish coming off the bottom. Spawners will sometimes come up to 30 feet off the seabed in deeper water.
In these dense schools, food competition is fierce. That means they’re not as picky as they might normally be, so you normally don’t need to chum or drop down to really light leader. Still, those practices won’t hurt anything. It is nice to be able to use readily available frozen squid and sardines, though — no need to keep shrimp or whitebait alive.
Watch the law
In addition to the circle hook requirement, you need to pay attention to the different rules for state and federal waters. In state waters within 9 miles of shore, mangrove snapper need to be at least 10 inches (total length, with the tail squeezed), and you can keep up to five per harvester. In federal waters outside of 9 miles, the size limit is 12 inches — but you can keep 10 fish.
What that means is that you can harvest more in federal waters than you could legally keep in state waters. If you have done that, the plan is that once you hit state waters on the way back in, you need to go directly to home port. Don’t stop to fish, because if you get checked, it’s going to be real hard to prove those fish were caught offshore.
And if you’ve been catching 10-inchers in state waters, don’t take them out to federal waters in the box. Again, if you get checked, how will you prove you’re not taking undersize fish? One way to avoid problems is to stick to the federal size limit and the state bag limit. That would keep you legal anywhere. Remember also that there are aggregate snapper bag limits if you’re catching other species.
As the Fish Coach, Capt. Josh Olive offers personalized instruction on how and where to fish in Southwest Florida. Whether you’re a complete beginner or just looking to refine your techniques, he can help you get past the frustration and start catching more fish. Lessons can be held on your boat, on local piers or even in your backyard. To book your session or for more information, go to FishCoach.net, email Josh@FishCoach.net or call 941-276-9657.