Mangrove snapper are a very accommodating fish. You can catch them inshore or offshore, from a boat or from the pier. They’re not exactly picky about what they eat, which means they’re willing to take a wide variety of baits. And they’re usually willing to bite, whether it’s daytime or night.
This combination of factors makes mangoes, as they’re often called, an ideal fish for people trying to introduce kids or other newbies to fishing, or trying to put fillets in the frying pan. Although not quite as common as pond bluegills up north, mangrove snapper can be found in abundance in almost any salty or brackish water in Florida.
Mangrove snapper are usually plentiful near shore around piers, pilings, jetties and other such structure. Targeting snapper from shore can be tricky — not because it’s hard to get them to bite, but because there are so many little bait thieves that share the same habitat. If you use shrimp, you’ll catch snapper, but you’ll also lose a lot of bait to small but hungry predators.
There’s good news, though — you can avoid most of the thievery by using silver dollar-size pinfish, small greenbacks or frozen sardines cut into quarters. These baits have lots of snapper appeal but aren’t usually going to be pilfered by small-mouthed bait-nappers. When the main objective is plenty of fishing action, cut shrimp or squid will do the job just fine.
All mangrove snapper grow up inshore (they got their name because the juveniles are often found near submerged mangrove roots). As they grow, they tend to move into deeper water, with fish larger than 15 inches or so uncommon from most shore-accessible spots. Reefs in the Harbor and in the Gulf are often loaded with snapper from 10 to 20 inches long. Catching the larger ones can be very challenging, but I have a magic word that will help you: Chum.
Whether you use pre-made chum or grind your own, there’s nothing that will turn on the bite like putting food in the water. If you go out and drop baits down to bottom structure, you’ll probably have fish biting. Chances are very good those fish will be snapper, and they’ll often be the 10-inchers you could have caught from shore. But put a little chum out there and see what happens. You can get not only snapper but also grouper and even open-water species actively feeding around the boat, even in pretty deep water.
In fact, chum often seems to work better in deeper water. Chumming on inshore reefs, like Alligator Creek Reef and the Novak, often takes a half-hour or so to get the fish into a strong feeding mode. But I’ve seen fish near the surface of 60 feet of water 10 minutes after hanging a chum bag over the side. Do be sure to give your chum a bit of time to work, though — impatience is not advised. One way to keep yourself from dropping a line too soon is to wait to rig up until after you’ve put the chum out. If you do this, be sure to avoid slamming hatches and other excess noise that may keep the fish on the bottom.
There are different ways to chum. The simplest is to just hang a bag or two of frozen chum over the side. Frozen chum is easy to handle and minimally messy. You can of course make your own from virtually any oily, bloody fish. Some anglers prefer to get some chum down to the bottom, which can be done by mixing rolled oats, chum and play sand together. And don’t forget chumming with live bait. I’m not a big fan of blacking out baitwells, but this is an instance when I like to have plenty of bait. Tossing out a few injured chummers and some freshly cut pieces can get a true feeding frenzy fired up.
When you’ve got those fish chummed up and eagerly feeding, don’t drop your baits past them. Yes, you’re reef fishing, but this isn’t really bottom fishing. A light jighead, maybe a quarter-ounce or so, is sufficient to carry your bait down. If the water’s extra clear or the fish are still feeling shy, you may have to ditch the weight entirely and just free-line your bait. And since this isn’t bottom fishing, you don’t need a heavy-duty leader designed to resist coral abrasion. Use 4 to 6 feet of 10- or 15-pound fluorocarbon. You’ll get cut off every now and then, but you’ll get a heck of a lot more bites.
Night time can be the right time for snapper fishing. From shore you’ll often catch larger but fewer snapper at night. The overnight bite offshore is often excellent, especially if you use a submersible light. During the summer full moons, mangroves and other snapper species gather up into huge spawning schools, and at that time the action can be nothing short of phenomenal.
As aggressively as they hit live and dead baits, it’s a bit surprising that mangoes are hard to catch on artificial lures. You may catch one every now and then on a bucktail jig or spoon, but it’s a terrible way to try to catch them. The only lures I’ve seen catch snapper on a semi-regular basis are the Yo-Zuri 3D Fingerling and the Pin’s Minnow. These lures, which are usually thrown for snook, are still not something I’d recommend if you’re looking for snapper.
The snapper bite this year has been pretty good both offshore and inshore, with fish to 16 inches coming from El Jobean, the mouths of the Punta Gorda canals, Alligator Creek Reef and the docks of Pirate Harbor. Captiva and Little Gasparilla passes have also been holding plentiful mangoes as well.
These fish have been getting some extra pressure from anglers wanting to catch dinner, not that redfish, trout and snook are all closed. Good conservation practices will help ensure that we have plenty of snapper to go around. Fish that are being released should be handled gently with wet hands and not dropped or thrown back into the water. Also, remember that you have to use inline circle hooks to stay legal.
With lots of big mangs around willing to play, maybe you ought to forget about tarpon for a little while. It’s definitely not a bad thing.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor and at 14531 N. Cleveland Ave. in North Fort Myers. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.