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'Red' hot snapper bite

6/25/2010

Situations in the Gulf of Mexico have a lot of folks seeing red; some in a good way, others not so good. Oddly enough, a subtle thread may tie them all together. We're talking about red snapper — the highly regulated sport fish species whose popularity greatly exceeds its traditionally tiny recreational season.

On the good side, anglers fishing out of Florida's Gulf Coast ports are finding plenty of keeper red snapper. Flip the coin over and most of our Northern Gulf neighbors are presently unable to access what is traditionally an even better red snapper fishery.

Closures resulting from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill have made a huge portion of the Gulf's prime snapper grounds off limits to anglers in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama—as well as many in the Florida Panhandle.

If an upside exists, it is the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council's recent approval of an emergency rule that opens the door for an extension of the recreational red snapper season if the quota is not taken due to the oil spill.

The full Gulf of Mexico red snapper season runs June 1-Sept. 30, but the National Marine Fisheries Service sets annual closures based on quota projections. This year's recreational season is currently set to end at midnight July 23, but that could change.

During the Gulf Council's June 14-17 meeting in Gulfport, Miss., Dr. Russell Nelson, Gulf Fisheries Director for the Coastal Conservation Association, requested that the impact of the oil spill be taken into account as it relates to this year's red snapper season.

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On June 17, the Council heard a motion to authorize NMFS Regional Administrator, Dr. Roy Crabtree to reopen the recreational red snapper season after the Sept. 30 closure to allow the 2010 quota to be harvested. The motion carried by a roll call vote.

With as much as 35 percent of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico closed to all fishing as a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it is likely that the season will end before many anglers from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida are cleared to fish offshore.

After July 23, Crabtree will evaluate recreational landings data for the current 2010 season. If he determines that the recreational quota has not been met, he may reopen the season after September 30.

"We appreciate the Council taking a pragmatic approach to this unprecedented situation in the Gulf of Mexico," said Nelson. "If the quota is not taken, a longer season will hopefully allow more people who have been sidelined by the oil spill to take advantage of this recovering stock."

Chester Brewer, chairman of CCA's National Government Relations Committee added: "This is an example of how the Council and the recreational community can work together to find common-sense solutions to complex problems," said. "We are going to face many challenges in the Gulf of Mexico and it will be necessary for everyone to find a way through the tough times. It is good that the Council has acknowledged the impact the oil spill has had on recreational anglers and the coastal communities that depend on them."

How to catch 'em
Ruby scaled and bursting with aggression, American Red Snapper swarm hard bottom structure throughout the Gulf of Mexico and recent years have seen explosive growth in numbers and size of fish inhabiting waters of Florida's west coast. One theory holds that the Gulfstream Natural Gas Pipeline running from Western Alabama into Tampa Bay's Port Manatee has provided a highway for the snapper's southeastward expansion.

Whatever the cause, the local snapper scene is on fire, and a recent trip aboard Capt. Ryan Wagner's Fish Taxi yielded several plump specimens, along with a good smattering of fat red grouper and several nice gags. Wagner, who generally looks for red snapper past 100 feet, holds this fish in high regard.

"Red snapper will outfight any grouper and they're one of the best eating fish in the gulf," he said. "A lot of people (know little) about them because of the short season, but this is my favorite offshore species."

Wagner packed the usual frozen sardines and Justin Mastry's cast net work nabbed several dozen threadfin herring ("greenbacks"). Both baits charmed the bottom fish, but we also nabbed a bunch on Tsunami's slender Knife Jigs and the broad-headed, skirt dressed Facet Jigs.

Fishing jigs like these and Shimano's butterfly jigs on specialized spinning or conventional outfits offers tremendous sport. Hyper flexible tips that ensure enticing jig action will double the rods over in a full "U" shape when hooked up, but strong butt sections put the brakes on even the jumbo fish.

For natural baits, Wagner suggests starting off with dead sardines to spread snapper-tempting scent through the water column. Once the snaps are chewing, live baits don't stand a chance.

Wagner suggests using the lightest line possible, as the ultra-cautious snapper require a stealthy approach. Match your weight to the current and depth, but don't overdo it or you'll miss many snapper opportunities. Thirty-pound main line and 5/0 circle hook on about three feet of 40- to 60-pound fluorocarbon leader will do the trick.

"A lot of times, the red snapper are off the bottom, so you want a light weight so they have a chance to grab your bait on the way down," he said.

Locating a good area and then moving around within the target zone keeps the action rolling without depleting any one number. Venting tools—a Gulf reef fishing requirement, along with circle hooks and hook removers—help ensure safe release for undersized or over the limit fish.

"The snapper will move, so if you're sitting on a school and they take off, you have to go look for them and find them again," Wagner said. "The key is to not just go 'number' fishing. Go look around (a main spot). The red snapper usually show higher in the water column than a grouper.

"If you see a fleck on your bottom machine above a piece of hard bottom, that's usually them. Once you anchor up, the show will come alive and you'll see a lot more on the bottom."

Red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico ends July 24. Minimum size is 16 inches (Gulf) and the daily bag limit is two—included in the 10 snapper aggregate bag.

For offshore trips on the Fish Taxi, visit Capt. Ryan Wagner at www.fishtaxicharters.com.

Editor's note: David A. Brown has a B.A. in journalism from the University of South Florida and you can see his work in Florida Sportsman, FLWOutdoors.com, Cabela's Outfitter Journal, TIDE, In-Fisherman, Louisiana Sportsman, The St. Petersburg Times and Saltwater Angler. He also ghost-wrote and published "Fish Smart — Catch More!" for Tampa's cable TV host Capt. Bill Miller (www.billmiller.com) and a couple more publishing projects will be docking soon. He operates a professional writing/marketing agency, Tight Line Communications.