They're feisty, tasty and a lot closer than most folks may realize. Indeed, mangrove snapper aren't just for offshore trips -- many fine keepers live well within reach of small inshore boats.
Ranging in color from nearly white with reddish brown tones (near sandy spots) to deep auburn (darker bottom), mangrove snapper feature a distinctive dark diagonal stripe over each eye that intensifies with aggression. Often called "mangos," these fish can be notoriously finicky, but once a school of snapper turns on, intense feeding competition can lead to incredible rounds of nearly nonstop action.
With extensive habitat, regular tidal flushing and abundant food sources, Tampa Bay is an inshore snapper trapper's dream.
Capt. Billy Nobles of Apollo Beach reports good numbers of large mangos throughout the bay's lower end. Typically, snapper fishing peaks during mid-summer, but like most of the Sunshine State's species, the action is running a little later than normal, thanks to the disruptive influence of the extreme winter. Good news is there are lots of hefty mangos schooling over and around the bay's hard structures.
Prime inshore snapper habitat includes bridges, piers, rocky outcroppings and artificial reefs. At the Sunshine Skyway Bridge spanning the mouth of Tampa Bay, the protective bumpers known as "dolphins," along with the main span's rocky abutments attract hordes of hungry snapper.
You'll also find lots of snapper along the bay's channel edges, especially around the markers. And don't hesitate to toss a bait into the deep, mangrove-canopied pockets of coastal creeks.
The same frozen baits you'd use offshore will work for inshore mangos. Just use slightly smaller pieces. Live pinfish or whitebaits (scaled sardines) also produce. When looking for Tampa Bay snapper, Capt. Billy Nobles likes to drift rock piles with a small sardine nose-hooked on a ½-ounce jig head. Bouncing the bait along the bottom helps him locate the snapper concentrations.
Live shrimp impaled on 1/8- to ¼-ounce jig heads work well for probing the water column above likely mangrove structure. Whatever your bait, mangos are very responsive to chum, often following the trail of a melting chum block right to a boat's transom for easy sight casting opportunities. Add a few chunks of freshly chopped baitfish every five minutes or so and you'll have these greedy predators searching madly for the next bite.
Notably, inshore snapper will not only inhabit some of the same spots as snook; they'll also nail the baits and lures intended for linesiders. I recall a past trip with Bayport guide brothers, Capts. Luke and Mark Magnuson, who simultaneously nabbed a pair of keeper snaps by running shallow diving plugs through a rocky creek mouth.
Take caution when handling mangrove snapper, as this is one of the meanest fish in the sea. Packing a pair of sharp dagger-like front teeth and lightning fast jaw speed, these defiant little fish will sit perfectly still until your fingers approach and the blurring speed of their bite will leave you with a painful reminder. Moreover, the sharp gill plates will cut like a razor, so avoid this area.
Best bet for dehooking snapper is a long-handled hook remover (a requirement for boats targeting any Gulf of Mexico reef species regardless of depth). If you have to grip a snapper, the safest spot is the upper back area, ahead of the dorsal fin and over the gills. This keeps the fish under control and your fingers away from the business end.
Keeper mangrove snapper must measure 10 inches and anglers can keep 5 per day (included in the 10-fish aggregate of all snapper species). Remember, federal regulations require circle hooks for all Gulf of Mexico reef fish species, no matter where you seek them. Offset circle hooks are allowed in federal waters, outside of 9 nautical miles. Inline circle hooks are the requirement for state waters (inside of 9 nautical miles). Visit www.myfwc.com for complete regulations.
When the bite is on, it's easy to lose count of how many you've caught. Limits are limits, so here's an easy trick for keeping yourself within the allowable numbers for snapper and any others you may catch. Carry Ziploc bags of dried beans with a certain variety correlating to each species. Match the number of beans to the specie's bag limit and toss one bean overboard for each keeper you box. When the beans are gone, you've maxed out on that species, so release all subsequent catches.