Called snappers for a reason, these guys will put a real hurt on your finger or hand if you don’t handle them with care. Their upper jaw has two canine like teeth that are used to tear into their food. Once caught, their jaws will lock down hard on a hook. As the hook is being removed they snap their jaws open and shut with great force, often catching a careless angler by surprise.
Not the largest snapper in the Lutjanidae family, these fish can grow to just under twenty pounds. However, most grays that are caught are around one to two pounds. A five-pound fish is a big snapper!
These snappers are called mangrove snapper because in areas where mangroves grow, they will be found in, under, and around the root structures. Mangrove shorelines or islands generally are deeper right up next to the roots of the trees. Water can be as shallow as a foot or less approaching a mangrove and will drop off to three feet or more under the roots. These snapper patrol the entire root structure looking for food and using the entangled roots as protection from larger predators.
Gray snapper are found year round on tropical coral reefs in the southern Atlantic and Caribbean, and on live bottom and artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico and Mid-Atlantic States. In general, the warmer the water, the more snapper you will find. Cold, winter water drives these fish either out to deep water or south to warmer water.
Snapper are known as one of the wariest fish in the ocean. From personal experience I can vouch for that statement. Visiting friends on the Florida Keys, I watched a school of parrotfish swimming around my friend’s dock. Under them were some very large mangrove snapper.
I asked if I could fish from his dock, and he gladly allowed me to give it a try. Not surprisingly, the snapper snubbed every bait I presented to them. Yet, when I tossed a handful of dry dog food in the water, things changed. The snapper would watch any pieces of dog food that made it through the feeding parrot fish
above them. They would watch and circle that small piece of dog food for quite some time before one of them eventually decided it was safe and ate it.
I took some dog food and wet it slightly. When it softened enough, I made a ball of bait and buried a small leaderless hook in the middle. As I tossed out another handful of dog food, I included that baited wad and watched as it sank to the bottom. It took a few minutes, but eventually one of the larger snappers took the bait and ran.
I fought him and lifted him to the dock, much to the dismay and amazement of my friend. It seems he knew that his “pet” fish could not be caught – and yet now one of the largest was on the end of my line! Needless to say, I was politely told to release the fish!
Could the snapper see that leader and hook prior to my burying it in that wad of dog food? I believe they could. Snapper anglers need to take that fact to the bank. Terminal tackle with heavy leaders, big swivels or snap swivels and crimped wire need to be avoided if you plan to fish for snapper.
I often fish without a leader, taking a risk that I will loose a number of fish to a cut line. Probably the best rig consists of light line with an eighteen-inch fluorocarbon leader. I use a surgeon’s knot to tie the leader to the line. I also use a short shank hook, which is easier to hide in a bait.
As far as bait is concerned, the all time favorite bait is probably live shrimp. Short of that, cut bait comes in as a second place replacement. Snapper seem to prefer neat baits. Cut bait needs to be in chunks – square or rectangular shaped pieces work well. Once a piece of bait has been shredded and tattered by smaller fish, it’s time to put on fresh bait.
Offshore, cut squid and cut bait will work well fished on a bottom rig. Small live cigar minnows or Spanish sardines are almost irresistible to larger snappers over and around the reefs and wrecks. Be sure to use a lighter fluorocarbon leader – the snapper can see everything!
Small nylon or bucktail jigs can often work as well as live bait. Choose one with a white head, white hair, and red tying thread. They prefer this color combination, and a jig tipped with a small piece of cut bait can be deadly.
These fish are an ideal species to pursue as a beginning angler. For those looking to introduce youngsters to fishing, a good snapper hole can’t be beat. They are hard fighting, great eating, and now that you have a few good tips, relatively easy to catch!