Mangrove snapper, also known as gray snapper, are one of the tastiest saltwater fish. FRANK SARGEANT
BY FRANK SARGEANT Tribune correspondent
Published: July 27, 2013
Updated: July 27, 2013 at 07:12 PM
Whether you call them mangoes, mangrove snapper or gray snapper, you can call them lunch any time you hook up with this tasty inshore member of the snapper clan.
And right now is a great time to capture a mangrove snapper meal - the fish gather in large schools for the late-summer spawn, continuing into September most years.
When they are schooling, as they are now, you may find mangrove snapper in any pothole in the flats. However, if you find a hole with a rock pile, sunken boat or submerged tree, that's almost a sure thing. They also hang around the rock pylings at the Skyway this time of year, and on high tides around the deep undercut mangrove shorelines in the Bishop Harbor/Mariposa area. And where you catch one, you're likely to catch a dozen, because they school tightly. The deeper mangrove edges and channels throughout Charlotte Harbor are similarly snapper-rich.
The average inshore snapper is likely to be about 10 to 12 inches long and weigh a pound or 2. But there are plenty of big ones on the edges of the ship channels that run through Tampa Bay at this time of summer. They particularly home in on areas where there are rock piles or other broken bottom, typically at depths around 40 feet. They also swarm around near-shore reefs off the beaches.
Though inshore snapper can be caught on ultra-light spinning tackle, those on the ship channel and offshore are better taken on with at least 20-pound test on a bait caster or other heavy gear. It takes several ounces of lead just to get a bait to the bottom through the current that usually runs in the channel, and not only might you catch a snapper of 5 pounds, you might also find yourself hooked up with a 15-pound gag grouper.
You can catch plenty of snapper inshore simply by tossing a quarter-ounce jig tipped with a thumbnail-sized piece of fresh shrimp, and this is a good way to prospect until you find a productive area - the "hard bottom" areas off Rattlesnake Key and Weedon Island are good spots to check. However, once you know where there's a concentration of fish, it's a good idea to set up a chum line and draw the fish to the boat. Mangroves, like most snapper, get a bit hook-shy after they see several of their schoolmates hooked, but the chum keeps the bite going indefinitely.
Chopped threadfin, sardines or leftover shrimp all make good chum, and all work better if an occasional dollop of menhaden oil is added to the mix.
Best bait for inshore mangrove snapper is probably live shrimp, but they also readily take small sardines, and there's a lot of the little stuff around right now, though you need a small mesh castnet to avoid gilling the minnows.
The fish on the channel edges and offshore reefs prefer larger sardines, about 3 to 4 inches long, best fished on 1/0 to 2/0 short-shank hooks.
Mangrove snapper are included in the reef species designation, which means you have to use circle hooks to catch them. However, the FWCC says the rule is unlikely to be enforced for those casually catching a few mangroves in shallow water, particularly on jigs or plugs. In fact, the rule would be practically unenforceable, since anglers fishing inshore are more likely to be targeting snook, trout or reds than snapper.
It's a good idea, though, to at least have circle hooks on the boat if you intend to keep some snapper.
Mangroves are among the tastiest of fish, even better than red snapper to my taste, and they are good any way you care to prepare them.
The bag limit is five mangrove snapper daily, and the minimum size is 10 inches; visit www.myfwc.com for details.