They're not the biggest fish in nearshore waters, but don't try to convince a mangrove snapper of that.
Despite their modest size, these feisty fish bring a big-time attitude that translates into loads of light tackle fun.
Snapper inhabit North Suncoast waters year-round, but during the dog days of summer, they're one of the most consistent saltwater fishing opportunities. They won't jump like a snook or run like a redfish, but there's plenty to appreciate from this tiny tyrant.
In fairness, mangroves reach a respectable mass in offshore waters, where 5- to 7-pounders are not uncommon. Inshore waters see mostly juveniles that head deep later in life.
Known colloquially as "mangos," these fish boast one of the sea's most aggressive personalities. They strike fast, bite hard and tug like a much larger fish.
Generally a schooling species, mangos occur in numbers. Catch one, and it's a good bet a continued effort will yield additional snaps.
Most impressive about mangrove snapper is their yield, or the amount of edible meat on each fish. Legal snapper must be at least 10 inches long, and a fish that size will yield a pair of filets sufficient for a decent meal.
Catch one a foot or longer, and you can invite a guest for dinner. Fried, baked or broiled, mangrove snapper ranks as one of our area's most delicious species.
Where to find them
As a structure-oriented fish, snapper comprise a large segment of just about any reef's population. Local fish/dive charts provide navigational coordinates for various man-made sites off of area coastlines.
From about Hudson northward, an increasingly rocky bottom presents abundant reefs formed by limestone outcroppings. Spots with undercut perimeters and/or lots of interior refuge are most attractive to snapper.
In some areas, mangos take up residence in remarkably shallow water provided the limestone ledges and crevices offer sufficient cover.
Case in point: On a past trip in the Pine Island area, I cast a gold spoon around grassy edges for redfish. Whenever the shiny baitfish imitator crossed over a miniature cavern in the rocky bottom, a dozen mangrove snapper would rush out to inspect the potential meal.
Also look for snapper in mangrove creeks, especially where deeper water tucks beneath overhanging limbs. Docks provide great snapper habitat, so check everything from residential canals to the stilt houses outside the Pithlachascotee River.
Shorebound anglers can enjoy this sporty species also. Nearshore rocks, seawalls and piers will attract snapper. So if you can reach it with a decent cast, you might score a nice dinner.
What to feed them
Snapper seldom turn down fresh shrimp. The only problem is a lot of bait stealers, such as pinfish and puffers, also find the tender crustaceans irresistible.
Local baitfish — namely threadfin herring ("greenbacks") and scaled sardines ("whitebait") — are the better choice. Smaller ones of about 2 inches are ideal because bigger targets allow snapper to take sizeable bites without coming close to the hook.
If large baits are all you have, cut your greenies or whitebaits into quarter-sized chunks. (Frozen squid also works here.) Sometimes, cutbait turns out to be the most productive option because it releases more scent into the water.
Snapper have good sniffers, and they'll respond hardily when they detect the smell of potential meals. You often can whip the fish into a frenzy by hanging a frozen chum block off of your stern. Tossing small chunks of cutbait toward your target zone will further entice them.
Rigs and regs
For cutbaits, lead head jigs simplify rigging by keeping bait and weight in line. Use jigs of three-eighths of an ounce to a quarter-ounce in shallow spots and upsize to a half-ounce for deeper snapper.
For traditional hook-and-sinker setups, try a knocker rig. Here, the weight rides directly on the leader, so it slides, or "knocks," against the hook. One advantage is the weight and bait drop together without the line-twisting spin common in fish-finder rigs.
Also, because the leader passes right through the slip sinker, a snapper can grab the bait and come tight naturally without feeling immediate resistance.
Remember, you must use nonstainless steel circle hooks for all reef fish species in the Gulf of Mexico. The rule applies regardless of where you catch the fish, but those in state waters (inside 9 nautical miles from shore) must use in-line circle hooks. Past state waters, in-line or offset models are allowed.
However you boat your snapper, beware of those wicked choppers. A pair of needle sharp canines prominently positioned in the top jaw will deliver a painful bite, so keep your fingers away from the business end.