As we idled the boat closer to the programmed GPS coordinates, the image of the bottom began to look better. The thin line on the sonar began to thicken, indicating a switch from sand to rock.
Within a few moments we saw what we were looking for: a large red-and-orange blob near the bottom on the sonar screen. This was clearly a big school of something, easily 20 feet high, in 100 feet of water.
The anchor was deployed and as its rope drew tight, the big blob again appeared on the sonar. "Perfect," I said aloud, "the fish are directly below us now … whatever they are."
Now it was time for the moment of truth, the deployment of baits into the school of unknown fish.
At this depth such large "shows" on the sonar can be many things. Quite often it is merely a school of baitfish. Other times it may be a large gathering of an unwanted species. We were hoping for a quick bite from our coveted prize — a red snapper.
John Conti and his son Tim dropped their baits to the bottom and anxiously waited for a nibble or tug. Within a minute John's rod tip bounced a few times and he reeled rapidly to tighten line.
After five or six cranks on the reel handle, the rod bent double and a good fish was solidly hooked. This was definitely not a school of baitfish.
After a short but spirited battle a beautiful 12-pound red snapper was at the surface. "That's what we wanted to see!" I said.
During the next 15 minutes we had instant red snapper bites every time we sent our baits to the bottom. When the dust settled we had our limit of double-digit red snapper in the cooler, along with several red grouper.
Flush with fish
The past several years the red snapper population off west-central Florida has exploded. What was once a relatively rare catch in this area is now one of the most common in depths of 75 feet or deeper.
In 100 feet off Pasco and Hernando counties and out in the Middle Grounds, where depths range from 95 to 140 feet, virtually every rock or hard bottom patch has swarms of red snapper holding over it. Scuba divers report seeing vast schools of red snapper in places there were none just a few years ago. We have sighted red snapper in water as shallow as 60 feet.
The size of the fish varies from spot to spot. Lately the larger structures and ledges have had so many smaller red snapper that it is difficult to target the big ones. Recently we have been avoiding the high-profile spots and working areas of flat, hard bottom, similar to that preferred by red grouper. Such places have fewer red snapper but have been holding much larger ones.
Know the rules
Gulf of Mexico red snapper regulations have been one of the most complex and controversial fisheries issues the past few years. Management officials have determined that the population is overfished, which initiates mandatory rules to reduce the harvest.
This designation is based in part on dockside interviews of anglers, which provide estimates of the recreational catch, and by random telephone surveys that are supposed to demonstrate the entire the amount of fishing effort taking place in the recreational sector.
These components are then multiplied to give an estimate of how many fish are being taken recreationally from the entire Gulf.
Currently the season for red snapper has been reduced to June 1 through Aug. 14. Last year, because of larger than expected recreational catch estimates, the season was shut down even earlier.
Anglers targeting reef fish are also required to use circle hooks and carry a venting tool onboard. The minimum size limit is 16 inches overall; there is no maximum size. The daily bag limit of red snapper is two per person, not including the captain and crew on charter vessels.
The season is open now; however, if the reports and catches are any indication of the population status the fish are in the midst of a huge comeback. Now is the time to get out to the deep water and get your share of the limited red snapper harvest.