During the summer months, a few days before the full moon, Joe Saunders starts watching the weather. The attorney and avid angler from St. Petersburg said that the conditions must be perfect if you want to catch mangrove snapper. "It's not usually very good if it is windy," he said. "And if it is too cloudy, and you can't see the moon, well, that doesn't work either." So Saunders watches and waits, hoping that everything will come together for a little full-moon mango madness. "If you hit it just right, the fish go crazy," he said. "You can stay out all night and catch as many fish as you want."
So many names
The gray snapper (Lutjanus griseus) doesn't get as much attention as its more famous relative, the red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus). This species, often called a mangrove, or in local waters "mango," snapper is found in the western Atlantic from New England to Brazil and throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
These fish are found in coastal waters and offshore artificial reefs and hard bottom. But their appearance may vary from region to region as the coloration may vary from gray to an orange or rust color.
Like most denizens of the deep, adult mangrove snapper feed on everything from crabs and shrimp to fin fish. One of the smallest members of the snapper family, this species doesn't often get to be more than 10 pounds.
But with a bag limit of five fish per day, an angler can easily bring home enough of these tasty treats for a fish fry.
Saunders, like most mango maestros, typically leaves the dock a few hours before sunset on most full-moon trips.
"We stop at one of the range markers off Fort DeSoto, throw the net a couple of times," he said.
Snapper like smaller baits than grouper. So the late-summer hatch of greenbacks and whitebait prove perfect for their tiny teeth.
With a livewell full of frisky baitfish, Saunders and his two companions motored offshore in his 31-foot Cabo and dropped anchor in 90 feet of water about 20 miles west of Pass-a-Grille.
"You want to be on your spot before the sun goes down," Saunders said. "Then it is just a waiting game."
As the sun dropped below the horizon, Saunders and his mates kept busy by catching and releasing undersized red grouper. They knew it would be just a matter of time before the snapper started to bite.
Moon flips switch
Saunders has made the run for these snapper at least a dozen times during the summer months.
"It is always the same pattern," he said. "It starts off slow until the moon comes up. Then the fish really turn on."
If the night is particularly bright, the snapper will come to the surface and feed.
"That is my favorite time," Saunders confessed. "I love it when the water is flat and the fish are hitting the baits as soon as they touch the water."
But last week, the fish were hanging deep, which meant the weighted baits had to run a gauntlet of pelagic predators.
"We hooked a few small sharks as well," he said. "But that is fun. You fight them and then let them go."
By 10 p.m., Saunders and his friends had caught a dozen mango snapper and a couple of keeper red grouper.
"We could have stayed out there all night and caught as many fish as we wanted," Saunders said. "But it is always good to be home before midnight."
Gray (mangrove) snapper
Officially known as gray snapper, but many anglers call them mangrove or mango snapper. Juveniles live inshore in tidal creeks, mangroves and grass beds. Adults generally are nearshore or offshore on coral or rocky reefs.
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Size limit: 10 inches
Closed season: None
Daily bag limit: Five fish per harvester, per day
Remarks: Included in the 10 fish aggregate snapper limit. Must remain in whole condition (heads and tails intact) until landed.
Florida record: 17 pounds, 1992, Port Canaveral