OUTDOOR CORNER: Red snapper has been a popular catch

Lyle Johnson
“Doc” Kennedy holds his IGFA world record red snapper; 50 pounds 4 ounces.

Ah, the red snapper. This species has been one of the most sought after fish in the northern Gulf of Mexico since the fishery began in earnest, before the Civil War. New England vessels, called smacks because they carried baffled live boxes (ice not invented yet) to keep the fish in, which the water smacked the sides, came to the Pensacola region in the 1850s.

Easy to catch, the commercial harvest along with a burgeoning population of recreational anglers evolving made regulating the catch of red snapper a must. This process has been very controversial ever since its inception because the data has to be collected over a vast area.

My own personal history with red snapper fishing starts back about 35 years ago as we delved into offshore fishing with a charter captain from this area named “Doc” Kennedy. He introduced quite a number of Ascension Parish guys to what we called rig fishing that is still employed today to harvest tons of red snapper from gulf waters.

Back in those days the dominant species of fish that made up the ice chest of most offshore anglers were white trout and croaker. These weren’t the bait sized croakers or 10 to 12 inch white trout that are caught as a by catch to specs; these were 2 to 4 ½ pound brutes that were generally reeled in two at a time.

Red snapper were the rarity and more often than not, our 600# catch did not include any of the coveted fish. If you happened to stumble upon a rig that were holding snapper, the charter captain would try to talk you out of taking them home as they held commercial licenses and could profit handsomely from the sell of the catch.

So the need for regulation was imperative but as usual when government or some other well intentioned group takes on a chore like stock management, it’s usually flawed in some way or other. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) owns this process and along with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.

The demand of the opportunity for recreational and commercial folks to be able to harvest red snapper is understandably high and the management system has to take this into consideration. The population has rebounded in astronomical proportions to the degree minimum size limit (16”) is not a factor as most recreational anglers release anything under 22”.

Back in the day there was no size limit or number limit, and that’s changed to a two fish limit with the 16” minimum size restriction as well. The long history of upside-down federal management of Gulf red snapper continued this year with NOAA Fisheries announcing more good news about the health of the fishery contrasted against the shortest recreational season on record: just 48 days.

The shrinking season is tied to directly to the recovering stock. As red snapper become more plentiful, anglers are encountering them more often and the fish they are catching are heavier. Since anglers are catching bigger fish more often, the recreational sector hits its quota more quickly, resulting in a 48-day season in 2011.

Even though NOAA Fisheries announced that the recreational quota is increasing from 3.403 million pounds in 2010 to 3.525 million pounds in 2011, the season is projected to be even shorter than last year.  

Evidence from offshore anglers indicates a booming red snapper population in the Gulf and I can personally attest to that statistic and I’m sure many of you that read this could testify to that fact as well.

Snapper limits are quickly reached so the rest of the time is spent trying to catch other species such as mangrove snapper. The limit on that species is a very liberal ten per angler. The problem is usually an angler can’t get their bait past the red snapper to reach other species.

But I guess that’s a pretty good problem to have in contrast to the past when red snapper weren’t nearly as abundant in the Gulf waters. Never the less it has had a profound effect on the recreational fishery from a financial standpoint.

The number of charter captains has dropped because expenses have increased and numbers of fish has decreased. The cost per pound of fish has gotten so high; it’s become unaffordable for many folks. Anglers with their own boats have faced the same problem as well. Lower numbers of people fishing means less gas bought, fewer baits sold, a little less business at local tackle shops; you get the picture.

My neighbor, Scott Dubree made a trip to Port Fourchon this week with Dustin Jumonville, Josh Rushing, Brad Coats for an offshore adventure. Red snapper were the main target species but as usual, summertime fishing in the Gulf opens the door for a multitude of different fish to be caught.

Using jigs accounted for most of their two day catch but pogies and cut squid brought in a few of the total as well. The four guys ended up with sixteen red snapper, four lemon fish, two almaco jacks, one trigger fish and a king mackerel to boot.