During the dog days of summer, Grand Isle’s Trout Master sometimes turns his attention away from chasing specks just long enough to head offshore in pursuit of different prey.
Big ones are tough to catch, they fight like hell and they’re great to eat — three reasons why Tommy Vidrine loves fishing for mangrove snapper.
“I like to catch the big ones,” Vidrine said. “I call them wolves, when that rod’s bent over and you can’t hardly move them.
“I think they fight twice as strong as a red snapper. You could have a 10-pound mangrove on, and it will be the same fight as a 20-pound snapper.”
And just as he does when tracking down nice speckled trout, Vidrine isn’t shy about sharing tips and tactics he uses to reel in monster mangroves.
The biggest mistake he sees people making?
“I think their leader is too short and their hooks are too big,” he said. “A short leader and a big hook will get you a skunk.
“They’ll steal your bait and you won’t hook up on any big fish.”
Vidrine uses a 6- or 8-aught circle hook on a long (5- to 6-foot) 60- to 80-pound fluorocarbon leader.
“The longer the leader the better,” he said, noting he often fishes what is effectively a Carolina rig with a 1/2- or 1-ounce weight depending on the current, concentrating about 15- to 30-feet down. “They’ll steal your bait a little easier but the bigger fish will bite the longer leader because they just don’t see the weight.
“If you put the weight too close to the hook, they see that and it deters the big fish and only the smaller fish will bite. They’re very evasive and know how to eat and not get hooked up.”
If the current allows, he’ll use a double-uni knot to connect the long leader to his 60-pound braid and free-line big live shrimp or croakers with no weight at all.
“If you can find some medium- to big-size shrimp, the fish might be smaller but you can catch them fast and get a real nice limit because they can’t steal the shrimp as easy. They’ll take the shrimp in one bite and take the hook with it,” he said. “In the current, we hook the croaker through the top lip so it looks like he’s swimming, even if he dies.”
One big key to Vidrine’s success is choosing the right day to make a trip, and then positioning his 24-foot NauticStar inside a rig to zero-in on the mangroves.
“It’s got to be a calm day. You can’t go out there with 4- to 5-foot seas and a 15- to 20-mph wind and try to mangrove snapper fish,” he said. “I”m not advocating this, but I like to get in the rig if it’s high enough. We laugh about it. We say, ‘If they don’t want to come out, we’re knocking on the door and coming in their bedroom.’”
Not only does this provide access to more big mangroves, it cuts way down on fish he’s not targeting stealing his bait.
“We’re right on top of them. That’s where they live, so the success rate is very high,” he said. “The closer you can get in the rig, the better chance you have of getting mangroves and not sharks.
“And in most cases, red snapper aren’t an issue because they’re on the outside of the rig.”
Now through about October, Vidrine focuses on rigs in 80- to 200-feet of water.
“By this time of the year, those close-in rigs in 60 feet of water have been hit really hard by people with bay boats out of Grand Isle and Fourchon, so they’re full of 12- and 14-inch mangroves,” he said. “So if you want some bigger fish, you need to travel a little bit and get to 80 to 200 feet of water, maybe 15 to 20 miles offshore.”
If you decide to go with Vidrine’s circle hooks, it’s important to remember the fish will usually hook themselves - just reel down and lift.
“Most people have a tendency, as soon as they feel tension and the pull down, to lift up and set the hook,” he said. “They’ll take your bait almost every time if you do that.”
He prefers using reels with line counters, like the Shimano Tekota, to target mangroves he sees on his fish finder.
“If the school is at 35 feet, you can go straight to them without any guesswork,” he said. “Having the counter is really convenient.”
If you decide to chum for mangroves, which can have the undesired effect of attracting sharks, Vidrine said to make sure you hide the hook well when the mangroves start getting excited.
“If you’re using dead bait, you’ve got to hide the hook deep in the flesh,” he said. “Let it down with the chum to catch them on dead bait. You really need to have that hook hidden, and when they see that bait free-falling, they can’t resist it.”
And if you haven’t made a mangrove trip before, Vidrine cautioned the uninitiated on handling the fish.
“Don’t grab it on the back of its head and take it off the hook like a trout,” he said. “He’s got a gill plate that’s razor sharp that will slice your hand. Don’t put your hand on top of his head unless you’re using a rag or wearing a glove.”
Since they’re coming up from relatively shallow depths, they’re still pretty lively when they hit the deck of the boat. But Vidrine discovered a trick that seems to calm them down long enough to get them safely in the box.
“I catch their dorsal fin underneath with pliers, even big ones,” he said. “I grab them with the pliers there and they won’t move.
“It’s a cool trick. Upside down, they just stop flopping.”
So if you want to catch some nice 8-, 9- or 10-pound mangroves right now, Vidrine said the key is to head for deeper water.
“It’s a longer journey, but the reward is definitely worth it,” he said.