Show Me the Snapper

Red snapper season gets off with a bang — but leaner days are on the horizon.

Tom Maher doesn’t consider himself much of a fisherman. In April, though, he joined the ranks of those who are “addicted to fishing” after leading a group of employees and customers on an adventure to Venice. These 11 anglers made the 12-hour drive from Missouri —the “Show Me State” — to take part in the much-anticipated opening of red snapper season in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Although they made their reservations more than nine months ago, uncertainty hung over them like a black cloud due to the mass confusion as to what snapper limits would be and rumors of a delayed opening date. After waiting months for the final ruling, they gave up and made the decision they were heading south regardless in hopes of catching “something.”

“Most of us really don’t fish that much, and none of us had ever been to Louisiana, so we just decided to plan a company getaway to see what Venice had to offer,” said Maher, general manager of the Missouri-based Meek Building Center and the designated leader of the group.

After sampling some local South Louisiana cuisine at Zydeco Café in Belle Chasse, they headed south in a three-vehicle caravan loaded down with food, drink and plenty of ice chests.

“I think we brought too many ice chests,” one of the Missourians lamented.

“We’ll see about that,” I replied, knowing the chances of filling their coolers with succulent red snapper and other fillets was excellent.

April 21 dawned with blustery east winds and turbid seas. After a bit of coaxing, the group wisely popped a couple of Dramamine before heading downriver.

Capt. Hunter Caballero had Maher and four others, while Capt. Bill Delabar entertained Jim Broas, a salesman for Meeks, and five of his customers, all homebuilders from Missouri. I would serve as deckhand, rig roper and photographer.

Like most who gathered at the docks that morning, Caballero decided to go for the sure thing, and headed straight to West Delta to pick up his snapper.

Caballero selected a rig in 150 feet of water, and tied his 32-Twin Vee securely to the wellhead at WD. After not getting a bite while tied up, Caballero used the engines to position the boat on the upcurrent side and hold it there while the anglers dropped down.

“WHOOOAAA,” the anglers shouted in unison as five stout rods buckled simultaneously. According to Caballero, in a matter of two minutes, they had one limit of snapper in the box using frozen threadfin herring.

Caballero prefers a tandem rig with 12 ounces of lead and 80-pound Frenzy fluorocarbon rigged with 5/0 Frenzy circle hooks. Using this method, he found it easy to fill their limits of red snapper.

Although he had bay fished once in Biloxi, Miss., Maher confessed, “This was my first time deep-sea fishing.”

“When we left the brown water of the Mississippi River and got out to the bluewater, it was really something I had never experienced — and the sunrise leaving Venice Marina was breathtaking,” he said.

Although there were no sows to be had on opening day, Maher could not get over the size of the red snapper he and his crew pulled up.

“Hunter was busier then a one-armed paper hanger. He really earned his pay taking care of us. I was really impressed how great of a job he did and that he was able to handle all of us by himself,” Maher said. “I definitely want to do more blue water fishing. I am hooked.”

With sea conditions building, Delabar’s crew elected to head out to bluewater first, where they made quick work of eight yellowfin tuna in the 50-pound class, before turning tail to tuck into East Bay for protection.

Four baits were sent to the bottom with offerings of herring, squid and live mullet. Kent Cowert made quick work boating his limit of 16- to18-inch red snapper, and then pulled a different species from the 100-foot depths.

“That’s a really neat-looking fish,” said Cowert as he held a 3-pound lane snapper up to examine it.

Cowert was pleased to learn that the lane snapper was even more tasty than the red snapper and that he could keep ten of them.

Fishing near the bow, Broas went to work quietly and methodically picking off snapper near the wellhead.

“This is my first time ever to fish for red snapper,” he said.

At first, Broas said bottom fishing was foreign to him, but he quickly caught on and found it very exciting.

“I could not believe how hard the red snapper fought —what a rush! And the tuna fishing was unbelievable. These deepwater fish battled more then I have ever experienced,” he said.

With the implementation of new NMFS red snapper regulations, lane snapper and mangrove snapper are welcome catches indeed. The new recreational and commercial red snapper regulations are confusing at best. A summary of those regulations include:

• The commercial red snapper minimum size limit is reduced from 15 inches to 13 inches total length.

• A goal is established to reduce red snapper bycatch mortality in the shrimp fishery to 50 percent of the bycatch mortality that occurred during 2001-2003.

• The total allowable catch (TAC) of red snapper is reduced from 9.12 million pounds (mp) to 6.5 mp, resulting in a commercial red snapper quota of 3.315 mp and a recreational red snapper quota of 3.185 mp.

• The recreational red snapper bag limit is reduced from four fish to two fish per person per day.

• The captain and crew of for-hire vessels can no longer keep a recreational bag limit.

According to some of local charter captains, the recreational reduction has had an immediate impact on the number of snapper charters they are booking.

Capt. Tommy Pellegrin, who operates the 36-foot Gravios Reel Life out of Bayou Bait and Tackle in Cocodrie, is one of them.

“I’m probably down about 20 percent on charters booked right now,” he said. “It definitely has some effect, but the story can’t be told until the end of the year.”

He wants potential customers to understand that red snapper are only one of many bottom-dwelling species that he and his son Eric target.

“There are many different species to fish for in a day,” said Pellegrin.

Pellegrin found that the average red snapper this season is a little bigger than last year, but so far he says the big sows — those over 20 pounds — have been scarce.

Most of the fish Pellegrin has been finding are in 60- to 100-foot depths.

“They are holding pretty high up in the water column,” he said.

Once he finds them, Pellegrin drops down a “popsicle” consisting of his go-to bait — Spanish sardines. This year however, he has found great action using a new plastic bait.

“Snapper have been gobbling up Berkley GULP! pink squid,” Pellegrin said.

Old standbys such as lively croakers, pogies, and small hardtails also remain effective when targeting these ruby-scaled fish.

Capt. Brett Falterman, a veteran Venice charter captain and fisheries biologist, agrees with Pellegrin.

“The short-term effect is that demand for charter trips targeting red snapper is down to almost zero,” he said. “Fortunately, my business doesn’t depend on them, though we’ll still pick up a few (snapper) on the way in.”

Like Pellegrin, Falterman said the sows have been hard to come by.

“Before the season opened, there seemed to be nice-sized snapper just about everywhere I fished inside of 100 feet of water,” he said. “I won’t fish deeper than that before the season opens because I don’t want to kill a bunch of fish we can’t keep.

“Since the season opened, those fish have disappeared. My average-sized snapper so far this year is below average, but I think that it’s way too early in the season to jump to any conclusions.

“The long-tem effect is that there are going to be more people in the Northern Gulf who used to target red snapper who are going to move on to other species like tuna.”

Falterman has already noticed a jump in the number of new charter and private boats in the Venice area. More boats equal more pressure on the tuna fishery. He predicts tuna limits will change in the next few years as well.

Anglers who are unhappy by this year’s regulations had better double up on their Excedrin next year. Most will be facing more changes and headaches when the 2008 season rolls around.

Glenn Thomas, a fisheries biologist with LSUAg Center, shared his thoughts on some of the proposed changes facing recreational as well as commercial red snapper anglers in the 2008 season.

For starters, the TAC will probably be reduced to 5 million pounds. With the reduction in TAC, anglers can expect a very short season.

Although many currently use circle hooks when targeting snapper, expect a new requirement for the use of non-stainless steel circle hooks whenever using any type of natural bait (live or dead) to harvest reef fish.

Using larger circle hooks is one way anglers can immediately help to cut down on mortality. By simply using circle hooks in sizes 9/0 and larger, we can virtually eliminate catching smaller snapper as they cannot swallow such a large hook.

In addition, beginning in 2008 anglers will most likely be required to utilize proper dehooking devices and venting tools while harvesting any type of reef fish. Gone will be the days of anglers puncturing a fish’s distended stomach or attempting to vent a “blown” fish by sticking an ice pick or filet knife into its belly. This will certainly require education, and some of that should certainly begin now.

For many years, Florida Sea Grant has touted the venting procedure and encouraged the use of venting devices such as the Novak Venting Tool, which it helped develop in conjunction with Mote Marine Laboratory. Through their informative website and other outreach programs, they have educated the public on the proper use of this tool. Those wishing to get ahead of the curve and become part of the solution before the new requirements become law should visit www.dehooker4ARC.com to purchase the tool.

Thomas says other changes may include a seasonal shrimp closure in the 10- to 30-fathom zone in the Gulf on the same start date as the closure of the EEZ off of Texas. This closure is expected to be re-evaluated annually to determine its effectiveness. There will then be an adjustment of the duration and area of the closure as deemed necessary.

“There are several ways to get where we need to go with the trawls: better fish excluder devices and seasonal and/or area closures of the zones with the most young snapper,” he said.

According to Thomas, anglers will probably see combinations of these changes.

“One of the major problems affecting Louisiana is the feds’ insistence that the Gulf be managed as a single unit, even though habitat and population biology and fishing fleet characteristics vary dramatically across the Gulf,” he explained. “The reduction to a two-fish bag won’t solve all the problems. There has to also be a reduction in trawl bycatch, and this will be incorporated into future regs.”

As for Tom Maher and his crew from Missouri, they’re hooked on South Louisiana food and fishing, no matter what the future red snapper regulations dictate.

“Everyone was very friendly, the Cajun food was fantastic and nothing compares with the fishing we experienced down there in Louisiana,” he said. “No wonder they call Louisiana the Sportsman’s Paradise.”

For more information on Gulf of Mexico red snapper, visit http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/ and www.gulfcouncil.org.

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