Artificials can be more effective than natural baits at the rigs.
The bass rod bowed as if I’d hooked a big largemouth and was trying to wrestle the fish out of thick lily pads.
But I wasn’t fishing fresh water.
Instead, I was positioned at an oil rig off the Louisiana coast that receives as much pressure as any in the entire Gulf.
As I reeled in my line and battled the fish, I couldn’t believe I’d caught an 8-pound snapper the first time my bait went to the bottom. My buddy and I fished with a tactic and bait most snapper fishermen never would use.
We baited our hooks that day with plastic grubs most anglers fished with inshore for speckled trout, redfish and flounder. In less than an hour, the two of us limited out on snapper by only fishing three rigs.Most snapper and grouper fishermen never consider the possibility of fishing plastics for red snapper, but I’ve found soft plastics deadly-effective baits, especially in high-pressure areas. Rarely have those skittish fish seen baits like these that act like live shrimp fished on light line around rigs and wellheads.
A red snapper, especially an older snapper, wises-up to baits, line size and lead size if the fish sees the same type of tackle regularly. By changing tackle and switching from natural to artificial bait, you can take the snapper and grouper that other anglers fishing that same area off Louisiana’s coast won’t catch.
Before anglers had a snapper season and length and bag limits, I went on a charter to fish for red snapper during January, a time when snapper often didn’t bite.
My captain for the day had told me, “Don’t worry, John. We’ll catch all the snapper you want to keep, clean and eat. I’ve got a secret weapon.”
After a 2 ½-hour trip to deep-water wrecks, the captain showed me his secret weapon — very big, live shrimp that we would fish on 20-pound-test monofilament and spinning tackle.
We enjoyed one of the greatest days of snapper fishing I’d ever had. I learned then that live shrimp would catch snapper effectively when snapper didn’t want to bite.
But during the hot summer months when snapper also make finicky targets, you’ll have a difficult time transporting and keeping big shrimp alive. I’ve started fishing imitation shrimp baits like the D.O.A. Shrimp.
To fish in deep water, I’ll tie the D.O.A. onto a sow rig. I put a slip sinker up the line, after deciding the sinker’s weight by the depth of the water and the speed of the current, place a barrel swivel below the slip sinker, use 3 to 4 feet of 30- to 40-pound-test monofilament, and then tie on the D.O.A.
When fishing for snapper with this tactic, once my weight hits the water, I free-spool the line so the weight falls away from the bait. By the time the weight reaches the bottom, the D.O.A. often will float 10 to 20 feet away from the sinker and then naturally drift toward the bottom like a live shrimp.
The big snapper holding above the bottom will inhale the shrimp like it’s a tasty hors d’oeuvre.
“The D.O.A. Shrimp’s design provides such a productive bait for snapper because the shrimp falls naturally to the bottom,” says Mark Nichols of Palm City, Fla., the designer of the D.O.A. Shrimp. “To allow the shrimp to fall naturally, we’ve placed the keel weight in the shrimp’s belly, which causes the rubber shrimp to hold its position in the water like a live shrimp will, and gently glide to the bottom.
“Even on a slack line, the D.O.A. Shrimp doesn’t roll over on its side or on its back like a dead shrimp, but instead stays upright and has a slow, natural fall.
“If you’ve ever watch a live shrimp swim or jump off the bottom, notice how it remains upright. When its legs quit moving, the shrimp doesn’t have a neutral density in the water. The weight of the live shrimp causes it to fall slowly and upright to the bottom.
“When you fish for snapper and your slip sinker hits the bottom, the D.O.A. Shrimp will stop 10 to 20 feet off the bottom, where snapper usually hold. Then, it will slowly sink vertically, just like a live shrimp does.”
Often plastic baits catch more snapper than live, dead and/or cut baits because:
• snapper and grouper rarely — if ever — have seen baits like this and will overcome their reluctance to attack them.
• a small plastic bait makes the snapper want to eat it, and the snapper can inhale it easily.
• a plastic bait such as the D.O.A. Shrimp will float down slowly and naturally, even when waves rock the angler above the water who’s holding the rod.
Paint the Picture
If you fish for older, bigger snapper, you must provide a unique bait and also paint a feeding picture that triggers big snapper to bite. I’ve used a technique that consistently has produced keeper-sized and larger snapper.
I fish a combination of Berkley’s Power Bait saltwater tubes and live pinfish. The tube looks like a 4-inch squid, the size of squid on which red snapper feed naturally.
After I’ve put the tube on my hook, I lip-hook a live pinfish right behind the tube to make the tube even more inviting. If you’ll put this bait in the water, you’ll see that the pinfish appears to feed on the tentacles of the plastic tube.
When you drop this bait on a sow rig, the lead falls away from the bait and reaches the bottom first.
Then as the tube bait and the pinfish float down, you’ve painted the picture of an actively-feeding pinfish. A snapper that sees the pinfish feeding on the tube bait knows it can suck in the distracted pinfish and eat the pinfish and the tube in one bite.
When I fish this live bait/tube bait combination, I don’t take up the slack in my line when the lead hits the bottom. I wait until I feel the bite or see my line start to move off.
This two-bait combination offers yet other advantages. If you miss the snapper the first time and it takes the pinfish off the hook, the soft-plastic tube will stay on the hook. Leave your bait on the bottom to have a second, a third and maybe a fourth chance.
I’ll often fish the 4-inch saltwater tube bait by itself because of its durability. I can continue to fish while other anglers on a boat reel up and re-bait. Even when the tube bait passes through a school of triggerfish that bite chunks out of the plastic, I still can fish the tube bait successfully for snapper.
If you fish dead bait or live bait and you get a bite from a snapper or grouper, more than likely you’ll lose your bait as soon as the fish bites. However, you can keep that saltwater plastic tube in the snapper’s strike zone longer than you can cut bait or live bait.
Color is Key
Louisianians who fish cut bait or live bait present baits to the snapper and grouper just like they see all the time. But when you fish with artificial lures, you can use color to make your bait look different from baits the fish typically see.
Other lures I’ve used that pay snapper dividends include Berkley’s Glass Minnow, the D.O.A. TerrorEyz and the Cocahoe Minnow.
Nichols created the TerrorEyz to fall vertically instead of nose-first like most jigs do.
“Because this rubber minnow lure falls vertically, the snapper gets a perfect silhouette of a baitfish, and when fished on a sow rig, the TerrorEyz descends much like a hurt, sick or injured fish slowly falling toward the bottom,” he explains. “The snapper knows his target won’t swim away.”
Bass fishermen have learned in the last couple of years the importance of red on a lure to indicate a hurt or a sick bait. That’s why Nichols puts red eyes in the TerrorEyz.
Nichols suggests glow, pearl and in extremely-clear water, black back or a green back instead of a silver-colored lure as the colors of TerrorEyz that seem to produce the most snapper.
When fishing the D.O.A. Shrimp for snapper, Nichols prefers chartreuse, glow, glitter, avocado red glitter or root beer glitter.
You can change the colors of plastic lures and determine which color yields the most snapper on any day you fish. Even when fishing two-hook bottom-fishing rigs that most party boats use, put two different colors of tubes, shrimp, grubs or minnow-looking baits on each of the two-hook rigs. Then you can determine which color of what bait the fish prefer on that day.
Although freshwater anglers, including crappie and bass fishermen, have learned the importance of color when fishing, many saltwater anglers — especially bottom fishermen — have not experimented much with color.
But big-game fishermen — those who troll for marlin, tarpon, wahoo, dolphin and tuna — often change their colors, styles and types of baits. Once a lure proves it has fish-catchability, the deck hand usually will change out some or all of the lines to the preferred lures of the day.
When you book a bottom-fishing trip off Louisiana’s coast, you’ll fish with the quality rods, reels, tackle and baits the captain provides. However, I’ve never met a captain who’s objected to me bringing my own tackle.
When I go on a trip for snapper, I’ll often take two different rods with me: a standard deck rod spooled with 50-pound-test line and a 7-foot flipping stick I use for freshwater fishing that’s spooled with either 20- or 30-pound-test line. I’ll have sow rigs on both rods and carry a wide variety of soft-plastic lures. On most snapper-fishing trips, I see few if any anglers fishing with light tackle and artificial lures.
The 7-foot flipping stick gives me the advantage of having more tip action than a standard deck rod does. I can flip even a heavy weight out past the area right beside the boat, where other anglers are forced to drop their baits.
If those big, heavy-bottom weights spook the bigger snapper holding directly under the boat, the fish will spot my bait sitting by itself, slowly floating to the bottom. My bait looks and acts different from the dead bait or cut bait in a wad right under the boat.
To catch more snapper and grouper this season, consider fishing soft plastics and lighter line. The other anglers on the boat and even the deckhand and the captain may be skeptics when you bait up with soft plastics.
I never mind the good-hearted kidding at the beginning of the trip, because when everyone else runs out of bait and/or can’t catch fish, I’ll hear: “Hey, you got any more of those plastic lures?”
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