This offshore area allows you to target mangrove and red snapper at the same rigs using the same baits and the same tackle.
Capt. Aaron Pierce was waiting at the dock when we arrived. Daylight was peeking over the horizon, and our steed for the day, a 26-foot Glacier Bay Catamaran, reflected the early morning light. Two 150-horsepower Mercury Optimax engines idled at the rear of the rig, ready to propel us offshore at a quick pace.
I was looking forward to my first ride in a catamaran of this size. Previous to this, my only experience with the twin-hull design was in a 20-footer in Lake Pontchartrain. That boat was a limited production model (only six were ever made) that provided a dry, stable ride and handled the lake chop with ease.
This, however, would be a real test. We were heading 35 to 40 miles offshore, and while the swells were only 2 feet or so at present, I knew we’d get to see how the cat boat could handle itself before the day was over.
We tossed our gear aboard and I introduced Pierce to my buddy, Perry Matulich, who was eager to feel the pull of a big red snapper at the end of his line. Pierce guaranteed he’d get his wish today, and we pointed the bow of the cat boat toward the pass.
Once into the Gulf, Pierce settled the boat in at a steady pace of 33 m.p.h. At that speed he says he averages 2 miles-per-gallon with the twin outboards, which I found to be very impressive considering I only get that with my single-engine bay boat.
Best yet, at that pace we would arrive at our destination in only an hour. One of my pet peeves about offshore, big-boat fishing is that you travel at a snail’s pace. The big boats hold more passengers and are good, dry rides, but the idea of crawling along at 12 to 14 knots is torture to someone who likes to get there at bass-boat speeds. This offshore cat boat was much more to my liking.
Once underway, I started checking out our tackle. Pierce had armed us with a half-dozen 6-foot 6-inch Snapper Snatcher 50-pound-class rods. Pierce buys them custom-made from Swampland Rods in Houma, and said they were appropriately named, because they outperformed every other snapper rod he’s tried.
He had them equipped with TLD Shimano 20 reels. The black, lever-drag reels look all business and are virtually bulletproof, he said. The reels were spooled with 50-pound Triple-Fish, a multi-colored monofilament line. A barrel swivel connected it to a 6-foot leader made up of the same line, terminating with a 9/0 Mustad circle hook. A 6-ounce egg sinker hung just above the swivel, rigged Carolina style.
“Basically, what you’re looking at is a super heavy-duty Carolina rig adapted for fishing snapper,” Pierce said. “We’ll bait up with frozen pogies, or we’ll try some of these small live croakers I brought along.
“Once we get to the rig, I’ll check the fish finder to see how deep the fish are hanging. Sometimes they’ll be on or near the bottom. But usually they’ll be suspended somewhere between 30 to 60 feet down.”
We were heading for a set of rigs in only 65 feet of water, shallow for this time of year.
Pierce said the moderate summer had not yet driven the red snapper completely out of the shallow-water rigs. By August, however, they’ll probably be well established at the rigs in 200-foot depths or deeper, from South Timbalier 151 west to the rigs in Ship Shoal, from between 60 to 200 feet of water, he said.
Pierce likes to begin at the shallower rigs, where he hunts mangrove snapper and an occasional red snapper or two. Then he gradually moves out to deeper rigs in pursuit of red snapper and amberjack. But once in the deeper water, he switches to TLD 30 reels strung with 80-pound-test line and a 6-foot 100-pound-test leader.
“For bait, you want live hardtails,” he said.
You need the extra muscle to wrestle with big amberjack that can range anywhere from 15 to 50 pounds, he explained. And schools of hardtails usually swim on the surface all around these rigs. You can cast a shad rig into the school and bring them in two at a time, or you can fish them with a Sabiki rig on a 3-ounce weight, he said.
However you catch them, put one on a 12/0 Mustad circle hook, drop your line overboard and hold on to your rod. Those big amberjack find them irresistible, he said.
We made our first stop at a rig in 65 feet of water. Pierce opted not to tie on, but chose rather to “hold” the boat up close to the platform, allowing us to fish right along the legs of the structure. The fishfinder showed a concentration of fish about 40 feet down, so we dropped our baits over, calculated when we reached the right depth, and switched the lever. In a second or less, we had a bite.
Naturally, my first reaction was to try to set the hook, but that’s a no-no when you fish with circle hooks.
“Don’t set it,” Pierce explained. “Once you get a hit, point the rod tip down and just start slowly reeling in. The fish will hook themselves. Once you know you have him on, raise the rod tip up some, and keep the tension on. Don’t give him any slack.”
After losing half a dozen baits, I finally did what the captain said, and started catching fish. Initially, I wasn’t too keen on the circle hooks. It seemed unnatural not to set the hook. But after I got the hang of it, I realized how effective they are if you fish them correctly.
Pierce said he lost so many good hook-ups, he switched to the circle hooks to see if they fared any better. He noticed an instant improvement in the hook-up-to-landing ratio, and stuck with them ever since.
Matulich reeled in the first catch of the day, a 10-pound mangrove. We caught quite a few smaller ones, and a few red snapper that were undersized. Pierce said it seems like the red snapper are running a little smaller overall this season, but bigger ones were to be found at the deeper rigs.
Our next stop was a mangrove honeyhole. Every drop of a bait got an instant hit. These were hanging anywhere from 40 to 60 feet down, but baits sent to the bottom seemed to catch bigger fish.
“When your weight hits the bottom, hurry and reel up a couple turns,” Pierce said.
I assumed that would help prevent snags.
“The mangroves are hitting us good right now,” Pierce said. “Sometimes they’re harder to catch. These fish usually stay pretty shallow, anywhere from 40 to 80 feet down, and they have big eyes so they can see very well. Sometimes you know they’re down there, but they won’t hit this heavy tackle. You have to switch to lighter line and tackle to be able to catch them.”
We consistently reeled mangroves up to the surface, ranging in size from 2 pounds to 10. Then we spotted a school of them swimming around the boat, only 4 or 5 feet down. Pierce kept them there by throwing out some “pogie chum,” which he said is a good way to attract them. We sent our baits out and let out only a few feet of line and got instant hook-ups.
“In July and August, these fish begin to spawn, and that’s when they really get aggressive,” Pierce said.
I couldn’t imagine how they’d get any more aggressive than this.
At no time did Pierce tie the boat off to a rig. Rather, at every stop he held the boat close to the rig using the controls, keeping the motors running. The technique requires constant diligence on the skipper’s part, but it allowed us to fish right up to the rig, where the biggest and most fish tend to hang.
It’s a great technique for fishing snapper, but it has its downside. It didn’t allow us to fish a drift line. When you tie off to a rig, it’s easy to cast out a drift line baited with a live hardtail or a big dead pogie, in hopes of attracting a king mackerel or a lemonfish.
But when you’re constantly reversing your engines to keep off a rig, that drift line could easily become prop bait, and get eaten by your wheels.
After filling our till with mangroves, we went after red snapper, and Pierce managed to put us on some real beauties. Giant black drum, bull reds, grouper and an assortment of odds and ends found our baits as well. That’s what you have to love about offshore fishing.
And by the way, the ride back to the dock was quick, dry and impressive. The catamaran handled 3-foot swells and never left us feeling uncomfortable. Hmmmm. I wonder how much one of these rigs costs?
Capt. Aaron Pierce has a masters degree in oceanography from LSU, and has been a professional charter guide for more than 8 years. He can be reached at (985) 637-9720.
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