Biloxi captain believes in the ‘big bait, big fish’ mantra.
Capt. Robert Earl McDaniel decided that the fish pecking around our baits weren’t what he was looking for and got serious about his search for his favorite fishing target, the ones he calls “the sows.”
As in big female red snapper, which at full maturity can:
- Surpass 30 pounds;
- Fill a fish box even at the modern limit of two per angler;
- Break a grown man’s spirit and strain his muscles.
“Here, drop this down there, and if I was you, I’d have a good firm hole on that pole,” McDaniel said, grinning.
This time, instead of a small, 2-inch slice of cut bait, this rod/reel combo had a big, 5- or 6-ounce chunk of king mackerel — probably more like a half-pound of meat.
“That’s a pork chop; that’s what the sows like,” he said. “I’ve had enough of this pecking from little fish that can’t even swallow the hook. Let’s offer them a grownup-sized portion. I know there’s big ones down there; I can see them on the graph.”
The bait sank quickly, dropping through the little nippers too fast for them to grab a bite, until it hit the bottom 128 feet below our feet.
“Reel it up about 20 feet and get ready,” McDaniel said as he prepped a second rod with another big hook, a heavier weight and, of course, a pork chop portion of mackerel sliced right through the backbone. “Won’t be much of a warning. It’ll just suck it down and keep on going.”
Which is exactly what happened, a millisecond later.
The stout rod — resembling a full-fledged tuna stick, like a broom stick with a rubber handle — bent in a giant arc, bigger than you’d think geometrically possible. The fisherman uttered a deep guttural moan, sounding more painful than you’d think possible.
“Yep, that’s a sow,” McDaniel said. “Enjoy the ride.”
It took a good 5 minutes to break the fish’s initial power, another 5 minutes to start moving it up the water column, and five more to get it up all 128 feet to the surface.
It took two men to get the 34-pound red snapper over the rail. By then, the second pole was bent in another arc, and a second angler was groaning under the strain.
“With big snapper, it’s go big or go home,” McDaniel said. “When they get ready to eat, they don’t mess around, and I don’t know that they’re never not ready to eat a big pork chop piece of cut bait.”
Two hours later, four two-man limits of two red snapper each, nearly 200 pounds worth, were iced in the box. There was little room for anything else.
Go big or go home
“When the limit is two per person, as a captain, you try to get the biggest you can for your customers,” said McDaniel, owner of the aptly named WhipaSnapa Charter boat out of Biloxi, Miss. “That’s why we threw back those smaller keepers that were biting when we got to the (oil) rig. Those were nice ‘eaters’ — 18 to 25 inches, some in the 5- to 6-pound range — and we could have limited on those quick.
“But I knew there were some big fish there. I could mark them. They were suspended about 20 feet off the bottom, above the smaller ones. That’s why I had y’all drop to the bottom and reel it up. I wanted you in their strike zone.”
Tristan Armer, an attorney and avid fisherman from Ocean Springs, has a different philosophy that serves him well, as evidenced by a May trip off the Gulf coast. Pinpointing the exact depth of the fish is his key.
“The size of the bait doesn’t seem to matter to me as much as where the bait is dangling,” Armer said. “Those fish (in May) were caught in 95 feet of water but the fish were hooked at 45 to 50 feet. On the sonar, the fish were swimming around the reef and a good 50 to 70 feet above the reef.”
As for bait, Armer used two different types.
“Two were caught on a half piece of a good-sized pogey and the others on half a piece of good-sized squid,” he said. “The bite was slower, and when it’s slower, the fish are more select. At least that’s what my anecdotal fishing evidence says.”
McDaniel remains adamant about the big-bait, big-fish theory.
“You noticed the sows didn’t hit anything until we dropped the big pork chop down there, and there was no pecking like you normally get when snapper fishing,” he said. “They just come up, eat it and go own about their business until you set the hook. Then, they aren’t so happy.”
That day, a few years ago, was not the typical sow snapper day, McDaniel said, simply “because there’s no such thing as typical with them. Sows vary in their positioning in the water column. Some days, they are bottom-huggers. Some days, like today, they are suspended just off the bottom. But, there’s also days when I find them about 40 feet deep in 200 feet of water.”
The Louisiana red snapper season is currently open. The limit is two red snapper per day per person with a 16-inch minimum length. The season will remain open until recreational landings approach or reach the state’s private recreational allocation of 784,332 pounds.