Ready, Set, Fish!

When snapper season opens this month, anglers will find a strong fishery that actually benefitted from last year’s storms.

April signals the arrival of many spring traditions across Louisiana — among them Jazz Fest, crawfish boils and strawberries. None, however, are more celebrated by anglers than the opening of the recreational red snapper season as families flock to the coast to do battle with the tasty red-scaled fish.

Winter-weary anglers count the days until they can head offshore in search of this bottom dweller. During the six-month season that begins April 21 and ends on the last day of October, anglers will log hundreds of hours on the water in search of trophy red snapper.

Based on reports from two of the top charter fishermen in Fourchon, anglers will not be disappointed this year. Capts. Aaron Pierce and Ed Frekey who operate Tuna Time Charters out of Moran’s Belle Pass Marina are forecasting a banner red snapper season.

“We’re excited about what we’ve seen so far,” said Pierce.

For many years, Pierce has fished these waters as both a charter captain and tournament angler. He has become familiar with the rigs and wrecks that dot the South Timbalier area, and knows which areas hold fish.

“Head due south out of Fourchon, and start out fishing rigs in the 60- to 100-foot depths,” he recommended. “We’ll catch our red snapper and mangrove snapper here, and then head to deeper water to pick up our limit of amberjack.”

Numerous sow snapper in the high 20-pound range have been caught and released by Pierce’s customers while targeting other species this past winter.

On the Midnight Lump, for example, there was the usual heartbreak as excited anglers landed trophy-size red snapper while fishing the bottom and were forced to release them.

The landfall of Katrina last August virtually shut down the remainder of the 2005 snapper season along the east side of the Louisiana coastline and across the Gulf to Mississippi. With little pressure from recreational or commercial fishermen, the fish thrived. The usual flurry of big fish hitting the docks in October did not happen in 2005, which could translate into a bonanza when the season opens this month.

Biologists agree that those heading offshore early in the season could be rewarded.

“Not counting the hurricanes, if this year follows the pattern of the last three to four years, we should have excellent red snapper fishing for the first couple of weeks after the season opens,” said Jerald Horst, a fisheries professor at the LSU AgCenter.

The exception is when we get a storm. Horst says there is no doubt that by having two major storms last year, it has “reshuffled the deck” affecting not only fish but crabs and shrimp as well.

“We don’t know why but during the last 3 to 4 years fishing slowed down in May almost to an anemic level until the end of September,” he said.

Finding plenty of snapper in the opening weeks of the season should be simple. Marina operators and captains along the South Louisiana coast have reported plentiful snapper holding near shore in the 60-foot depth range.

Initially, this will make red snapper more accessible at the start of the recreational season even to small-boat anglers. As the water warms, the fish will start to move toward the deeper offshore platforms and structures seeking cooler water temperatures.

It has been documented that small and medium red snapper have a strong attraction to all sorts of hard bottom or obstructions such as reefs, rocks, ledges, wrecks and offshore oil and gas platforms. It is a little known fact that obstructions even as small as pipeline valves or sunken 55-gallon drums can sometimes attract schools of red snapper.

With more than 166 oil and gas platforms damaged or destroyed plus the large amount of debris washed out to sea during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, there could literally be thousands of new “fish magnets” strewn across the bottom of the Gulf.

Snapper rigs and baits
Pierce prefers cigar-shaped sinkers that have an eye on each end. If those are not readily available, he constructs a homemade rig using heavy mono or wire threaded through a cigar-shaped sinker, then adds a swivel to the top and crimps it. This, he explains, is done to keep the rig from spinning. He then ties about 3 feet of 80-pound mono leader to the bottom eye, and finishes it off with a Mustad Demon circle hook in sizes from 6/0 to 8/0, which he snells to the 80-pound leader.

Frekey uses two additional types of bottom rigs. The first consists of a bank-style weight on the bottom with one or two hooks attached above.

“By locating the weight on the bottom of the rig, it keeps everything tight as the bait is deployed and keeps the baits from wrapping around the line,” said Frekey.

This rig proves very effective when fishing dead bait with charter customers, as it gives them a second chance in the event they encounter a bait stealer on the drop.

The second type he sometimes uses is a standard Carolina rig, on which he fishes live bait.

“With live bait, we use a Carolina rig, with a sliding egg sinker. This allows the bait to swim freely once the rig hits bottom,” Frekey explained.

As for water color and clarity, Pierce prefers clean green water rather than blue water.

“Blue water is so clear that the snapper can see everything and become wary,” he explained.

Their No. 1 choice of dead bait is pogies. Frekey suggests anglers cut the pogie just after the dorsal fin at a 45-degree angle.

“If you leave the tail attached, the bait will spin. I prefer to use the head section and go right through the eye,” he explained.

“Our live baits consist mainly of pinfish, finger mullet and croakers,” said Pierce.

From time to time, they will experiment with other baits such as small hardtails or even cocaho minnows to get the bite started.

Studies indicate that the No. 1 item on the red snapper’s diet is fish, followed by Stomatopods or king shrimp. Another lesser known fact is that crabs are also highly consumed by red snappers, especially during the spring months. Although not a common practice by local anglers, possibly some experimentation with various species of crabs might prove beneficial in the opening weeks of the season.

Finding, fishing wrecks
Captains guard their wreck numbers like a lion guards its prey. Seldom can you expect any of the old salts to give up this information. There are, however, other ways to locate these hidden treasures.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries (www.wlf.state.la.us) offers an assortment of artificial reef and wreck data. The department also publishes a handout version complete with GPS numbers.

Additionally, when riding in the Gulf, a keen eye for activity on the surface can pay off.

“On a calm day, if you see hardtails on the surface in an open area and a slick nearby, stop and take a look around,” Frekey suggested.

Current hitting a wreck or reef causes an upwelling, and hardtails sometimes school up on the surface. The hardtails will usually hold on the upcurrent side of a wreck, so focus your attention on the opposite side.

Once the wreck appears on the screen of the bottom finder, Frekey uses a floating device known as a Bandit Buoy to mark the location. These can be purchased commercially or homemade by using an empty Clorox jug. Just make sure you attach enough weight and plenty of line to reach the bottom.

“When setting up to rig or wreck fish, always check to see what direction the current is running and how fast it’s moving. If the current is strong, it may not be worth the hassle to fish a wreck,” said Frekey.

Frekey also suggests boaters pay close attention to the wind direction whenever it is extremely windy.

“At times the wind will be the dominant force, which happens to be a good thing to know when tying off to a rig or trying to hold position on a wreck,” he explained.

If either the wind or current is strong, the captains recommend a change in plans. Instead of fishing deep wrecks, where reaching the bottom and feeling the bite are nearly impossible, re-focus attention on rig fishing.

At times it may be necessary to tie off closer to the rig when the current is moving fast, which allows the baits to still remain next to the rig structure. Pay close attention to your bottom finder to look for bait or to see at what depth the fish are holding. Try putting out a drift line when anchored or tied off as it will attract many species including cobia and king mackerel. Bring along frozen chum and a chum bag to create a slick, which attracts even more fish.

To vent or not to vent
Opinions vary greatly depending on who you ask as to techniques for releasing red snapper and other bottom dwellers.

Information found on the LSU SeaGrant website (www.seagrantfish.lsu.edu) suggests that fish with distended stomachs be released without puncturing or venting the swim bladder.

Studies have shown high mortality of red snapper even when they are “properly” vented and returned to the water.

For example, a study recently done at the University of West Florida demonstrated extensive damage was inflicted on internal organs when red snapper were brought to the surface, no matter how slowly their ascent. The study utilized a pressure chamber to simulate various depths, according to Dave Nieland, research associate at the LSU Coastal Fisheries Institute.

The Florida Sea Grant website (www.flseagrant.org), however, fully supports venting fish before returning them to the water. They publicize a step-by-step process, and were responsible for designing and developing the Novak Venting Tool in conjunction with Mote Marine Laboratory researchers. Currently this tool is the only commercially available venting tool, although the site offers instructions for making your own venting devices.

Care of the catch
There is no such thing as too much ice when fishing offshore. Upon landing a fish, it is important to get the fish on ice as soon as possible. Don’t just throw it in the box on top of the ice; surround it by the ice so that the meat will become firm and is cooled down as fast as possible. Back at the dock, leave your catch on ice until you are ready to clean it.

“It bothers me to see anglers catch all these fish and basically waste the meat by letting it lie on the dock,” said Frekey.

If a group picture is desired, remove the fish, quickly snap a few photos and return them to the ice when finished.

Another faux pas is often made when the day’s catch makes it to the cleaning table.

The No. 1 rule is not to let the fillets pile up.

“Bag them as you go, and get the fillets back on ice to ensure the freshest, firmest meat possible,” Frekey suggested.

A few weeks remain before the season opens. Take time to tune up your equipment by checking your boat, engines, tackle and safety gear before heading offshore. Try using some of the tips included, which can increase your chances of catching limits of snapper and other tasty reef dwellers.

Capt. Aaron Pierce can be reached at 985-677-3474 and Capt. Ed Frekey at 985-665-3769 or www.tunatimecharters.com.

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