The state-water opening of red snapper season is this weekend, but you unfortunately won't see any local anglers taking advantage of the beautiful weather to bring a few home for the dinner table.
Because most of our red snapper occupy deeper water 30 or more miles offshore, they are under the federal regulations, which means red snapper season really doesn't begin until June 1st.
For anglers in the panhandle of Florida, it's a much different story. Upon hearing the news of a longer statewide season, they were excited to say the least.
"I was extremely happy when they lengthened the season," said Pensacola Capt. Chris Williams of Fish Happens Charters. "In the dog days of summer we've only got a few hours to fish in the morning for redfish and trout before it gets hot. Then it's time to fish for red snapper."
Now here is the crazy part, which I still find hard to believe. They catch red snapper in Pensacola Bay! Pensacola Bay is an ecosystem very comparable to Tampa Bay, made up of a deeper channel for shipping lanes and a large bridge similar to the Sunshine Skyway.
"We've got a lot of small wrecks in the bay between 30 and 50 feet of water, and almost all of them hold red snapper," Williams said. "A wreck might be the size of a Volkswagen Bug, and it could hold a 10-pound red snapper 100 yards from shore.
"Almost every time we fish structure in the bay, the first bait down catches a red snapper. It's a great challenge using the same tackle we do for trout and redfish, and the clients find it's a blast."
Williams credits a lot of the red snapper bay fishery to the removal of gillnets when he was younger, allowing the red snapper population to grow inside the bay. "When I was younger we couldn't target them like this," he said. "Now there are literally millions of snapper in the bay. People catch them from the shore or jetty at times."
As well as the shores and jetty, anglers in the Panhandle are able to access big red snapper a few miles offshore, including artificial reefs in 25 feet of water. This has opened up a new style of fishing that anglers like Louis Anderson take advantage of. Anderson launches his kayak from the beach and can catch red snapper within shouting distance of the shore.
"Our kayak fishing red snapper grounds are anywhere from a quarter-mile to 5 miles offshore. We fish both wrecks and natural bottom and find the same thing year round: a lot of snapper!" Anderson proclaimed. "We've had to come up with tactics to avoid the red snapper if we want to catch grouper. Some nearly 40-inch red snapper have been caught from kayaks."
This incredible fishery is one northern Florida anglers have been able to enjoy while fishing state waters. In recent years, red snapper have become more abundant off our coast, and anglers are catching more and more while they seem to fish shallower and shallower.
Could a state-water red snapper fishery be possible in the near future? Maybe. I'm of the belief that more gag grouper have moved shallower, and, as the result, red snapper populations have boomed in shared waters offshore. Competition for food between reef fish such as gag grouper, red grouper, red snapper and goliath grouper has seemingly altered their depths. Anglers will tell you they've caught bigger gag grouper shallower in recent years than any time in memory. It would be amazing if red snapper were next.
Early last year, I was aboard the Legal Limit when Kyle Grimes caught a red snapper in 60 feet of water. The feint peaks of the skyway could be seen in the distance. That was the shallowest I have seen a red snapper caught.
When I told that story, I was told of an angler catching a red snapper near the skyway. There was no camera on board, and he released it to fight another day. At the time, I said no way this is possible. After hearing of how Pensacola anglers catch them in the bay, I now want to believe it's true.