Outdoors | Nine-day red snapper season finally has arrived

Special to the HeraldJune 1, 2014 

Steve Contarino shows off a red snapper he speared near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. PROVIDED PHOTO

The day Gulf Coast anglers have anxiously awaited has finally arrived. Today, June 1, is the beginning of the unfairly short nine-day red snapper season.

The season is open June 1 through 9, closing at 12:01 a.m. June 10.

Catches must be 16 inches in total length, and the daily bag limit is two per person.

The general consensus is that these regulations are ridiculous. The only time of year many anglers run to deeper water is during red snapper season. Having such a short time frame for this to happen restricts anglers.

From my personal experience, red snapper are more plentiful, bigger and further spread out than anytime in the past. Recreational anglers don't like the regulations but are being forced to follow them. Most anglers in search of red snapper will head offshore to waters deeper than 120 feet during the next nie days. It's finally time to keep fish, if the weather allows.

As I look through the long-range forecast, it appears something tropical could be forming in the gulf. Strong east winds are predicted for this week, increasing toward next weekend. If this holds, it will be unfortunate for any anglers who anticipated long offshore runs to catch tasty red snapper. I don't like to push the limits for a few fish and often err on the side of caution, but it seems like fishing in rough weather is the only way to be able to keep red snapper around our coast…

Unless you happen to find red snapper in unlikely places.

One angler who experienced a red snapper surprise first hand is Steve Contarino. Contarino has been diving Tampa Bay for 30 years and is a commercial diver. After seeing last week's column about how anglers were catching red snapper in Pensacola Bay, he shared a story with me.

"I've dove every part of the Tampa Bay shipping channel from MacDill to Egmont Key," Contarino said. "I know just about every rock pile and ledge in the bay channel."

With such knowledge, Contarino knows what to expect on his dives. On an October dive last year, he saw a fish a bit out of place, catching him off guard.

"I was diving in 35 feet of water about 100 yards from the skyway. I saw a fish and didn't recognize what it was at first; the visibility was only about 6 feet. I thought it was a margate and then realized what it was -- a red snapper."

With the red snapper season open during last October's "mini-season," Contarino harvested it, which still amazes him. "It's the only time I've ever seen a red snapper in Tampa Bay, but I think there are more on the way," he said hopefully, taking from his personal experience with hogfish.

"Five or six years ago I never saw a hogfish in the bay. One day I saw one, and soon after I saw more. Now I can go and get a dozen nice hogfish any day in the bay, something I would have never thought possible."

Until the bay is full of red snapper, anglers are restricted to harvesting fish only during this short window. Be safe and feel free to send in reports of your catches.

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