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Perfect time for mangrove snapper

How lucky are Florida anglers to have thousands of such delicacies that abound in our bays and nearshore waters?

The mangrove snapper fishing is as good as it has ever been, and now that it’s mid-summer, the mangos have fattened up to the point that some anglers are reporting 16-to-18-inch mangrove snapper in the bays.

At the beginning of summer, the majority of mangrove snapper are barely keepers, and they feed on equally small baits. But as the baits grow, so it seems do the mangrove snapper, as their meals are supersized.

Head to some deep-water artificial reefs in Tampa Bay and don’t be surprised if some 4-to-5 pound mangrove snapper snap at your hook. The 3- and 7-mile reefs also hold some whopper mangos to about 7 pounds. Mangrove snapper also frequent other structure such as docks in just 3-to-4 feet of water.

Anglers can use some of the smaller baits on a No. 4 circle hook with 10-to-15-pound lines and 20-pound fluorocarbon leaders in shallower waters, or drop a bait down on a knocker rig, where the weight slides on the leader and butts directly against the hook, with enough weight to get to the bottom. Crank your drag down, because mangrove snapper fight like Floyd Mayweather and bite like Mike Tyson for their size.

A mangrove snapper’s all-time favorite bait likely is shrimp, which are hard to come by. Small white bait works, as might pinfish, chunk bait or small bucktail jigs.

For those who somehow have managed not to catch a mangrove snapper in their lifetime, be aware of the two fang-like teeth that snapper use to crush crustaceans and other food. Typically, a snapper will lock down on a hook as it’s removed. Don’t put your finger where the hook is.

The current regulations on mangrove snapper are five per angler per day, with a minimum length of 10 inches. This is why the snapper are so robust.

Also, for all Gulf of Mexico reef fish, anglers must use non-stainless steel circle hooks, in-line or offset. In state waters, within 9 nautical miles offshore, anglers must use in-line circle hooks.

“When I was a kid, there was no size limit,” said Capt. Rick Gross of the charter boat Fishy Business. “Guys would have them fill a five-gallon bucket in the summer, but no fish were over 9 inches.”

That’s because the snapper didn’t have a chance to get bigger.

Also, the mangrove snapper seemed relatively unaffected by the 2005 red tide.

“There was a time when I was fishing Perico, for whatever I was going for during the ’05 red tide, and there were mullet floating by, dead mullet, dead reds, whatever,” Gross said, “and I’d be chumming little baits, and snapper would be coming into the chum.”

The snapper survived, and coupled with the regulations, Florida anglers can enjoy arguably some of the best-eating species around in large numbers, with a healthy bag limit, altogether a seafood delight possibly as close as your nearest dock piling.

Nick Walter, Herald outdoors writer, can be reached at 745-7013.