The Mighty Mangrove Snapper Run
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Each year, as fall moves closer to winter, Laguna Madre area anglers are treated to a “run” of good mangrove snapper fishing. Although these feisty fighters are found year around in our waters, late fall is perhaps the best time to target them.
Mangrove snapper most often are found in areas of heavy cover such as jetties, pier pilings or under bridges. No mangrove is likely to go far from the safety of cover to chase a bait, but bigger fish hold ever tighter, almost seeming to be part of the structure. This cover-hugging behavior dictates a few things about mangrove fishing. First off, baits and lures must be cast extremely close to structure in order to draw strikes. Secondly, stouter-than average tackle must be used if an angler has any hopes of landing fish once they strike.

The tackle needed to land these fish may raise a few eyebrows, especially considering mangroves rarely get over 16 to 18 inches and most fish are in the 10 to 14-inch range. However, once one is hooked, the necessity of stout tackle is evident.

To begin with, a real rod is needed. A 6'6" medium-heavy trigger stick should be considered the minimum requirement for convincing snapper to leave their rocky havens. The rod should be mated with a baitcast reel loaded with 15 to 20 pound test mono or, even better, 50 or 60 pound braided line. Tie about a foot of 50 pound shock leader to this. Don't worry much about the drag, because you'll want it locked down. If you choose to leave a little leeway in the drag, be prepared to put a stout thumb on the spool as soon as the fish hits. Remember, a big mangrove is rarely more than one tail beat away from cover.

Like tackle, lure size takes some consideration. Large snapper will, if given the opportunity, gobble up tiny tidbits. However, in order to increase the odds of landing a sow, anything a small snapper can fit in its mouth - or thinks it can - should be avoided. All too often the more aggressive juvenile fish will dart from under a rock before the bigger fish can make their way to a bait. So, choose a bait big enough to remain unmolested long enough for a sow snapper to get a gander at it.

Seeing as how finger mullet are among the top food items on the mangrove's menu, it is only natural to choose either mullet or a mullet-imitating plug. Bomber Mullets and 52-Series Mirrolures are both good choices, as are Storm's Wild Eye Shad. However, perhaps the top two baits for this type of fishing are the DOA Deep Running Baitbuster and the new 5-inch Stanley Wedgetail Minnow. These baits are about as close to a mullet as a lure can be and their single-hook configuration helps keep them from hanging on rocks and makes handling hooked fish much safer. Again, if big mangroves are the target, it is essential to get as close to cover as possible. Having baits that are less likely to hang up allows for more confidence when presenting in tight cover.

Like mullet, shrimp will produce good catches of snapper. However, there are few shrimp - regardless of size - that can make their way past the hungry mouths of juvenile snapper. When using natural baits for mangroves, it is better to stick with finger mullet, mud minnows or pinfish.

Once rod, reel, and bait are selected, it is time to find some big mangroves. Practically any piece of structure that sees some current flow will have mangroves hanging around. But again, many of these fish will be less than 10 inches. Finding where the big ones hang is a bit more involved.

Mangrove are always more aggressive when the water is moving, just like any fish relating structure in tidal water. The key is finding where the water moves differently in one area of the structure than in others. Near docks and bridges, this may be caused by humps or channels on the bottom. Or, it may be simply which piling is nearest or furthest from the shore. Once you have determined the direction and strength of the current, you can usually guess where the fish are. Most often, they are on the down-current side of pilings, allowing the water to flow around them as they wait for dinner to be swept by.

Finding solid fish along jetty rocks is a bit more complicated. While small mangroves will be scattered over virtually every rock, larger fish are more finicky when it comes to picking a hiding spot. The first thing to do is find irregular spots in the jetties - like those where rock outcroppings extend well away from the base. Also look for underwater "tunnels" - areas where water flows from the channel side to the Gulf side and vice-versa. Also look for "pockets" where the current swirls or eddies.

Regardless of the type of structure you are fishing, the bait has to be pitched close to it. Allow lures to fall on a taut, not tight, line. In other words, use just enough line pressure to maintain contact with the lure as it falls, but not so much as to swing it back toward you and away from the rocks. Don't worry about feeling the strike - mangroves aren't shy. If anything, make sure you have a good grip on your rod.

When a fish strikes, immediately slam the hook home - hard. Sometimes mangroves will simply hold a lure in their powerful jaws without being hooked, so the hookset must be forceful enough to pull the hook from its grip and gain penetration.

After setting the hook, begin working the fish to open water as soon as possible. Again, any lapse can and will allow the fish to bury himself in structure. If they do manage to regain their position behind cover, immediately reduce pressure on the fish by dropping the rod tip. Any heavy pressure at this point only serves to "saw" the line in half. Often times allowing bit more slack will relax the fish. Once it has settled down, try again to convince him to leave cover. At times this may mean repositioning yourself to get a different angle of pull.

Once the fish is in open water, it is just a matter of keeping steady pressure on until they tire. However, these fish are bulldog-tough and don't tire easily. And, at any point in the fight they will return to structure if allowed, so it is critical to keep pressure applied throughout the fight.

Anglers seeking mangroves should also keep in mind there are a number of other fish inhabiting these same areas. While tossing jigs around deep-water structure during a Deep South Texas winter, fishermen are just as likely to catch snook, gags, grouper, rock hinds and host of other species.

Finally, use caution when handling mangrove snapper. Sharp gill plates and spiny fins offer a bit of a challenge, but the real danger comes from those powerful jaws, which house needle-sharp canine teeth. Always grab mangroves firmly behind the gills and use needle-nose pliers, not fingers, to remove the hook from their mouth.

Also, although the State of Texas does not have a bag limit on mangroves, please use discretion when deciding how many to retain. A few of these beefy brutes will provide plenty of fillets for all the ceviche you can eat.

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