With the abundance of fish these anglers experienced, why can’t we fix the access issues?
It’s the best of times and the worst of times for red snapper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.
My apologies to Charles Dickens.
It is the best of times because there are so many snapper out there. Oil rigs, reefs, sunken shrimp boats, lost shipping containers, pipeline stems, concrete rubble, natural drop-offs, humps, and buoy chains all hold fish. As long as a structure is in 50 feet of water, it’s going to be covered in snapper, and this holds true across most of the Gulf.
From my favorite port of Grand Isle, La., the options for catching snapper start at a set of oil rigs named the Grand Isle 20 Block, which is clearly visible from the beach. If, by some strange chance, the snapper on the 20 Block aren’t interested, a quick three-mile jump to the 30 block and then the West Delta 70 block gives snapper anglers additional options in waters up to 140 feet deep.
The fishing can be remarkable. Throw a handful of chum over one of these wrecks or reefs and prepare for action. Anglers can slow-crank a snapper up from 50 feet and sometimes the entire school will follow, quickly turning the green water red. Without fail fish on the surface will aggressively attack anything that moves or looks like food.
Short of catching speckled trout all day on topwater baits or watching a billfish tail walk, it’s as good as fishing gets.
Anglers should be celebrating this abundance.
Instead, they find themselves embroiled in the most contentious battle in federal fisheries management, a chaotic approach often driven by lawsuits against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and shouting matches among user groups.
Abundance usually means more access to the resource, or at least consistent regulations, in any other fish and game management scenario. In red snapper management, abundance combined with error-prone data collection on harvest levels and stock sizes has translated to less access for sportsmen.
More fish means they are easier to catch, but the larger population also brings more regulations. Bigger fish means the poundage-based quota required by federal law is being reached much quicker. Inability to accurately account for the harvest of bigger fish from a larger population has led to, in part, this year’s nine-day red snapper season in the Gulf’s federal waters. Ironically, 10 years ago, when the snapper population was estimated to be much smaller, the federal-water snapper season was 194 days.
Gulf states have stepped in to provide more consistent access to waters they control, up to nine miles from shore. But, for most Gulf ports, the 50-foot depths generally needed to find red snapper lie beyond that nine-mile boundary. State officials are also working with anglers to improve access and data collection. But, as long as current federal law and management apply, 95 percent of the Gulf will remain off-limits to recreational snapper harvest for at least 11 months of the year.
TRCP and its sportfishing partners—the Coastal Conservation Association, American Sportfishing Association, Center for Coastal Conservation, and others—have been working with policy-makers to find a better way.
The constant battle at the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council and the political debate over snapper management often overshadow how much fun it is to catch these fish. It dampens the appetite of anglers who love snapper, especially when it’s cooked over a charcoal pit, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice.
This year, rough seas and thunderstorms prevented most anglers from getting to snapper waters during the June 1-9 federal season. NOAA gave anglers two additional days to compensate for Tropical Storm Colin, but the other lost days were victims of the fickle derby system that federal management has created.
Keep America Fishing leaders Gary Jennings and Glenn Hughes joined me and Captain Frank Dreher on Grand Isle on June 8 for two days of snapper fishing. The trip was set up to give us a chance to forget about snapper politics and focus on fishing. The plan was to take Dreher’s 24-foot bay boat out of Grand Isle on day one then slide west to Terrebonne Parish on day two for a ride on a 33 Contender with Tony Fontenot and the crew from Castin’ Cajun, a popular regional TV show.
Flat seas and sharks greeted us early June 8. A couple of short stops at rigs in 50 to 70 feet of water showed schools of snapper on the sounder, but blacktips and jack crevalle were quicker to the baits. At our third spot, we found a school of 5- to 10-pound snapper and the action was non-stop for more than an hour while the placid surface was quickly slopped up by a sneaky 10- to 15-knot northeast wind.
A 3-foot chop turned a half-hour joy ride on the way out into a 90-minute, spray-soaked pounding on the ride home. We quickly forgot about it that evening over grilled snapper filets and Abita Amber beer.
On day two, the seas were sloppier, but the 33-foot vessel cut down on the pounding and the soaking—a little. But the 20-mile ride out of Cocodrie to a wrecked boat in 55 feet of water was worth it: We enjoyed snapper fishing unparalleled by any I have experienced in more than three decades of venturing off Louisiana’s coast. The emerald-green waters were spotted with red all morning, as snapper schools ascended to the surface and ferociously attacked any bait.
Even before boat owner David Prevost positioned us over the wreck, I reeled in an 8-pound snapper that crushed a chunky, soft-plastic grub intended for an aggressive cobia cruising above the structure. Thirty or more snapper followed that first fish and soon multiple hook-ups marked the morning. More than once, I picked out a fish I wanted to catch, pitched my bait, and watched it eat. Fishing does not get better.
Our two days on the Gulf during the brief window provided by federal managers reinforced two things I already knew: Red snapper are abundant, and a federal system fraught with incessant political battles, insufficient data, and misguided management approaches keep anglers from that abundance.
There’s no reason to believe we can’t fix the access and enjoy the abundance.