Large red shapes drifted slowly upward in the emerald water like globs in a lava lamp. Just as the features came into focus, the thin braided line telegraphed a savage strike. The rod doubled, the tip within inches of the cork handle. All I could do was hang on.
“Is that what you were looking for?” mate Scott Savoir asked with a laugh.
“I think you got one, Dave,” Capt. Scott Robson added over my shoulder while he held the 52-foot G&S Phoenix in position over the shallow artificial reef. My only response was a grunt.
Slowly I gained the upper hand, halting the fish’s initial dive. With short, quick pumps, I gained line inch by stubborn inch. After one last surge from the fish, Savoir brought the hefty 12-pound red snapper aboard for a quick photo before release. Beyond the transom, several more swirled. Now this was my kind of “bottomfishing,” and we were only on the first spot.
Robson, the president of the Destin Charter Boat Association, has seen a lot of changes over the last three decades. The charter fleet, which stays busy in this bustling tourist destination, traditionally offsets inexperience with an arsenal of heavy rods and 4/0 conventional reels. But for anglers looking for a challenge, Robson and his cohorts are certainly willing to scale down.
“I don’t know why more of my clients don’t want to use lighter gear,” he says. “When we stop and chum, the fish rise on cue and everyone says it looks like an aquarium. But lighter gear is getting more popular. Shorter seasons and lower bag limits aside, people are discovering just how much fun it is to catch snapper this way.”
Catching big snapper on light tackle is doable for several reasons. The fish congregate around the numerous artificial reefs scattered across the northern Gulf, and the bigger fish typically hang higher in the water column. They are also curious and aggressively compete for food, so chumming brings them even closer to the surface and away from potential entanglements. Robson and many other Destin skippers fish reefs they’ve built, but there are dozens of public reefs that hold snapper from Destin to Pensacola.
“The big fish don’t need that structure for protection like the little ones,” Robson says. “Not much is going to eat them, so they’ll always be off the bottom. And once you get ’em fired up with chum, they come right to the surface. Free-line a bait back there, count to five, and before you get the reel in gear, they’ll grab it. Then hang on. Once they’re hooked, you have to keep the pressure on or they’ll beat you on the first run.”
For chum, Robson likes frozen Boston mackerel diced into small cubes. It’s cheap and makes a nice, oily slick. Bonito (little tunny) is a good substitute. Handfuls of chum cubes tossed overboard don’t take long to work. When the fish start rising to the surface, a larger, free-lined chunk on a circle hook stands out like a side of beef. Robson’s light-tackle bait rig includes 15- to 20-pound braided main line connected to 2 feet of 60-pound fluorocarbon leader with double uni-knots. The leader is snelled to a 10/0 to 12/0 bronze circle hook.
“We catch our biggest snapper on live cigar minnows or herring, but when you get them excited with the chum, cut bait works just fine,” Robson says.
Chummed snapper aren’t shy about eating lures either. I landed that 12-pounder on a Shimano Waxwing lure retrieved through the slick. Other subsurface swimming baits and bucktail jigs work too, and when the fish are in a feeding frenzy, topwater plugs like Heddon Zara Spooks and Rapala Skitter Walks get slammed as well. The rig is the same as for bait, except a monofilament loop knot is used to give the lure more action.
“Color really doesn’t matter,” Robson explains. “They’re just reacting to anything that’s moving or flashing. When they’re fired up, they don’t care.”
Calm days with little wind and current have the best conditions to keep the chum concentrated over the reef. These factors typically coincide with summer mornings after the bait schools have moved inshore. Robson says the chumming technique will also work on vermilion snapper, triggerfish and amberjack at times. Gray snapper, called black snapper locally, will take baits right off the surface, although they are much warier than their red counterparts.
“Red snapper are still my favorite,” Robson explains. “They’re big, and man, do they pull! If you’re looking for a light-tackle challenge, it doesn’t get any better than when you’re seeing red.”