Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

The sonar bottom machine read 120 feet as the inert bottom about 29 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico suddenly came alive. The graph lit up with multi-colored blips hovering with 20 feet of the artificial reef on the sea floor.

Capt. Bobby Kelly put the Fairwater II in idle and said, “Come on up.” As he bumped the transmission into reverse, those blips quickly ascended from the reef that was once a World War II Hellcat fighter plane. Within seconds, the graph marked fish from the bottom all the way to about 25 feet under the boat.

“All right boys, let ‘em down about 25 feet,” he said over the intercom to his charter of 11. In no time, rods were bent and anglers were struggling to hang on as big red snapper inhaled the Spanish sardines that dangled from the circle hooks.

Soon deck hand Greg Shows was as busy as one man can get on the stern of a charter as the anglers reeled in one huge snapper after another.

I ran into Kelly the day before the season opened at the “Blessing of the Fleet” at Zeke’s Marina at Orange Beach and he said, “Come go with us Saturday on our family trip. We’re going to where the big ones live.”

Indeed, that was where Kelly had taken us and he had set a 15-pound minimum for a keeper, which had his dad, 78-year-old Chuck Kelly scratching his head when he was told his 12-pounder was going back into the blue-green water.

“I can’t believe we’re throwing snapper that big back,” Chuck said.

But the captain knew that at the depth the fish were biting, there wouldn’t be any release mortality. The released fish readily swam back down to the reef.

“The big snapper are going to be way high up in the water, as high as you can possibly fish,” the younger Kelly said.

For a long time, the prevailing theory on snapper fishing was that you had to drop the bait down to the bottom to get a bite. However, it has become apparent that method only rarely produces big fish now that the red snapper population has rebounded dramatically.

“I think it’s because the amount of fish has changed,” Kelly said of the change in fishing techniques. “When I started out as a teenager, we did just like that. We dropped it to the bottom and came up a few cranks. Now, the population of snapper is so great, we were in 120 feet of water and marking fish 20 feet under the boat. We caught them the other day swimming around the boat; I mean nice fish right under the boat.”

Kelly said after the charter industry rebuilt its artificial reef system destroyed by Hurricane Ivan, the fishing has been getting better and better.

“Since about 2007, it really took off,” he said. “I’d say it’s doubled every year. I tell my family each year, ‘The fish are going to be bigger next year; the fish will be bigger next year.’ We started out in 2006 on this trip keeping 18- to 20-inch fish and we’ve progressed all the way to this year’s 15-pounders. We threw back 10-pound snapper all day long.”

Kelly said even on his four-hour trips, he can catch a limit of snapper without any problem.

“I mean nice ones, seven-eight-pounders,” he said. “And that’s without getting to anything fancy in my (coordinates) book. We could have limited out on the first spot with 10-pounders. We could have been finished in 20 minutes.”

This time last year, Kelly had no idea the future would hold such good fishing, especially during the height of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Like a good many of the charter captains, Kelly worked in the Vessels of Opportunity (VOO) program. Unlike some, he said he’s been treated fairly by BP.

“We worked for 76 days and BP paid me everything I asked for,” he said. “I think they’re trying to make it right. There are naysayers, but I don’t think they had their paperwork in order. I followed it to a T. I provided 1099s, bank records and the letters of employment they asked for. I know there are some people that do, but I don’t have any complaints.”

It’s the stigma of the oil spill that’s still hurting the charter industry, Kelly thinks, especially with the debate over whether the lesions found on snapper caught this spring are related to oil contamination.

“I can tell you we have caught zero fish with lesions,” he said. “It’s the style in which I fish. With the two studies, Bob Shipp said they were fine. What they didn’t tell you in the other study (done by Jim Cowan of LSU) was that this guy went out and caught every single fish on that wreck. We, as recreational fishermen, are not going to see that diseased fish. If you’ve ever had an aquarium, if you have a sick fish, it goes to the corner of the aquarium and doesn’t eat. I don’t know how many thousands of pounds of snapper we’ve caught this year and we’ve yet to see any lesions, any sores. So the probability of the recreational angler seeing it is pretty slim.”

Kelly said his bookings in early June were a little slow, but he said the rest of June and July look strong. On his four-hour trips, he incorporates trolling for king mackerel as he heads for the nearshore reefs to catch snapper. Of course, the snapper season ends at 12:01 a.m. on July 19, which frustrates captains like Kelly to no end.

“We’ve been begging for common-sense management,” he said. “That’s all we want. A 48-day season with the snapper we have is unreal. On opening day, I had a trip with mostly kids and we limited out with 8- to 10-pound snapper. I never went faster than 8 knots and never was more than 14 miles offshore. Ten years ago, I would have had to run 35 miles and burn I don’t know how many hundred of gallons of fuel to do that. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

“Our six-hour trips are very popular in the summer and it’s able to produce a large amount of fish, something we didn’t see five years ago. For us to catch 10-pound snapper on a six-hour trip five years ago was rare. Now it is very common. And I expect it to continue to be very commonplace.”

Kelly said the charter boat industry is quickly undergoing a transition from corporate entertainment to family adventures.

“I think we’re done seeing the groups of corporate guys with the strong, strapping men coming out to show how big a fish they can catch,” he said. “What we’re seeing now is mom, dad, granddad and all the kids going on an entertainment trip. That’s what we provide – good quality entertainment and catching fish. Most of them don’t want to keep all the fish they catch. They want to keep enough for dinner. They’re not wasteful and they’re happy. That’s what our industry is going to and that’s great.

“And the good thing with the snapper population like it is, if somebody insists on catching big fish, we don’t have to run 40 or 50 miles to catch what we did on this trip.”

Visit or call Kelly at 251-747-3126 for information on charter trips on Fairwater II, which can accommodate up to 22 passengers. Capt. Tom Ard runs sister boat, Boll Weevil, for up to six passengers.

PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Large red snapper was the norm on a recent trip 28 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico on board the Fairwater II with Capt. Bobby Kelly. Chris Pike of Jasper (top photo) shows off the largest snapper of the day at 18 pounds, while Gregg Miles of Winfield (bottom photo) admires a beautiful snapper that was hooked only 25 feet under the boat. Deck hand Greg Shows gets ready to dehook a big snapper caught by Hannah Kelly, the captain’s wife.