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Fall Snapper Trip Yields Full Fish Locker

By DAVID RAINER

Blake Hunter pulled open his backpack and retrieved a notebook cherished for the scribbling it held, not for the paper and spiral wire that bound it.

It was a book of numbers, the most valuable asset an angler who regularly fishes the Gulf of Mexico can possess. In Hunter’s case, a retiring charter boat captain has passed on GPS coordinates for the old salt’s favorite fishing spots and artificial reefs.

As we eased toward our departure point of Billy Goat Hole at Dauphin Island aboard George Jordan’s 32-foot Donzi, Hunter said, “I don’t want to jinx us, but I’ve got one spot where it shouldn’t be a problem to catch a limit of red snapper and amberjack.”

As Jordan punched in the numbers, Mark Jones took the helm and launched what I call a “go-fast” boat onto a 44-mile journey into the Gulf last Friday on a trip made possible by the weekend-only fall snapper season, which runs through Nov. 21.

Although the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s decision to implement a fall snapper season in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster was made with the vast Gulf charter fleet in mind, it appears the private boat anglers have benefitted the most.

Tim Casteix, marina manager at Dauphin Island Marina, said the marina’s cash flow was similar to last year, but the source has changed. BP money – fueling the numerous Vessels of Opportunity (VOO) involved in the oil spill mitigation that has kept the marina afloat. Casteix said very few charter boats had picked up trips for the fall snapper season and when we got back to the dock later that day, only Capt. Brian Swindle’s Boss Man was out catching snapper. The situation for the Orange Beach charter fleet has been basically the same – a few trips here and there but not enough to keep anybody busy.

However, Casteix did say the private boats have been busy and anyone who happens to run past one of the popular public reefs in the Gulf will testify that it is covered up with boats, which, after the first weekend, have had increasing difficultly coaxing the fish to bite.

Not so for those fortunate enough to be the beneficiary of a kind captain willing to share his treasure trove of reef coordinates with the next generation. Hunter, who deck hands on a couple of boats when he’s not busy with his day job, tried to keep from being overconfident as we headed for the reef that will remain private unless some fortunate soul stumbles upon it in a stroke of pure luck.

While the Donzi is capable of a top speed of 64 miles per hour, Jordan and Jones settled on a cruising speed of 40 mph for ride comfort and fuel economy. With the seas running 1-2 feet, it wasn’t long before we were fishing.

The first stop, actually, was for live bait. Just to be safe, before we left the marina Jones had thrown a couple of dozen croakers in the livewell because of the scarcity of bait offshore. When we pulled up to an offshore rig about 15 miles south of Dauphin Island another boat was reeling in a keeper red snapper. We were looking for live hardtails (blue runners) to use for amberjack fishing.  

“Five minutes,” Jones announced. “If we’re not catching bait in five minutes, we’re moving on.”

After five minutes, we left, baitless. The next stop produced one small hardtail, but the concern about not having live bait was a waste of time.

When we arrived at Hunter’s magic number it soon became apparent that the fish hovered around the reef were not going to be picky about what was being offered.

In fact, Jordan dropped down a chartreuse cobia jig just to see how hungry these fish were and within two minutes, he had a 12-pound red snapper flopping in the fish locker.

“I want to catch one on a jig,” I said as I stowed my camera.

“Let it down about 50 feet and then jig it hard,” Jordan coached.

By the second hard jig, another snapper about the same size grabbed it on the fall and soon joined his mate in the fish locker.

“You’re not going to catch anything over 15 pounds here, but I got some friends to dive the wreck and they said there must have been 400 snapper from 10 to 12 pounds,” Hunter said. “They said they looked like they were stamped out with a cookie cutter.”

Hunter, meanwhile, was concentrating on the amberjack and dropped down a butterfly jig. Within seconds, his rod was bowed and the fight was on.

Bubba Jones, Mark’s son, decided to try the traditional route with live croakers and whole pogies (menhaden). On one drop he would catch a snapper and on the next drop an amberjack would rise grudgingly to the surface.

With our limit of five amberjack, weighing 35-45 pounds, already in the fish locker, we had three more snapper to go for a 10-fish limit.

Because it was apparent a limit of snapper was not going to be hard to catch, I decided to change riggings to try to catch a few triggerfish to go with our other fish. With a small, double-hook rig, I dropped down with a couple of small chunks of cut bait and hooked up immediately.

“I hope this is two triggerfish because whatever it is sure is pulling hard,” I said.

 After a couple of drag-stripping pulls, I finally started pumping the fish to the surface. Of course, the bait didn’t have a chance to get to the triggerfish with all those snapper hanging around the reef, which was made from commercial chicken coops with a buoy tethered to heavy nylon line to provide vertical relief, a common method to attract amberjack. With the smallest hook on the boat aside from the bait hooks, I reeled in the biggest snapper of the day just as Jordan and Bubba pulled two more keeper snapper into the boat.

“A triple to finish the limit,” Jordan said. “Doesn’t get any better than that.”

When we looked at our watches, we had boated a limit of amberjack and red snapper in exactly one hour.

“I think the fall snapper season is great,” Jordan said after we had finished cleaning fish and washing the boat. “I just wish they would allow us more fish, like four each. But as far as overall fishing, it’s great. This trip was fantastic.

“It was probably one of the best days I’ve had in the Gulf of Mexico in a long time. We caught plenty of big fish. We got on the spot at 9:30 and limited out by 10:30 with amberjack and red snapper, you can’t ask for more than that.”

PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) George Jordan of Daphne shows off a beautiful red snapper that hit a chartreuse jig on a private reef 44 miles from Dauphin Island. Mark Jones, right, gaffs a 45-pound amberjack that Blake Hunter hooked and subdued with a butterfly jig off the same reef.

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