Red Snapper Making a Comeback
By DAVID RAINER
Capt. George Pfeiffer deftly maneuvered his 65-foot charter boat, Emerald Spirit, to the spot where he had deployed an artificial reef a few years before and confidently said, “Watch this.”
Mate Eric Rochester and deck hand Drew Phillips grabbed chunks of bait and tossed handfuls into the water. Within seconds, the surface of the water turned into a churning pool of red snapper eager to dine on the free meal.
“I told you,” Pfeiffer beamed.
While I’ve witnessed red snapper rising to the surface to investigate the chumming efforts of anglers, never have I seen the number and size that acted as if Pfeiffer had trained the fish in his backyard pool.
The fish performed this trick on two different spots. The first artificial reef had only been down for three years and about 15 snapper cooperated. On the second spot, the snapper numbered close to 30 or so and the size ranged from 8 to 15 pounds – an amazing spectacle.
“Red snapper are at an all-time comeback through the efforts of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS),” Pfeiffer said, paying homage to the federal entity that controls the seasons and bag limits for U.S. territorial waters. “They’ve done a wonderful job through the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Unfortunately, the data is not showing how many snapper there are out there. Otherwise, they’d give us our bag limits back.
“There are more snapper out there now, in the estimation of all the charter boat captains that I know, than there’s ever been in my lifetime and I’ve been professionally fishing for snapper for 25 years. I’m 49 years old and have lived here all my life. I build my own reefs. I’ve been fishing from Panama City to Texas. The State of Alabama through its reef-building program with the three-to-one matching funds and the cutbacks in the bag limits has caused the snapper to come back in record numbers, as we saw today. You got pictures of snapper swimming all over the top of the water – 15-pounders swimming around all over the place.”
Recreational snapper fishermen, which includes the charter boat industry, have been under severe restrictions from NMFS for several years because the aforementioned Magnuson-Stevens Act requires that bag limits and/or seasons must be restricted for any species that is overfished or where overfishing is occurring. The current bag limit is two fish 16 inches or larger and the season starts on June 1 and ends on Aug. 5. Because of the restrictions, charter captains have had to change the way they fish to keep what customers remain happy.
“What we’re doing now is being more selective in the way we’re fishing – understanding where the fish are in the water column and choosing the right kind of bait, basically a much bigger bait that a small snapper can’t even get in its mouth,” Pfeiffer said. “It forces you to be more selective about the size of snapper you catch, thus having a reduced mortality rate from the throwbacks. Of course, it increases the catch size in the box. What we do is fish up higher in the water where the bigger snapper live. The smaller fish stay close to the wreck where they know they’re protected. The bigger fish venture away from the wreck because they’re wiser and older and can survive against predators better.
“Knowing all this from scuba diving and all of my experience – we can see them on the fathometer and we can tell where they are depth-wise. That changes from spot to spot, depending on the water currents and thermocline. Sometimes when you have a thick thermocline they won’t come above it or won’t go below it. In either case, I can look at the fathometer and tell my customers where to fish by dropping it (the bait) for a certain number of seconds, thus putting the bait right in front of the fish so they don’t have to swim through a thermocline. Also, we can be much more selective on what we catch.”
To ensure that release mortality is kept to a minimum, anglers on the Emerald Spirit are outfitted with large circle hooks and huge chunks of cut bait, whole squid stuffed with a minnow and live bait caught along the beach just outside Perdido Pass.
“We use the biggest baits we can, preferably live bait like hardtails (blue runners), threadfins and sardines,” Pfeiffer said. “We’ve got 10 Sabiki rods and we give the customers the rods and let them catch the bait, which they enjoy. It’s better than bream fishing because you can catch three or four at a time. We also catch pinfish in traps at the dock. We troll some and if we catch bonita we can use them. Bonita is the best cut bait. Otherwise, we use squid stuffed with minnows and big strip baits.
“According to the clarity of water, the salinity and brightness of the sun, they might like something better one day and like something else better tomorrow. We always have a vast selection of different baits. What we try to do is be selective and harvest a larger fish with less effort. Also, we don’t want to injure the smaller fish.”
Captains like Pfeiffer are trying to keep their customers happy with larger fish, but that turns into a double-edged sword.
“They keep shortening our season because of the total allowable catch,” Pfeiffer said. “The reason they’re doing that is they say that overfishing is occurring so they keep cutting us back. The thing is the snapper are a lot bigger and there’s more than there have ever been. Consequently, now they’re saying that because the fish are bigger we’re harvesting more pounds, so we’re going to go over the limit again. It’s a Catch-22.
“We’re trying our best to survive, but we are going broke. There are several hundred boats that have gone out of business. The economists are saying next year is going to be just as bad, so we don’t expect a turnaround for two or three years.”
Throw in Hurricanes Ivan, Katrina and several other tropical storms and one can understand why the number of charter boats is dwindling along the Gulf Coast.
“With the bad economy, people are not willing to come down here when they can only catch two red snapper,” Pfeiffer said. “Our business is off from 60 to 70 percent from just the change in bag limit and the season, which coincides with the total allowable catch (TAC) that has been reduced by NMFS. We’re working with a 65-day snapper season where it used to be a six-month season.”
For Ira Burris, the dedicated Gulf angler who organized the trip on Emerald Spirit with a number of his co-workers from Bagby & Russell Electric Company in Mobile, a longer season would make the two-fish limit much more tolerable.
“For them (charter boats) to be able to make it, we just need a longer season,” Burris said. “Keep it at two fish, but give us more time to fish. When you charter a boat like this you’re just looking for a good time and decent-sized fish. I had met Capt. George before and I knew his passion for fishing. He promised us he would put us on some good-sized fish and he didn’t let us down.”
With the current regulations, the charter industry along the Gulf Coast is desperately trying to educate anglers about the other species of fish available to catch. It’s a difficult task because Orange Beach has been known as the “Snapper Capital of the World” for decades.
“We’re trying to tell our customers – and it’s a hard thing to do – that there are other things to catch besides red snapper,” Pfeiffer said. “I remind my customers there are lots of other fish out there. On an average 12-hour trip, we spend three or four hours fishing for snapper. That’s about half of your fishing day. If snapper season is closed, we simply fish for something else – grouper, scamp and amberjack. We are currently using deep-drop electric reels that will fish in 700, 800, 1,000 feet of water. That’s where you catch the yellowedge grouper, snowy grouper, tilefish and scamp. These fish live in water that’s 250 feet deep plus. We understand that that’s hard for the average person to wind. A couple of drops and they’re tired. That’s why we’ve incorporated the electric reels and the braided line that cuts through the water. So I tell my customers that we will use the time normally devoted to red snapper to look for grouper and other stuff. Actually, you’ll have as many or more pounds of fish in your cooler than you would when you can catch snapper. And to be honest, it’s better table fare.
“But it’s not like snapper fishing where you pull up to a spot and you get a bite instantly. With grouper fishing, they’re scattered around on natural bottom and you have to be patient. You may have to move around, but eventually it pays off. I let them know that before we leave the dock so they’ll know what to expect.”
Pfeiffer said he does all he can to help NMFS and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Marine Resources Division gather accurate information about each fishing trip – including the number of fish caught, how many were released, now many were released alive and how many were eaten by bottlenose dolphin.
“The only problem is this is a paper trail and a paper trail takes time,” he said. “We’re trying to implement some electronic reporting methods with laptops linked to satellites that we would use to upload data that day. The main purpose is to provide accurate data to NMFS for its survey so we can get our seasons and bag limits back.”
Pfeiffer admitted that he picked out several prime spots for our trip.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I wanted to show exactly how easy it is for anybody to go out there and see the fish so thick that they swim on top of the water. People are catching snapper in Escambia River at Pensacola and they’re catching them in the upper end of Mobile Bay. The fish are in places they’ve never been before because of the efforts of NMFS.
“And if they don’t do something about it soon, there are going to be red snapper swimming around in schools like piranha, eating the swimmers 10 feet off the beach,” he added with a hearty laugh.
Karl Baldwin holds up a large red snapper caught off the Emerald Spirit.
Buddy Kroner holding an amberjack caught during a recent Gulf fishing excursion.