Snapper - Saltwater Bluegill

by Jack Samson, Saltwater Flyfishing Editor

Half the trout and bass flyrodders I know -- when not after those favorites -- can be found on some small pond trying for bluegill on a small popper.

Easily that many bonefish and permit fly anglers revert to trying for snappers when the more exotic critters are not around. Some of the most action-packed fly fishing I have had were hours spent on the flats near the mangrove islands fishing for such powerful fighters as the mutton, lane and mangrove or gray snappers.


Saltwater Fly Fishing Editor Jack Samson and a nice gray snapper

PHOTO: JACK SAMSON

Anyone who has tried to keep a big gray snapper out of the mangrove roots after it has taken a fly knows what a task that can be. They seldom venture more than a yard or so from the shelter and darkness of the tangled roots, but when they do come out it is fast and predatory. No snook or tarpon ever fought harder to get back to the mangroves and if a gray snapper grew much larger than the 10-lb maximum it would take a 15-weight billfish flyrod to haul it out.

The mutton snapper is primarily a fish of the open flats -- where it is a gamefish rivaling the permit in strength, speed and cunning. The gray snapper (Lutjanus griseus) -- along with a bunch of lesser snappers and grunts-- inhabits the mangrove roots, blue holes and dock pilings of tropical shallow waters. It is the most common shallow water snapper in waters from the Middle Atlantic, Florida and Gulf Coast states to the Bahamas and the Caribbean.

Like its cousins the mutton and cubero snapper, it is difficult to fool with a fly. If it is found in a remote spot and the fly is properly presented -- and stripped fast -- the gray snapper will sometimes fall for an artificial lure. But if it is hooked and gets off, the chances are slim that it will strike again. It is no accident tropical waters are filled with gray snappers. They didn't get numerous by being stupid.

My introduction to the smarts of mangrove snappers began back when I used to fish for sailfish with Allen Self out of Key Largo, Florida. While waiting for Allen to ready the Sea Elf for fishing, I'd try to catch these critters with pieces of shrimp and a light spinning rod. These were resident school fish that lurked beneath the dock and every kid in the area fished for them day and night. These snappers could tell an Eagle Claw from a Mustad hook 20 feet away.

One could toss unhooked pieces of shrimp at them for half an hour -- all of which they fought over. But cast a bit of shrimp on a hook out there and every fish in the school would tilt and follow it to the bottom -- where they would stare at it for a minute, sneer, and swim back under the dock.

They are even more leery of a fly, but they can be fooled. Shrimp appears to be their favorite food and a shrimp-like pattern works well now and then. I designed my own "snapper trapper" that fools a few. I alternate that with the hot glue MOE fly that Harry Spears of Marathon, Florida developed a few years back. I took a nice five or six pound gray snapper on the MOE while fishing with Chuck Rizuto at the Casa Blanca in Ascencion Bay, Mexico a year or so ago.

A big school of them hung around a forest of mangrove roots in a deep channel near the lodge. Moved in fast strips, the MOE proved deadly. There must have been several hundred gray snappers in that school and I think the competition helped hook the one I caught. As the fly passed by, most would dart out of the roots to inspect it and the big one must have decided to outdo the smaller ones. On most snappers a 6-weight rod will do the trick, but I sure would want at least a 9-weight to keep the bigger ones out of the roots and from beneath a dock. The trouble with trying to fool these smart snappers is that one must use a very fine leader not to spook them.

However, they have very sharp teeth and can easily cut through a light leader. If a heavier leader is used to haul them from cover, it keeps them from striking. If a heavier shock leader -- or a short wire leader-- is used to keep them from cutting the fly off, it prevents the fly from acting naturally. One's best hope is to catch one of these wary snappers some distance from cover, where it can be maneuvered properly on the long rod.

Like the fresh water bluegill, the salt water snapper is a slab-sided critter and turns that flat side toward the angler while fighting -- making it very tough to subdue easily. In very clear water it is very spooky, but in milky or slightly murky water, one has a better chance with a fly. I have had good luck under such conditions with small shrimp-like flies moved slowly -- flies like the Slight Charlie or the gray or tan Salt Shrimp on size 6 hooks. In that kind of water it pays to use a long 9-12 foot, 7X leader.

The mutton snapper (Lutjanus analis) is fast becoming regarded in many places as superior to the bonefish on the flats. It feeds in the same habitat -- shallow flats covered with coral marl and turtle grass -- and tails like the bonefish and permit while feeding in the shallows. It will take a well-presented fly, but is as cautious as the permit and a close cast will spook it. While the gray snapper seldom reaches a weight of 10 lbs, a mutton snapper can grow to weights of 30 lbs, though it averages 6-12 lbs on the flats.

The mutton snapper is very selective about food and only a few flies will tempt it. I took a nice 8-lb mutton snapper on the flats of Guanaja -- an island in the Bay Islands off northeast Honduras -- on a MOE fly some years back. I later caught a small mutton snapper on a permit crab fly designed by former Keys guide Jan Isley. I was moving it in short strips in a channel near Shell Key, close to Islamorada. Other saltwater flyrodders have told me they have hooked mutton snappers on a few bonefish flies, mainly Crazy Charlies.

I once saw the late A.J. MacLane catch a big 12-15 lb mutton snapper on a 2/0 Pink Shrimp bonefish fly in a deep channel on Chub Cay in the Bahama's Berry Islands. It was an epic battle and almost cleaned MacClane's reel of its 200 yards of 20 lb backing before he subdued it. It convinced me at the time that a 10-12 lb leader would be a good idea while fishing for this tough fish.

Many salt water flyrodders don't realize what a great game fish they are missing by ignoring the common snapper. Ask your flats guide -- the next time the fishing becomes slow for bonefish, tarpon or permit -- if he knows where there are some good snapper holes. You may become a convert.

Like me.