When I first started fishing for red snapper, the species was not entangled in the mess of red tape that it is these days. Snapper season extended more than a couple of weekends, and you could put some fish in the cooler without regulations and seasons that seemingly change with each flip of the calendar.
Like other species that make fine tablefare, red snapper is highly regulated. Wading through the data and brouhahas that spark like wildfires each year is akin to moderating a political debate. It’s easy to get bogged down in the miscalculated catch limits and overreaching commercial influence, but I try to tune out some of that noise. I focus on opening day and planning a red snapper trip with friends.
Although we all live within a 25-mile radius, I ponder how I rarely see these guys anymore as we push two tables together on the deck of The Parrot Bar and Grill in Naples, Florida.
There’s my buddy Rob, a printer salesman, and his 16-year-old son Aiden, who is now 4 inches taller than me and an offensive lineman on his high school’s varsity football team. My best friend Steve works in the procurement department for a big defense contractor. Super Dave is the manager of a carpet-cleaning business. And Kevin, a South African who is now a U.S. citizen, married one of my wife’s good friends; he entered the circle a few years ago.
Life keeps us running at increasing speeds as we try to keep the wheels on the bus. An occasional text or comment on social media helps us stay in touch, but weeks, sometimes months fly by without a handshake or the clink of a bottle. The only time we know we’ll definitely be together is during the summer, when red snapper season is open, the kids are out of school and the desire to get on the water is at its crescendo.
I’ve never been much of a hunter, but after a few years fishing for reds with the same group of guys, I can understand why hunters always look forward to opening day. That mark on the calendar is something to look forward to when the school calls to say your kid got into a spat and is sitting in the principal’s office. You can spend a couple of hours at your workbench decompressing as you tie leaders or spool a reel. The upcoming adventure is a great diversion.
My snapper buddies are not diehard anglers; they’re easygoing guys who like to fish and get out for maybe a few trips each year. They don’t spend every free moment obsessing about the next tight line, but they enjoy their time on the water as much as the next guy, maybe more because they don’t fish as often. I usually arrange the trip. Using the connections I’ve built over the years, I’ll book a charter or reserve space on a reputable headboat. The tackle for red snapper fishing is minimal, and anyone can reel one in. It’s the perfect fishery for casual anglers, and I’m totally on board with that.
This year, I booked a day with Capt. Bill D’Antuono out of Naples. D’Antuono splits his time above and below the water. He’s an expert spearfisherman, but he also fishes with rod and reel. D’Antuono is in his mid-30s and has a mellow way about him, but he works hard to put fish on the deck of his 32-foot Contender, which he customized for diving and bottom fishing. The console was removed to open up space under the deck to store dive tanks. The helm is set up with a side console, and rather than a seat, D’Antuono sits on the edge of a massive fishbox. Powered by a pair of 350-hp Suzukis, the boat is awash in charter-boat charm.
The last few years, we’ve fished for reds in the Gulf of Mexico rather than the Atlantic, mostly because of scheduling. This year, the Atlantic recreational red snapper season in federal waters more than three miles from shore was a whopping three days: July 9, 10 and 11. Trying to clear the schedules of six guys to fit within a three-day window is nearly impossible. On the Gulf, the season for charter captains ran June 1 to Aug. 2. We hit the water in early July.
D’Antuono fires up the Suzukis, and we head out into the Gulf. We stop to pull up a pinfish trap D’Antuono had set the day before and toss three baits into the live well. We make a few more stops and bounce sabiki rigs to put more baits in the tank. We could’ve used additional baits, but we didn’t want to waste more fishing time. D’Antuono plugged in the numbers and set a course to some structure about 70 miles down the hill.
“I bet you have a lot of spots in that machine,” I say.
“Guess how many,” he responds.
“North of 10,000.”
The red-snapper fishery is a game of knowing where to go and having enough areas that you don’t fish out any one spot. D’Antuono watches the bottom as the boat runs on autopilot. The Furuno sounder can hold bottom at cruising speed, and when D’Antuono sees a blip of structure with some life on it, he marks it or pulls the throttles back, and we drop slow-pitch jigs. “The spot we’re going to is in about 140 feet of water,” he says. “I dove it yesterday, and it was loaded with snapper. I shot a nice black grouper, my personal best.”
D’Antuono pulls out his phone and shows me a photo of a 100-pound black grouper. He smiles, then goes back to watching the sounder and twiddling his beard. As we close in on our spot, we see there’s a boat on it, a 45-foot Grady-White. There are no other boats around for miles, but this one is right atop snapper mountain. D’Antuono sets up a few feet off their stern. Captains are a territorial bunch. We hook some fish, but no keepers larger than the 16-inch minimum. D’Antuono blames the new moon, but it seems that red snapper are all over the place until you go looking for them. I’m not worried about it, and everyone is having fun. After an hour or so, we head farther offshore.
“He’s really going the extra mile, get it?” my buddy Rob says, laughing at his own dad joke.
Now in 200-plus feet of water, the bite picks up, and rods bend with snapper and red grouper. We also catch a few porgies, scamps and vermilion snapper. Aiden fishes a live pinfish and hooks a 5-foot lemon shark. “Glad that one bit the whipper-snapper’s bait and not mine,” Steve says.
At the bar the previous night, we each put $20 into a big-fish pot. The one rule: The winning fish must be edible. The shark won’t count, but Aiden’s a lucky young buck, and after all the ribbing and lady advice we’ve been dumping on him, he deserves a nice fish.
We move to one more spot and are now 90 miles from the dock. The conditions are ideal, with 2- to 3-foot swells and light winds, but it’s going to be a long run home. The move is rewarded with bigger fish, and lucky Aiden’s last fish of the trip is a 16-pound red. He won the $100 pot.
On the ride in, we finish off the beer, joke around and laugh till our bellies hurt. Aiden falls asleep on a bean bag. It’s well past 8 p.m. as we pull into Naples. The sky is darkening. D’Antuono indeed went the extra mile for us, and while we didn’t catch our limit, we’re more than happy with our results.
As we tie up, I ask Aiden what he’s going to do with his winnings. “I don’t know, maybe take my dad out for dinner,” he says.
It gives me hope for the for the future, and I start thinking about next summer’s snapper trip.