The Gateway Tug: Summertime Snappers - The Fisherman

The Gateway Tug: Summertime Snappers

snapper-blues
Snapper blues have the power to create bonds through fishing and just might ignite a lifelong obsession.

Get your kids hooked on fishing, with snapper blues!

Who doesn’t enjoy the jolting hit from an angry bluefish? Well, maybe not when using eels or soft plastics, but in just about any other situation they are plain old fun to catch! After a multiyear hiatus, I was reacquainted with big blues in my local waters this past June. Fresh from the ocean and covered in sea lice, they were cruising the surface in broad daylight miles from shore. It was a first for me, sight-casting to bluefish over deep water. They weren’t shy either, smashing our topwater lures and putting the screws to our tackle. An entertaining reunion with a fish that’s been on my radar since the beginning.

Like many anglers from the Northeast, bluefish were my introduction to saltwater fishing. Not the oversize ones that get cool nicknames like slammers, gators or gorillas. Instead, it was the juvenile version that have been marauding baitfish in the shallows each summer since the last glacial retreat. Many hours of my youth were spent on the docks and rocks along my hometown harbor catching anything I could. In August and September that meant ravenous, miniature bluefish.

Snappers, as they are universally and affectionately known, are ideal quarry for beginner anglers. They are predictable in their timing and locations and really aren’t picky eaters. The pint-size predators pack a punch when matched with the appropriate light tackle, they’re a blast to catch. For these reasons and more, snapper blues are the perfect play if you want to get your youngster hooked on fishing this summer.

When I learned that I was going to be a dad, once the hyperventilating subsided, wheels started turning about grooming a new fishing buddy. In all seriousness, sharing my passion for the great outdoors with my children has been one of the many joys of parenthood. Before either of my daughters could walk, they accompanied me on fishing trips snug in a Deuter backpack with a pacifier hanging from their mouth.

The earliest outings they can recall were spent targeting snapper blues on the very docks that I fished from as a kid. Now, snappers are embedded into their summer rituals, including an annual children’s derby sponsored by our town, where each contestant shakes hands with the mayor at weigh-in and goes home with a new fishing combo.

catch-release
Catch and release is just one of the many lessons your kids will learn when fishing for these mini gators.

Where & When

Bluefish are a pelagic species found all over the globe. Here at home, their range spans from Florida to Maine depending on the season. Young-of-the-year blues arrive to the inshore waters of northeastern states around the month of June, about two or three-inches long from forked tail to beady, yellow eyes. That won’t last long though. Bluefish are voracious eaters at every stage of their life cycle, which helps fuel their rapid growth rate. By August they can be 5 inches or more and prime targets for rod and reel. In mid-fall, as snappers depart our waters, some have grown to over 10 inches.

If you can access a brackish or saltwater stretch of shoreline in late summer, chances are there are snappers somewhere nearby. My go-to spots are within the protected waters of harbors and tidal rivers, along docks, piers, jetties, and bulkheads. I have also had success outside of harbors and rivers along open beaches near where rock groins intersect the shore. Snappers will be where the schools of small baitfish are. They roam in little wolf packs, ambushing all types of small minnows and grass shrimp.

rigs
There’s no need to get fancy with your bait rigs, just a plastic bobber, a small hook and some minnows will draw lots of attention from snappers.

Hooking Up

Fortunately, when snappers are around, it doesn’t require a whole lot of effort or expensive gear to catch them. The same ultra-light you use for panfish or trout will do the trick (a Frozen-themed push-button combo served our needs for multiple seasons). If you are going for numbers, a simple 1/8-ounce Kastmaster may be responsible for more snapper blues being caught than any other lure on the planet. However, most small, shiny spoons should work well when retrieved at a quick pace to imitate the baitfish these little devils prey on.

Another all-time classic is the snapper popper rig found on the wall of any coastal bait shop. This setup has a weighted popping float on one end and a hook dressed with natural color tubing or synthetic flashy material on the other. Adding short jerks to the retrieve will create splashes and commotion that draws the attention of competitive snappers. Trailing behind the melee is the tube or fly that looks like a lone, injured baitfish and, in turn, gets attacked.

Artificial offerings may be more efficient in hooking and landing snappers, but bait under a bobber may make more sense when your fishing partners are children. One reason is they won’t have to constantly cast and retrieve. Another is the visual aid of the bobber going under when a snapper chomps the live or frozen minnow. The bait rig doesn’t have to be complex—just a plastic bobber, 18 to 24 inches of leader, and the hook of your choice.

When using minnows to catch snappers, half the fun is trapping your bait, and bringing a minnow trap is like a cheat code. Cylindrical traps made of galvanized steel are a game-changer in extending the length of the average kid trip. First, you’ll need some bait for the trap—pieces of bread, crackers, and dry pet food have worked for us. Usually I toss the trap in the shallows and tie it right to the same dock or rocks that we’re fishing from. After soaking for a few minutes, you should begin to see all types of marine life swarming around it.

Mummichogs and Atlantic silversides have been the most common species to find their way into our trap. However, given the warm water temps in late summer, you never know what you will see. Last August, in one soak alone, we scored a baby porgy, tautog, menhaden, and striped killifish. Bring a five-gallon bucket and you have a makeshift live-well/mobile aquarium. At times the kids are more interested in catching minnows than they are catching snappers.

Kastmasters
Small Kastmasters are probably responsible for more snapper catches than any other lure on the market.

Limit Your Catch

KID TRIP MUST-HAVES:
Snacks: You can never bring enough snacks to hold-over hungry kids and buy more fishing time. Plus hand sanitizer and a rag to help clean their hands.

Hemostats: They may not be big, but they’re still bluefish with razor-sharp teeth. Leave the handling and unhooking to adults and, use your pliers/stats to keep your digits safe.

Buckets: I always bring a 5-gallon bucket for the minnows we trap and another for the snappers we catch and observe before release.

Sunscreen: The summer sun is no joke and hats and sunscreen for the kiddos are clutch.

Bug Repellent: Bug bites have been known to curtail kid fishing trips. I like Ranger Ready, which is DEET-free, kid-safe, and USA made.

In years past, there would have been a section here about cooking snappers, but the bluefish stocks have been declared ‘overfished’ by fisheries managers and the daily bag limit has dropped from 10 to 3 for recreational anglers; and that’s not enough for a family meal. That being said, bluefish are resilient. They will be back. I would like to believe what I have witnessed recently and heard from others are encouraging signs. For now, I don’t see the point in taking home just three snappers, so we attempt to get decent photos or just admire them in the bucket for a moment before letting them go. If they manage to escape the gauntlet of predators that await them, perhaps they will grow to be gators, covered in sea lice, thrashing spooks and testing terminal tackle.

Ultimately, releasing a limit of snapper blues will be a good lesson for budding anglers that soak in knowledge like a sponge. After all, they are our next generation of anglers, environmental stewards and conservationists. When we introduce kids to fishing, not only do we have an opportunity to teach them about our wonderful fisheries, but we get to share with them the less measured parts of our trips that add to the overall experience—osprey dive-bombing schools of bunker, great blue herons wading a tidal creek, fiddler crabs burrowing in a mud bank. So, take a kid snapper fishing this summer. Who knows? Maybe it will be the spark to a lifelong passion.

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