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Yellowtail snapper

These tasty little critters are abundant just about anywhere there is structure.  Most inhabit reef areas of 120 feet or less, although occasionally I have caught them as deep as 180 feet.  Most of the time yellowtail snapper are fairly easy to catch and even novice anglers quickly learn how to put a few in a cooler.

Yellowtail snapper mostly feed on the bottom.  They are however a very opportunistic feeder, and will readily come outside of their comfort zone on the bottom to feed on just about anything anywhere in the water column. 

These snappers will feed and behave very differently under different weather and water conditions.  I had the fortune of observing yellowtail snapper feeding behavior on many occasions while working as a commercial fisherman. These snapper are fairly abundant in the Florida keys and many fisherman find it easy to catch a few for supper on a good day. I will try to explain how any angler can connect with more and larger fish more consistently, even when the fishing conditions for them are tough.  Knowing when to make little adjustments in technique can make a difference between catching your limit and coming home empty handed.  Although yellowtail snapper feed day and night, it is much harder to fool their eyes in the day time, so here I will focus mainly on how to catch them in the day time. 

One thing many fisherman overlook when fishing yellowtail snapper (and many other fish for that matter) is the chum bag.  It needs to have LARGE MESH.  You can make one out of a spare landing net, or just cut 6-10 one inch slits in the conventional chum bag.  Do not overlook this, it is extremely important!  The bag should not hold back any of the unthawed chum.  On breezy days, when the boat is rocking slightly, this is no problem.  On the rare occasion when the ocean is flat calm, it helps to use more chum, multiple chum bags with larger mesh or both.  The idea is to have a steady chum flow.  This will keep the snapper closer to the boat.  Shaking the chum bag does not work as well, and sporadic chumming can push the fish way back during faster current.

Many yellowtail fisherman like to use rolled oats, sand and other additives in addition to the ground chum.  Commercial fisherman developed this technique many years ago.  The main purpose for using rolled oats is to help cloud up the water (when it is very clear) and ball up the feeding school in a frenzy.  To work properly, the rolled oats need to be soaked in water for 2-3 days before use. This mixture of "slop" needs to be distributed at regular  intervals and amounts in addition to the chum.  Placing and keeping the bait in the cloud created by this mixture, helps to hide the monofilament line.  Executed properly, it is one of the ways used to catch large quantities of yellowtail snapper by the commercial vessels.  Although yellowtail snappers will eat rolled oats, pure ground up fish chum still works best.  For recreational catches of yellowtail snapper, especially in the Dry Tortugas, it is not really necessary to use any type of chum additives.

Yellowtail snapper have exellent vision.  Fooling this well developed sense is what makes good yellowtail fisherman.  12-20 lb. test clear monofilament line is best.  10-15' of fluorocarbon leader of the same test will increase your odds, especially if the water is very clear.  Attach the fluorocarbon leader directly to the main line using the blood knot or the uni-knot.  Do not use any swivels.  Absolutely do not use any fluorescent, phosphorescent, or any other high visibility line when fishing any snappers. 

Great majority of the people I see on my fishing trips who flat line for yellowtails, hold back or pull back on the line too much.  Twitching the rod tip to help the line go off the spool is another big mistake.  Instead, gently strip the line off the spool with your free hand.  Remember to always keep a slight slack in the line, so it pays out without any resistance.  Try to strip the line off of the spool with the same speed as the current.  Hold the rod tip steady, pointed in the direction of the drift.  On windy days, hold the rod tip very close to the surface of the water.  This will prevent the resistance of the wind from blowing your slack line and the bait out of the chum slick.  Try to present your bait in the middle of the slick, where the chum concentration is the greatest.

When you get a yellowtail bite, usually, the line will strip off your reel very fast.  Immediately close the bail and reel.  Do not hesitate, or wait for the fish to "take the bait".

When looking for a spot to anchor for yellowtail snapper, look for any type of reef structure.  Coral heads, reef edges, outcrops, or reef patches all attract these snapper.  This is where a good depth finder comes in handy.  Any suspended marks on the edge of the reef are worth investigating.  The marks might not be yellowtail snappers themselves, however, structure that attracts blue runners or baitfish will usually hold good numbers of yellowtails.

Generally, when there is good water visibility, look for these snappers in 60 to 100 feet of water.  When the water is cloudy, milky, light green or powder blue in color, you will do better shallower - 40 to 60 feet.  Often, when visibility is poor, the fish that will come up to feed in the slick will be quite large. 3-5 pound fish are not uncommon.  The school of tails will also hold tighter to the structure when the water visibility is poor.  Very slow or no tide is best when fishing low-vis conditions.

It is helpful to chum up the fish initially, even before anchoring, by placing a chum in the bag, and very slowly motoring over the broad area that you plan on fishing.  This is especially helpful when fishing a spot that receives little fishing pressure.  Anchor just up current of the structure. 

Leave the motor running for 10-15 minutes.  This will help draw the fish to the boat quicker. Yellowtail snapper are attracted to the sound of the motor (especially diesel).  This is because they have been conditioned over the years to associate it with food.  Shrimp boats that dump their bycatch every morning, commercial snapper fisherman using mass amounts of chum, and lobster boats hosing off their lobster traps all provide an easy meal for these snapper.  One good example of this is the K bouy on the north side of the Dry Tortugas.  It is a regular anchoring spot for the shrimp boats that work the area.  While commercial fishing for yellowtails snappers in the same area, I have observed the whole school of tails come up in a mad feeding frenzy, when a shrimp boat is passing by.  As the boat motors away, the whole school resumes their norman, much slower feeding activity.