Red snapper is one of the most highly sought-after game fish in the Gulf of Mexico, and for good reason - they’re a blast to catch and delicious to eat (and they look awesome in pictures). Red snapper can be found greater than 50 feet deep and you’ll find them in reefs and by offshore rigs in the Gulf - every guide has their own little honey holes that they mark as having countless snapper. Red Snapper can also reach pretty substantial sizes; they can be 40 inches long and up to 50 pounds - no joke to bring up from the depths.
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Red snapper are a pleasure to catch, but this lead to overfishing from the end of World War II to the mid 1990’s due to a combination of increased commercial action and better access to boats for recreational anglers. A fishery rebuilding plan was implemented in 2005 with the goal of building the red snapper population back up by 2032 (the plan is working, by the way). This includes catch limits and specific fishing seasons, and means the red snapper season is the most limited (and sought after) of the species in the gulf.
State waters and federal waters differ in terms of regulations (which can mean different seasons, different bag limits, and different size limits), so it can be crucial to know where you stand. Across most of the U.S., state waters extend to 3 nautical miles (just slightly over a normal mile), but in the Gulf of Mexico state waters are extended a little further, to 9 nautical miles. This means that for Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and the Gulf Coast of Florida, a recreational angler can head out 9 nautical miles and still fall under state regulations.
As mentioned above, these boundaries will impact what an angler can catch but lesser known is the impact on guides - federal reef fish permits in the Gulf of Mexico can be harder to obtain (and more expensive). New permits haven’t been issues since 2003, which means the total number of guides is capped. Federal waters are better for fishing, but also will be harder to get to logistically and harder to find a guide for.
The 2022 for hire red snapper season in federal waters will open June 1st and run until the quota is met. Anglers must still comply with the bag limits set by state wildlife organizations. The 2021 federal red snapper season was 62 days long for chartered trips and 63 days for private trips in the summer, and then reopened for 22 days in the fall.
The best way to make the most of the federal red snapper season is to pick a destination and book early. When summer comes around and the federal dates are announced, being able to book right away is the best way to lock in the dates you want. After the federal red snapper season remains open in several states along the Gulf but Alabama and Texas are usually open the longest.
In Alabama, Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are surrounded by thousands of reefs that hold red snapper in state waters. But when Alabama state waters close Texas is usually the only place to go. South Padre Island along with the more southern ports like Corpus Christi or Port Aransas has excellent state water red snapper fishing thanks to the steeper continental slope which means the water gets deep more quickly.
According to some captains, the higher gas prices and fish population left a lot to be desired. While limits were still met on many offshore charters targeting red snapper, captains reported the snapper were harder to find. The blame was placed on commercial fishing vessels which allegedly didn’t want to travel as far out due to gas prices. Instead they supposedly overfish the closer snapper spots ultimately hurting captains and the recreational fishing industry. Even with this theory and many others, plenty of captains around the Gulf reported snapper season was business as usual. Red napper stocks are still being watched carefully but it seems the fishery is shifting.
Updated on May 17, 2023
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