Fishing the Red Snapper Opener in Panama City, Florida
Eugene L. 07.12.22
For my family, a summer red snapper fishing charter is an annual tradition. This goes back to when my parents and grandparents first moved out to this side of the country when I was a baby. So, for this year’s annual trip, I headed out with Captain Josh Sauls and First Mate Trip of Heritage Excursions again this year. These guys run a great charter and will work their asses off to make sure you’re on the fish.
I start prepping for going on an offshore charter trip the afternoon before we are actually set to be on the water. The first thing for me is to set out a pinfish trap with tuna scraps in it. Once that’s set up, I get to start pre-packing everything we’ll need for the next day. Bagging sandwich materials and snacks, drinks, and all my tackle and gear. That way when I’m scrambling the next morning it’s a lot easier to load the truck and get a move on.
The day of the charter starts around 3:30 – 4:00 am for me. Getting everything loaded up into the back of the truck, or at least what I think is everything. Waking everyone else up and telling them to get ready. Then, I run to the boat dock to grab the pinfish from the pinfish trap that I set up the day before. While catching your own pinfish isn’t necessary, I do know it’s appreciated by Captain Josh. Unlike a lot of other charters out there, Captain Josh runs a very all-inclusive sort of trip. So, he’ll cover the costs of live baits when most other Captains don’t or only cover a portion of the cost. Once everything and everyone was loaded up in the truck it was time to get a move on to the marina.
The plan is to get to the marina and start loading up into the boat by 5:45 am at the latest. That way we can get on our way as quickly as possible. If you’re late, that means you’re going to be burning up time waiting in line at the bait boat. So, it’s always a good idea to be early to the marina. We meet up with my friend Robert at the dock, who I went cobia fishing with in the spring. Then, started moving all our stuff onto the boat. Once that was done we were off.
Captain Josh runs a 2018 40′ Contender Center Console that’s powered by triple 300 HP Yamaha outboards, this is a fast boat. It’s easily capable of an average cruising speed of 40 knots. Once out of the no-wake zone we were easily doing 40 mph trying to make it out the pass as quick as possible. Our first stop for the day was the bait boat the Sasquatch. This boat has a bunch of pens that they store bait they catch. Then, when the charter boats come out they sell these baits by the scoop. While they aren’t cheap neither is your time, so I find them to be a better alternative than trying catch bait on sabikis.
After loading up our live wells with a few scoops of cigar minnows we are ready to get going. We got a long run ahead of us in this fast boat. So, once everything is secured down and the bean bags are set up for everyone to sit in we are on the move again. Lucky for us the gulf was very nice out that day, while not glassy it was still a very calm day. It made for a smooth ride with an occasional wave every once in a while. While the rest of the crew took a nap in the beanbags I chose to just sit up and watch the water. It’s always great to be out on the gulf especially moving at speed.
Even as the sun comes up the wind blowing keeps you cool out there. If you watch the water as you go you can see signs of life everywhere. Every once in a while you will see flying fish skitter across the surface after being disturbed by the boat. Some will fly just a short distance through the air and others go 10s of yards before going back into the gulf. There are patches of sargassum weed floating on the surface that while you cant see the life in them, are loaded with small crabs and shrimp. You can occasionally spot a sea turtle floating on the surface sunning itself.
After running for a good while we neared the first spot for the day, an underwater ledge that you could see had plenty of life on it using the bottom machine. So, I started fishing with my slow pitch fishing rig, sending down a small 140gram vermillion snapper jig. Everyone else sent down some live cigar minnows, but it was a bit slow. One of my friends on the bow of the boat caught a scamp grouper, but no one else was having any bites. I tried working the jig up the water column, but was also not having much luck.
So, I switched up my presentation, now knocking the jig directly on the bottom. Tapping a couple of times then lifting it up, then letting it flutter back down to the bottom. This can produce very well with grouper because the sand it kicks up, but is also risky. Having 4 assist hooks on my jigs its very easy to lose jigs fishing this way, but lucky for me, it worked though. I got a good hit right on the bottom. It was a heavy fish so I was excited thinking it was a good-sized grouper. Unfortunately, it was bigass triggerfish, which are out of season. So, that fish got chucked back.
After only catching those two fish at the first spot we reeled everything in and moved to another spot. A little worrisome for such a spot to be that lit up on the machine, but not produce. I had plenty of trust in Captain Josh, I knew we would get a pattern going, and that trust was very well placed because even with our slow start it was definitely a great day out there. The next spot produced more scamp and snappers, along with some oddball fish.
This was the move for the rest of the day. Make a stop at a spot drop down some live baits and bring up a few fish then move on. We would have loved to stay longer at a lot of these spots, but the sharks were terrible. We would manage to bring up a few fish past the sharks at first, but then once the sharks got frenzied we would have to move. No point in feeding those sharks.
I lost so many big groupers to the sharks that day. I had a big bait rod set up with a big Saltiga 2-speed LD55 reel on a heavy bent butt rod. This was set up for targeting big grouper using big live baits. Several times I got hit on those big baits, and several times after fighting them for a bit I could feel the shark grab and eat my groupers. The one grouper head I did get back weighed more than our smallest legal snapper.
But even with the sharks we still made due. There was an amazing variety of fish being caught out there. Besides the usual red snapper and groupers, we caught a bunch of different species. Tunas, jacks, mackerels, porgies, and even a cobia. While we saw blackfin busting on the surface a few times, we couldn’t get them to eat any of the plugs we threw. Instead, they were eating cigar minnows near the bottom when we were dropping them down for snapper. The same goes for our other good catches, the kings and cobia also ate a suspended bait that was near the bottom.
Honestly, by the time we hooked up on the kings and cobia we were all so tired of sharks. We thought they were another shark so no one was too excited to see a rod going off like crazy. We had all assumed it was just another shark on the line and hoped it would just pop off without tangling everyone else up. but to our surprise 3 separate times we had these giants come up and like a light switch, the attitude on the boat changed instantly. Everyone was stoked and happy as could be.
After fishing bait for a while again I decided to switch to my Slow Pitch Jigging combo again. Normally I fish it a lot more, but because of how well the live bait was producing I had stuck to fishing bait most of the day. So, of course though as soon as I drop the jig down again I get broken off instantly.
While the jig was on its way down the line started coming off the reel faster. So seeing that I put the reel in gear and the line just started peeling off the spool. The fish pulled a bunch of drag and then popped the line. I’m assuming it was a bigger pelagic species. Something like another blackfin tuna or maybe even a wahoo, all I know for sure was that it was fast and strong. And on my 30lb test braid, it was more than enough to break me off.
So yeah I decided to just stick with bait fishing for the rest of the day, it was hot and I really didn’t want to deal with an FG knot at that point. With our snapper and grouper limit almost done, I decided originally to drop a chicken rig instead of live bait. This was to go after vermillion snapper and red porgies. While they’re smaller fish, they are delicious and the red porgies have no limit. Instead, I only got one bit on the chicken rig, but it was something I had only seen online and never in person.
It was a Creolefish (Paranthias furcifer), a species related to groupers and the popular aquarium fish Anthias sp. Trip told me they only catch one or two a year so I was ecstatic. I mean it’s not the biggest fish out there, but I love catching oddball fish. These fish are gorgeous, brilliant red-orange, with a bright yellow highlight on their dorsal fin, they are also delicious too. That’s one of the biggest appeals for deep-sea fishing for me, the mystery of what you might catch. Here in Georgia I know I’ll catch either a bass, catfish or a brim. But out there in the gulf, it can be anything.
A little after that we had filled up our limits of grouper and snapper. So we all decided it was time to head back home. We had plenty of fish on ice and everyone was tired anyways. So time to pack it all in, clean up some then start the long ride back home. Again those bean bags are lifesavers and some say time machines. For a lot of people as soon as they sit in them they teleport back to the dock.
We ran back into the bay and made a stop at St. Andrews Marina, where we offloaded our catch to take some pictures and then dropped off our catch with Tails and Scales Fish Processing. Those guys do an amazing job cleaning your fish for a reasonable price per pound. After which we took another short ride back to the original marina we started at that morning to then disembark after our amazing trip. I have to thank Captain Josh Sauls and First Mate Trip of Heritage Excursions. I can’t think of a better charter out there. Even when conditions are tough they’ve put me on the fish in the past. If you are in the area and have a group who wants to catch fish there is no one else I would recommend more than them.
This was honest to god one of the best days I’ve ever had offshore. A full limit of snappers, a full limit of groupers, tuna, kings, and even a cobia. Along with the few oddballs we caught, there isn’t much more you could ask for. The only thing I could think of would be a wahoo, but at that point, that’s just being greedy.