There are plenty of reasons to fly-fish around the oil rigs in the northern Gulf of Mexico, none more exciting than the sight of a big cobia hanging just under the surface. But sometimes these fish are nowhere to be found. Rather than admit defeat and head back home, break out some chum and try a new and exciting fly-fishing opportunity - red snapper on fly. You just might set a world record in the process.
Let's face it, red snapper don't quickly pop into the minds of most fly-fishers. In fact, the first time Kyrt Wentzell suggested he could chum them to the surface, not only did I not believe him, but also I couldn't figure out why anyone would want to. People just don't fish for red snapper on fly. Wentzell insisted I look at a video of him using a device he developed, called a Chum Churn, to chum fish up to the surface in an orange-tinted melee. Snapper were everywhere, and I was stunned. For one thing, I had forgotten just how big red snapper can get, and for another, these fish were right on the surface- theoretically easy to get a fly to. Wentzell sealed the deal when he mentioned that IGFA records for red snapper on fly were either tiny or vacant.
Fishing for red snapper requires some structure, any structure at all, whether it's a reef, a wreck or an oil rig. In the Gulf of Mexico, fishermen target snapper from the panhandle of Florida across to Texas, but the largest fish consistently come from offshore Mississippi and Louisiana on virtually any rig 10 to 60 miles offshore.
When opening day of the season came around, I was ready to go. We had set up a trip with Capt. Mark Seymour aboard his Geaux Fish out of Biloxi, Mississippi, where conventional anglers catch red snapper of 20, 30 and even 40 pounds with regularity. Capt. Seymour was familiar with Chum Churn and how to use it to bring snapper to the surface, but not with fly-fishing.
The plan was simple: First, get them up where we could cast to them, and second, once we hooked one, stop it from heading into the rig. Getting them to the surface, even the biggest sows, turned out to be quick and easy. Wentzell's Chum Churn worked as he said it would, and we never waited more than a few minutes for fish to turn on. On the other hand, keeping a 20-plus-pound snapper out of the rig with a fly rod was a different ball game entirely - one we never quite mastered.
My first cast was to a group of small fish, and I hooked up immediately to an 11-pounder. I hadn't expected it to be this easy. Sure, this fish was small for these waters, but with my first cast I has caught a potential world record. After a brief stay, we decided to go farther out, where the rigs sit in deeper water and the fish get much larger. At the next rig, things worked exactly the same way. Within minutes of chumming we had snapper under the boat, and we immediately began getting fish to take the flies.
However, the bigger fish weren't quite so cooperative. While Wentzell managed a 16-pound snapper, we both lost several good-sized sows to the rigs and failed to set the hooks on a few more. At one point I watched a group of "stop signs," as they're called locally, cruise through the chum slick looking for food. I cast a fly rod and stripped it straight into the slick; I immediately had four monsters turn on my fly. One fish, easily better than 30 pounds, split the school and inhaled my Sar-Mul-Mac, and just as quickly headed straight down. None of the snapper I had caught or even seen until this point even remotely prepared me for the power of this fish's run for the cover. I tried to crank the drag down but watched helplessly as she headed straight for the rig, the 12-weight rod doubling over. I never stood a chance.
Anything less than a 10-weight is sheer folly around the oil rigs; a 12-weight makes a wiser choice. Whatever you use, make sure it has the backbone needed to pull hard on a big fish. Snapper don't run horizontally; they move up and down, and that's it. We used sinking lines between 300 and 600 grains, but because we were chumming them up, intermediate lines would have worked. Large baitfish-pattern flies like big Sar-Mul-Macs, size 2/0 and larger with heavy hooks, worked best. Jig flies also produced, but everything from Deceivers to craft-hair Clousers took fish of some kind. Chum flies proved useless, however.
If the snapper feed in schools, they tend to be less line shy, which means you can get away with a shock tippet. If they come up alone or if you chum in one location for more than 30 minutes, the fish become wary and must be taken on straight tapered leaders. I would not recommend tying your own, as even tiny knots often spooked the fish. A tapered fluorocarbon leader works bests and provides better abrasion resistance than mono. If you prefer a shock tippet, use a few inches of 50-pound mono or fluorocarbon.
The advantage of fishing with the Chum Churn turned out to be that anything within range came through our slick. We caught everything from cobia and small jacks to bonito, and even got hit by kingfish. A quick retrieve practically guaranteed a jack or a bonito. I even watched one of the largest amberjacks I had ever seen (over 80 pounds) ignore my fly, followed just as nonchalantly by a school of huge jack crevalle. It turned into a regular party boat, with snapper making the most colorful impression.