John's Journal...


More and Bigger Snapper Drift Lining

Click to enlargeEDITOR'S NOTE: With snapper season in high gear this summer, I've collected new and better ways to catch more and bigger snapper. And there’s plenty of good news on the Upper Gulf Coast this summer. If you look at the area Hurricane Dennis went through in July, 2005, you’ll see the resulting destruction, but not nearly as much as Hurricane Ivan caused. Many of the charter boats are still up and running, however many of the fisherman normally there at this time of the year aren’t, but you should be and here’s why. Right after a major disturbance in the Gulf of Mexico, like Hurricane Dennis, bottom feeders like snapper and grouper migrate. If history repeats itself, the Alabama/Mississippi Gulf Coast would have a tremendous influx of grouper and the Florida Panhandle, including the Destin and Panama City area, should have a huge influx in snapper. Right now, you have a window of opportunity to travel to the Upper Gulf Coast and catch more and bigger snapper than ever before.

If you learn to fish the drift-line technique of presenting a bait slowly and gently to red snapper and other bottom feeders, you can catch more and bigger snapper and grouper on every trip to saltwater. I had to learn this lesson the hard way while fishing on the “Summer Hunter,” a charter boat based at Orange Beach, Alabama. Each time we stopped over a wreck or a reef, I'd let my heavy lead sinker free-spool to the bottom. But Debbie Wilhite, the first mate on the “Summer Hunter,” fished a 7-foot spinning rod and would cast her bait and a small slip sinker upcurrent toward the front of the boat. Then she'd feed out line as the whole cigar minnow on her line drifted slowly to the bottom. I thought by getting to the bottom quickly that I could catch the biggest fish on the reef. Click to enlargeHowever, Wilhite consistently caught more and bigger snapper up off the bottom than I did on the bottom. I soon learned that the slower I arrived with my bait at the bottom, the bigger snapper I would catch.

I've learned that often black snapper will drift further behind the boat than I can see, or they'll hold in water so deep that I can't spot my cigar minnow. Once the fish takes the bait, I'll let the line free-spool off the reel for about a three count until the fish tightens up the line. Then I'll set the hook. Next, I'll back off the drag so that the snapper can run with only slight drag pressure and to keep from breaking the fish off. Take your time bringing black snapper in because of their strength. If you try to overpower them, they often will cut the line.

At the first wreck we stopped on, I immediately got a bite when my bait hit the bottom. As the fish pulled against the rod and I began to take up line through the blue-green water, the little twitches on the line and the flashes of red and silver I saw in the water signalled that I had on a small snapper. When I looked over my left shoulder, Wilhite's rod tip almost touched the butt of her rod. "Come on, take the rod," Wilhite offered. "No, I'll fish with what I've got," I answered.

I used a typical sow rig with a 1/2-ounce lead sinker up the line, a barrel swivel below the sinker, 4 feet of 50-pound-test line from the barrel swivel to the No. 5/0 hook and a live pinfish for bait. In the months before, I'd caught plenty of big snapper using this rig. But as we continued to fish, Wilhite kept catching bigger snapper than I did. Finally when my desire to catch big snapper overpowered my dedication to the rig I fished, I asked Wilhite to show me how she used spinning tackle, a small weight and dead bait to take large snapper. "All you do is cast upcurrent and free-line your bait out as it drifts back toward the boat," Wilhite coached. The first time I tried the Click to enlargetactic, I caught a nice 5-pound snapper. Throughout the rest of the day, I became even more convinced that drift-line fishing could put more and bigger red snapper, black snapper and amberjack in the boat than any other technique of saltwater fishing I'd ever tried.

How the Wilhites Learned Drift-Line Fishing:

Captain Jack Wilhite and his wife, Debbie, have fished the waters off Orange Beach for more than 40 years. They consistently bring in nice catches of large snapper using this drift-line tactic. When I asked Wilhite how he learned this technique, he explained, "When we vacationed in the Florida Keys, the captain we fished with made a ball of sand, clay and chum and lowered it down to a depth of about 30 feet where we saw fish holding up off the bottom. As the chum ball began to disintegrate, it created a cloud in the water and left a chum line that brought yellowtail snapper up and caused them to feed. Then we free-lined our baits down to that depth where the chum was being released to catch the snapper. We tried that same method here in Orange Beach, and it worked very successfully to pull bigger snapper up off the bottom and get them to take a bait floating through the chum line. However, as we watched our parties fish through the years, we noticed the snapper regurgitated as our anglers brought them up off the bottom. This action by the hooked Click to enlargesnapper created chum about 40 feet off the bottom. Even as the hooked snapper got close to the boat and regurgitated, we'd see bigger snapper coming up to feed."

Wilhite also noticed that when his anglers threw out pieces of cigar minnows, the bigger snapper came toward the surface, grabbed the baits and ran to the bottom. To try and catch these snapper coming up off the bottom, the Wilhites started free-lining dead cigar minnows out behind the boat. However, the cigar minnows didn't get down deep enough to attract the larger snapper.

For more information on fishing, go to or call (800) 745-7263.


Check back each day this week for more about BETTER SNAPPER STRATEGIES

Day 1: Catching Black Snapper and Chumming
Day 2: Churning Up Snapper
Day 3: Using Diamonds to Catch Snapper and Locating Reefs
Day 4: More and Bigger Snapper Drift Lining
Day 5: How to Rig for Drift Lining



Entry 309, Day 4