During much of the year, red snapper are off-limits to Mississippi anglers, and drastically reduced creel counts make them less attractive to anglers when the season is open.

But many anglers are discovering that red snapper can't hold a candle to the action offered by their ubiquitous close cousins - the mangrove snapper, a.k.a. gray snapper.

"We're very interested in the gray snapper," said Jim Franks, fisheries biologist at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory (GCRL) for the University of South Mississippi in Ocean Springs. "We have research grants ... to study these snapper. We've primarily been studying juvenile mangrove snapper and the small adults that occur in Mississippi waters. I've also been studying how to catch, fillet and eat mangrove snapper."

Franks' research shows that:

• anglers often can pick and choose the size and the individual snapper they want to catch when they get into a big school and chum them up to the surface;

• anglers have very little snapper mortality when they catch and release mangrove snapper after chumming them to the surface;

• anglers legally can take home 70 pounds of snapper or more per day if they can find and catch them;

• mangrove snapper are good-fighting fish, and most anglers like to see and catch them;

• mangroves will be the snapper of our future with the red snapper limit currently at two and possibly decreasing to one in the future;

• most anglers can't tell the difference between a mangrove snapper fillet or a red-snapper fillet when both are properly prepared and side by side on a platter;

Meet Mr. Mangrove

In the summer of 2007, I fished out of Biloxi with Bobby Carter, manager of the Isle of Capri Resort, Kevin Carter, Lisa Krol, Jessica Pullis, Mike Jones of Mississippi's Department of Economic Development and Capt. Rimmer Covington on the Peace Keeper.

"I scouted the rigs before you arrived, so I know the ones with mangrove snapper on them," Covington told us when we arrived on the boat. "We can catch them until you get tired of catching them. To catch all the gray snapper you want to catch, find the rig where the fish hold, tie-up or anchor downcurrent of the rig and then chum the mangroves out of the rig.

"I break off little pieces of herring, and throw them as far as I can up under the rig. The mangroves will start feeding on those pieces of chum and follow them up to the surface away from the rig and close to our boat. Then we can bait-up with pieces of chum, hide the hooks in the baits and pick out the snapper we want to catch."

Catch mangroves

When fishing for mangrove snapper, many anglers use 8 to 10 feet of 30-pound-test fluorocarbon line tied straight to 60-pound-test braided main line. Once you hook the mangrove, you don't want any stretch in the line and very little bend in the rod because you have to pull it away from the rig.

Covington prefers a No. 12/0 Mustad Demon Circle hook, and buries it inside the chum to keep the fish from spotting the hook.

Bobby Williams has a favorite tactic to bring snapper to the surface that really works.

"I use a Chum Churn to grind up fish like menhaden and cigar minnows and put the chum in the water," he said. "I start chumming as soon as I reach a spot, even before I begin fishing it."

Besides menhaden and cigar minnows, Williams adds some special ingredients to his chum.

"I'll boil macaroni the day before I go fishing," he said. "After I thoroughly cook the macaroni, I'll put a can or two of tuna fish packed in oil in the macaroni. I'll also add some menhaden oil, and let this mixture sit overnight.

"As I grind up the baitfish in the Chum Churn, I'll add the macaroni-and-tuna mixture to create a stronger odor and a larger chum line. The macaroni holds the oil better than the meat does, and it releases the oil when it goes out in the chum and puts an oil slick on the surface."

Mangroves are easy to find across the Mississippi coast.

"We've found that a large number of juvenile gray snapper hold in some of the state's major coastal river systems," Franks said. "There appears to be a saltwater ledge along the bottoms of these rivers, which is where we find numbers of juvenile gray snapper. We know the young snapper prefer to live around structures like shell beds, piers, docks and bulkheads, and also where freshwater outflows come out of our rivers.

"Even though gray snapper live primarily in salt water, they can tolerate low-salinity water, especially if that low-salinity water is around bulk heads and shell reefs in some of the sounds.

"The gray snapper also will concentrate in deep holes and in ship channels. We've been studying fish from 1 1/2 to about 12 inches long, and some a little larger. We know that there are some inshore gray snapper bigger than the legal limit of 12 inches."

The more you learn about mangroves, the more you'll understand how to catch them. Although Franks never has had a chance to do much aging work on gray snapper, he estimates that the juveniles move offshore when they're about 1 to 1 1/2 years old.

"We'll have to learn more about gray snapper in the future, because currently, we don't know enough about them," Franks said. "There's more information we don't know about gray snapper than information we do know. We know it's an entirely different fish from the American red snapper, and although it may be found in some of the same regions as the red snapper, its life cycle, food requirements and other factors affecting it are much different.

"The good news for fishermen is that the gray snapper is a very abundant sport fish. Due to federal limits, Mississippi anglers can catch and keep, year-round, 10 gray snapper per day that are more than 12 inches long, which is a much-more liberal limit than that on other snapper. Apparently, this limit can be sustained because fishermen in Florida have been catching the delicious gray snapper for many years. Harvesting these fish doesn't seem to be impacting the resource there detrimentally."

Franks has kept some juvenile gray snapper in captivity in years past to study growth and age rates.

"I found that the juvenile gray snapper grew quite rapidly in captivity," he said. "In our tank system, we were able to start with 1- to 1 1/2-inch-long fish, and grow them up to 6 or 8 inches in one year. I'm not certain that this growth rate reflects what happens in the wild, but at least we know the gray snapper has the capability of growing really quickly."

Franks calculates that the mangrove snapper probably can reach harvestable size (12 inches) within three years, but he won't know for sure until he studies the fish over a longer time and has more fish to study.

Good news

"We have a good population of gray snapper offshore along the northern Gulf Coast," Franks said. "In years past, anglers would go red snapper fishing and catch a few gray snapper, not really understanding anything about these fish.

"Today, I'm seeing more anglers coming to the dock with some nice-size gray snapper, and more fishermen are learning the value of the gray snapper.

"The gray snapper's a fish of all seasons. It can be caught on the offshore rigs every month. Gray snapper also seem to hold on deep wrecks year-round. I don't know for certain that they're remaining on the deep rigs and wrecks all year, but I want to investigate and find out for certain.

"We really need some help from the fishermen to build up the GCRL's tag-and-release program, so we can learn more about the gray snapper. We know these fish are quite abundant inshore, and that fishermen catch them very frequently. If fishermen will help us, we can learn more about this fish and provide better information for fishermen about how and where to catch them.

"From all indications, inshore waters on Mississippi's Gulf Coast are producing a large number of juvenile gray snapper."

Help for mangroves

To learn more about the mangrove snapper, Franks and his fellow scientist, Reed Hendon, have begun tagging and releasing the fish in Mississippi waters. They need your help.

"We haven't had enough fish tagged to determine growth rates and movement patterns, especially long-distance movement patterns," Franks said. "We'd really like to know when they leave the estuaries and move offshore, how big they are when they leave the estuaries, and how fast they grow offshore as well as other characteristics. We need Mississippi fishermen to catch, tag and release mangrove snapper for us. Then when the tagged fish are recaptured, we can generate a report of where a fish has been caught, how much it weighs and how much it's grown. This is an angler-volunteer program. To date, we haven't seen any gray snapper that we've tagged inshore that have moved offshore."

As the National Marine Fisheries Service continues to increase the length limit and reduce the number of American red snapper anglers can catch, the mangrove snapper will become an even more important fish.