"Most fishermen bypass catching big red snapper to catch little snapper," said Capt. Lenny Maiolatesi of the Fighting Chicken (228-326-3180), based out of Dry Stack Marina in Ocean Springs. "Last year, during the first week of snapper season, I had a party with me, and we were fishing within sight of Horn Island, off the modules at FH-2 (Fish Haven) in about 80 to 90 feet of water.

"In a day of fishing, we caught 18 snapper, 12 of which weighed a total of 178 pounds. So, you don't have to go far to find and catch big snapper in Mississippi. The smallest snapper we caught that day weighed 10 pounds."

To catch big snapper, fish where nobody else fishes. According to Maiolatesi, everyone fishes the rigs because they're easy to find and to fish.

"I've scuba-dived on these rigs before, and on my last scuba-diving trip, I spotted about 20 good-sized snapper," he said. "The rest of the snapper I saw were small. The big snapper more than likely will be caught within the first two weeks of the season. But on the little places that rarely, if ever, receive any fishing pressure, you consistently can find and catch really big snapper throughout the season."

Maiolatesi mainly fishes structure like rubble and what's called Florida limestone, rocks deployed after Hurricane Katrina.

"Many times you can't even see the big rocks on the bottom because they've sunk-down in the mud or the sand, but you'll notice that you get a harder echo on your bottom machine in these spots than you normally will," Maiolatesi said. "That rock may not be sitting more than a few inches or feet off the bottom, but it will hold snapper. Remember, it's holding big snapper that no one's targeting. There are many types of rubble and small junk off Mississippi's Gulf Coast. I find the big snapper in the kinds of places most fishermen never fish because they're too small."

Most snapper fishermen want to fish the rigs, shrimp boats or barges. However, that's generally not where you'll catch big snapper.

Maiolatesi explains that he fishes numbers of public reefs. Mississippi's Fish Havens provide productive places to catch big snapper, as long as you stay away from the big reefs.

"I fish a lot of Fish Havens like FH-7 and FH-13, as well as locations created by the Rigs-to-Reefs Program (dmr.state.ms.us/Fisheries/Reefs/rigs-to-reef.htm)," he said. "After Hurricane Katrina, 87 acres of bottom structure was put out in the different Fish Havens. Much of this structure was culverts, rocks and all types of debris from structures destroyed by Katrina. All these coordinates are published on www.mgfb.com. Mississippi's reef-building program is almost as big as Alabama's right now, and each year, more reef material is deployed."

Targeting big snapper means not only finding their hiding spots, but also feeding them what they want.

"A 25-pound snapper will be more interested in eating an 8- to a 10-inch live croaker or a hardtail than a little piece of cigar minnow on a hook," Maiolatesi said.

He fishes around the barrier islands, the docks, the piers and the bridges to catch croakers for bait, and then keeps them in bait pens until he goes on a snapper trip. He rigs the live bait on 5 feet of 50-pound-test fluorocarbon line with a circle hook on one end and a barrel swivel on the other. Then he uses 50-pound-test braid as his main line. Above the barrel swivel, he'll put lead that weighs from 4 to 10 ounces.

"I want to use as little lead as I can, depending on the current," Maiolatesi explains.

He prefers to hold the lead about 25 feet above the structure he's fishing, because he believes the bigger snapper feed higher in the water than the smaller snapper do.

To successfully pinpoint small rubble, pipes and other little structure on the bottom where big snapper like to live, you need a quality depth finder.

"If you're fishing over a barge, a shrimp boat or any other type of big structure, everybody can find those fishing spots," Maiolatesi warns. "But the rubble sinks into the mud, and the relief on the bottom machine is almost nothing. Sometimes when I go across that rubble, the depth doesn't change, but the density does. So if the echo tails on your depth finder double or triple in size, you'll know you've moved over some hard substrate. Many times that will be the best place where you can fish for big snapper. Because nobody looks for small spots, those sites don't get fished. Most people won't even notice the difference in the bottom.

"The entire drainage system of Pass Christian has been barged out into the Gulf of Mexico and dumped. So there's plenty of structure off Mississippi's Gulf Coast to fish. However, most fishermen fish the big structure, and hardly anybody fishes the little structure. Northrop Grumman, a shipbuilding company, has carried barge loads of debris out into the Gulf of Mexico and dumped it."

Most fishermen don't realize how much debris companies and the government collected, carried offshore and deployed to create artificial fishing reefs after Hurricane Katrina - with some debris/reef no bigger than a car body.

"Every year, Mississippi's Gulf Coast will have storms, winds and currents, and a lot of that little debris will move around on the bottom," Maiolatesi said. "So, every year, if you search intensively for little spots, you'll locate new places to catch big snapper. That's the good news. The bad news is many times the little areas you've marked one year may be gone the next when you start looking for them. So I constantly search for insignificant bottom relief most fishermen won't fish."

Maiolatesi picks the Von Rothenburg Reef area, FH-7, that's in about 120 feet of water as the best place to catch big red snapper. FH-7 has an abundance of big reef material like barges and boats sunk fairly close together. But oftentimes you'll find the bigger snapper on the little-bitty structure between the sunken boats and the barges.

Just because you hook a big snapper doesn't mean it will go home with you at the end of the trip and swim in hot grease that night. Once you locate a big snapper and hook it, you have to get it up to the gaff and into the boat. When you hook a large snapper, oftentimes it will want to dive into structure just like a grouper will.

"To land a really big snapper, once you start turning the handle on the reel, don't ever stop until the snapper is close to the gaff," Maiolatesi advised.

The farther away from the bottom you hook the big snapper, the better your chances for landing it. That's why Maiolatesi fishes at three different depths up from the bottom. Fishermen often forget that snapper have tails and fins and like to move around a lot. Not only do they swim from structure to structure, but they also move up and down in the water column.

"I'll put one live bait down about 25 feet off the bottom, another live bait about 35 feet off the bottom and then free-line the third live bait," he said. "As we start catching snapper, or when we begin chumming, the big snapper will move closer to the surface. So I want lines at three different depths to give us three chances to catch big snapper.

"If there's not a lot of current, and we're chumming, we often can get the snapper up to only a few feet under the boat. When the snapper get that high in the water, we don't use any weights on our lines. Instead, we free-line live bait out to the fish to give us a greater chance of landing the snapper. Also, the snapper will have a longer route to travel, if it tries to dive to the bottom and get back in the structure."

Maiolatesi primarily catches snapper in water depths of 100 to 200 feet. He did catch a snapper in mid-April in 505 feet of water while deep-dropping for grouper; however, the snapper only weighed 5 pounds.