Offshore recreational fishermen have many adjectives to describe the current state of federal red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico.
Stupid. Insane. Unfair. Asinine. Farcical. Unscientific.
After Sunday’s opening day of the ridiculously short nine-day season, we can certainly add another, far more ominous word: Dangerous.
Many fishermen on the northern Gulf Coast, including several boats in Mississippi, dared wicked seas and winds on Sunday to reach the snapper banks instead of forfeiting one of only three weekend days of the season.
Said Tristan Armer of Ocean Springs: “Had it been a 28-day or a 40-day season, or anything more than what we have, heck no I would not have gone offshore in that kind of weather. But, my fishing partners and I knew that Sunday was basically the only day we could go. So, we went.”
Added Johnny Marquez, executive director of Mississippi Coastal Conservation Association: “I heard of a friend who saw the conditions and turned his 60-foot Viking fishing vessel around and went back to port. But, at the same time, I had several friends in smaller center consoles who felt like they had to go. It’s ridiculous to be put in that situation, but that’s where we are.”
It is not a good place to be, putting captains in position that can lead to bad decisions.
Armer, and his Smack My Fish Up fishing team of Kenneth Yarrow, Talbert Rea, Chris Moody and Adam McDowell, is in that latter group described by Marquez.
“We talked about it all day Saturday, while we were watching the weather,” Armer said. “We kept texting back and forth, but finally Yarrow settled it with a final message late that afternoon, ‘We are fishing!’
“What it came down to is that for three of us, we had a one-day snapper season, event though the season is nine. Two of them were going to be out of town next weekend, another one had to work and I was committed to fish the Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic. And we all have to work during the week. We didn’t have much choice unless we wanted to miss the entire snapper season.”
So at sunrise on Sunday, Armer and team met at the boat and prepared for the long run to fish one of their favorite spots, a wreck in 110 feet of water about 40 miles south of Horn Island.
It would not be a fun trip.
“We raced out to Horn pretty quick, but from there it got slappy,” Armer said of the Gulf. “We had 3- to 4-footers all the way out from Horn with a really rough chop. I was able to average about 20 knots going out against that southeast wind. It was brutal.”
But the fishing?
“Once we got there, and figured out how to fish, it was unbelieveable,” Armer said. “It took us maybe an hour and 15 minutes or an hour and a half to limit out, but had it been calm we could have limited in no time. That’s one thing that gets me about this whole snapper situation and the federal management. They are drastically underestimating the snapper population. My sonar screen was lit up with fish and it was snapper.
“We finished up our limit with about a 15-pound average and left them biting.”
Fishing was a chore.
“The wind was blowing 20 knots from the southeast, the waves were running 4 feet or more out of the southeast and the current was ripping north,” Armer said. “It took a half dozen passes to figure out how to keep the boat over the wreck while not allowing waves to flood over the engines and killing them. Once we figured out the boat, the crew limited on fish easy. We hooked up one or two fish in each pass. But for the conditions, we could have limited in 10 minutes.”
Unsatisfied, Armer said the crew opted to try the king mackerel and went to a nearby oil rig to tie up and set out a drift line.
“We moved a couple miles at 7 to 8 knots, tied up to a rig and drift lined for kings,” Armer said. “It didn’t work out. At the same moment Chris Moody hooked up on a big king, the rig-hook rope literally snapped in two from the strong wave, wind and current. Adding insult to injury, the king bent the hook right out of his mouth. That was it for me and we headed into West Horn Island.
“By then the sea was running 4 to 6 feet and it was extremely choppy and tough going. I was going up the waves at 13 knots and then riding down them at 30 knots, all the way to Horn. My crew was asleep on beanbags and the whole time I was working the throttle up and down the waves. It was kind of funny, that part.”
But, he said, it was also dangerous, and certainly not a risk he would normally take to go offshore for snapper.
“That’s just another facet of this snapper situation in the Gulf that a lot of people don’t realize,” Marquez said. “Faced with a short season of opportunity, it puts captains in a situation of possibly making bad decisions. And, it is even worse for people in Mississippi and Alabama.”
That’s because those two states are the only ones compliant with federal seasons. Florida, Louisiana and Texas have non-compliant snapper seasons in their state waters (out to about nine miles). After the nine-day federal waters season closes, fishermen in those three states can keep fishing for red snapper as long as they do so in their state waters.
“The unfair part of it is that all those fish caught in those other states count against us, here in Mississippi,” Armer said. “Our season is shortened. Our share of the quota is all grouped together with the other states, instead of each state having a quota of its own, like it ought to be and letting us manage it at the state level.”
But at least the Smack My Fish Up fishing team did get a piece of the pie, which they enjoyed with their families Sunday night.
“Our wives all enjoyed their dinner without a clue as to what it took to catch it,” Armer said. “I woke up (Monday) and felt like I was in a car wreck (Sunday). I could never have taken a child with me on opening day either. Seas like we fished in were for the committed only.
“But the math wizards at the Gulf Council cut us down to what amounted to a one day season and we were not going to let them deprive us of our God given fish. I registered the catch with the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (voluntary snapper reporting) on Monday. Hopefully DMR will get some data to help end the idiocy …”
… And, eliminate the danger.