Bucket List Trip: Gulf Red Snapper

Deep sea fishing is vastly different from your average freshwater fishing excursion. Ask any angler and they will attest to the fact that everyone who loves to fish needs to go deep sea fishing at least once in their lives.

There are many reasons to love offshore fishing on the open ocean. The fish are bigger, they fight much harder and you never know what might be on the end of your line when you begin to reel. The vastness of the ocean can be intimidating and there is also the dreaded possibility of getting seasick, but serious anglers brave the elements because deep sea fishing is the ultimate outdoor adventure.

Offshore fishing is a totally different experience altogether from anything you’ll ever find on a river or lake, and some might prefer to stick to freshwater angling. Regardless of where your favorite fishing location is, one thing is certain: deep sea fishing absolutely must be on each angler’s bucket list.

I recently went on a trip that was one of the best fishing adventures I’ve ever experienced. My close friend and fishing buddy, Frank Tomberlin, and I have organized an annual deep sea fishing trip for the past five years and it’s our goal to continue this yearly tradition as long as we can. We refer to it simply as “the fishing trip.”

This year, we had a group of six guys who were each as excited as the other to be heading out on an offshore adventure. We all hoped that this year would be remembered as one of those great fishing stories we will be proud to tell our grandchildren about many years from now.

We were joined by my brother, Josh, who went on his first deep sea fishing trip a couple years ago. Josh loves fishing more than any other person I know. I joked with him before our trip that year that deep sea fishing would essentially “ruin” him from wanting to do any kind of freshwater trips later on. As luck would have it, he turned out to be the first one to reel in a fish on that trip and, after landing a decent-sized amberjack, he immediately turned to me, smiled and said, “I’m ruined.”

Cole was another member of our party and had been fishing on the ocean several years ago. Opey and Nick were the only two members of the trip who had never experienced offshore fishing. Both were absolutely stoked to be going on their first ever deep sea fishing trip and I was all the more excited just to accompany them on their maiden voyage.

We arrived just before 5:30 a.m. at the harbor in Destin, Florida. It was June 2—the coveted opening day of “Snapper Season” in the Gulf of Mexico.

The boats around the docks were buzzing with anticipation as deckhands rushed back and forth to prepare their vessels and men gathered around, smoked cigarettes and sipped coffee while sharing a few fishing stories before we boarded the boats.

There was a bit of tension amid all the laughs and chatter near the boat. The tickets to the 10-hour trip were sold with no guarantee as to where each angler would be fishing on the boat. Everyone stood on the dock next and patiently waited for permission to board the vessel. Each spot was offered on a “first-come, first-served” basis and some of the fishermen were already eyeing the few highly sought-after spaces near the stern.

One determined angler decided to seize the opportunity to claim his spot before everyone else. He carefully walked around the roped barrier onto the boat as those nearby looked on with disdain at someone willing to blatantly break the rules. The man made his way over to the corner of the boat where the starboard side meets the stern. He began to tie a rag onto the rail in an effort to reserve the space before a calm, but firm voice broke the silence.

“That’s my spot,” said an older, rather rotund gentlemen who was sitting on a cooler adjacent to the boat’s entrance. He sat facing the marina with the boat’s stern directly behind him, patiently waiting for the captain’s signal to come aboard.

“First-come, first-serve, ain’t it,” said the man still attempting to mark the spot with the tattered rag.

The older man’s demeanor indicated that he did not intend to relinquish the space to a newcomer who insisted on unfairly marking the spot, or anyone else within earshot. He stayed seated and turned his head only slightly, his eyes barely looking over his shoulder toward the man.

“That’s my spot. That’s where I fish every day,” he replied more loudly, with his gaze fixed on the hands holding the half-tied rag.

The fellow who had encroached upon the boat and tried to steal the spot slowly untied the rag and sheepishly looked around at other men in the crowd snickering at the short altercation.

 

We soon boarded our boat, the Gulf Breeze, which is owned by Olin Marler Fishing Charters. This would turn out to be one of the most professional fishing charters I’ve ever used and one that I highly recommend to anyone.

The waters off the coast of Destin are teeming with aquatic wildlife and many other species of animals that thrive in one of the most picturesque beaches in the Gulf of Mexico.

We were on what is known as a “party boat” or a “head boat” that is larger than most other sportfishing vessels and can hold dozens of fishermen for one single trip. For anyone looking to try their hand at deep sea fishing, I would recommend seeking out a party boat as it is much cheaper than a private charter and you can choose the length of time you’re out at sea, ranging from a quick five-hour trip to a two-day adventure at sea.

We claimed our seats along the port side and the boat crept away from the dock as the sun began to peek over the horizon. We left the “no-wake zone” and throttled into high-gear out of Destin’s harbor in a long convoy of fishing boats speeding to their chosen destinations in the muggy morning hours.

The salty air was mingled with exhaust fumes from the boat and the occasional cigarette, but the scent of fish soon became more apparent as the deckhands busied themselves at the stern, cutting bait for the day’s trip.

Our group was busy sharing laughs and pointing out the occasional dolphin, sea turtle, or other sight we passed on our way. We were sprayed with a few drops of water as our boat plowed through the swells and charged onward into the morning. Everyone soaked in the beauty of the sunrise shimmering through the clouds and eagerly awaited our arrival at the fishing spots our captain steered toward.

Nervous excitement grew each minute along the two-hour ride as we motored more than 30 miles offshore into the Gulf of Mexico. The high-rise condominiums and other structures that dotted the shoreline soon faded into the glowing horizon and we were completely surrounded by an endless emerald-green and blue desert that stretched as far as the eye could see.

As we drew near to our destination, the deckhands began to rush around the boats, preparing everyone’s’ rods. Bait buckets filled with sliced mackerel hung from every space along the railing, swinging back and forth with the gentle rolling of the sea.

Once the captain slowed down near our fishing spot, the lead deckhand called everyone to the boat’s stern. We all gathered around the two large coolers where the crew had been cutting bait and tying hooks all morning.

The lead deckhand gave a short speech on proper use of the bait and tackle, which would prove to be exceptionally helpful to anyone on their first deep sea fishing trip. He also announced some of the strange customs to which sailors strictly adhere to while at sea.

“If you have any bananas on this boat, throw them overboard right now,” the deckhand sharply insisted a no-nonsense expression. “You may laugh, but bananas are associated with death at sea, and we will not allow anyone to have them on this boat.”

“One other rule we observe is no whistling,” he stated. “You’re liable to whistle up a storm and if the captain hears anyone whistling, he’s likely to come down from his cabin and throw you overboard.”

Before we were dismissed to return to our designated spots, we were given some words of motivation.

“Guys, we are coming a little farther out than we usually do so we can fish some really good, deep water,” he said. “We’re going to be fishing in some water that is much deeper than we usually go to, but we need everyone to keep their lines tight so we don’t get tangled. If we get tangled up too much, we’re going to have to take it back closer to shore, but we want to stay out here as long as we can and fish this deep water.”

We made our way back to our spaces, stumbling to and fro and gripping the railing for balance as the sea effortlessly tossed the massive boat over the small waves.

Everyone baited their hooks with slices of freshly-cut mackerel and prepared to drop their lines into the water. The captain’s solemn voice came over the boat’s loudspeaker with an air of bridled anticipation to be starting another opening day of Snapper Season.

He reiterated what the deckhand had said earlier and his speech was what one might expect from a man who had spent the majority of his life on the open ocean. His last words before we started fishing certainly caught the attention of my brother and I, and was something that we quietly considered to be a good omen.

“Y’all be particular and keep your lines tight,” he stated.

My brother and I looked at one another as we both recalled the old familiar saying that was commonly used by our great-grandfather.

“Be particular” was an old-fashioned way of saying “pay attention and don’t screw up.”

The boat’s motor soon grew quiet as she came to a stop. A short “beep” sounded on the loudspeaker, indicating that it was time for everyone to drop their lines and begin fishing. Splashes could be heard in quick succession around the boat as our heavy sinkers plunged the baited hooks into the water and down below the surface.

Not long after our bait had hit bottom, someone nearby yelled “fish on!”

Fishing in such depths is somewhat grueling compared to freshwater excursions due to the amount one must reel to reign in their catch, and also the fact that many fish can weigh much more than what most anglers are used to catching in lakes and rivers.

I took my Penn Senator reel and soon began to find a “sweet spot” in which I would get more bites than others near me on the boat. Our rods were rigged with two circle hooks and a 22-ounce sinker in what is considered to be a “drop-shot” rig in the bass fishing world.

After dropping my bait in and waiting for what seemed like and eternity for it to reach the bottom, I would wind the slack up just enough to keep the bait off the bottom. I found that more fish would bite my hooks if they were close to the bottom rather than a dozen feet from the ocean floor.

The deckhands instructed those aboard the Gulf Breeze to reel in several feet of line once we reached the bottom to ensure that our lure was suspended above the bottom and visible to any fish swimming down below.

Beginner’s luck was alive and well on our boat that day as both Opey and Nick landed one beautiful grouper each that we were able to keep. We were all continually reeling in fish and relishing the small competition between one another to catch more and bigger fish than our companions.

We soon filled our stringers with plenty of different snapper species. Everyone in our group quickly caught their limit of two red snapper (which is highly sought-after and widely considered to be one of the tastiest fish in the ocean). We also caught more than enough vermilion snapper, also known as beeliners or mingos, as well as white snapper.

Everyone aboard the Gulf Breeze caught a variety of different fish species that day. One of my favorite things about deep sea fishing is the mystery of what you might catch. One minute you could be reeling in a two-pound vermilion snapper and the next minute you might hook into a huge grouper or mackerel.

Fighting saltwater fish is also one of the things considered by anglers to be the most exciting part of deep sea fishing. Many of the fish you’ll catch in the ocean will fight much, much harder than almost anything you will find in freshwater. Lots of anglers aboard our boat that day could be seen wincing in pain and rubbing their arms during the latter half of the trip as their arms had been tested to the limits by dozens of feisty fish.

Our captain would stay in one spot until the deckhands determined that the fish were either not biting well enough, or had mostly ended up in our coolers aboard the Gulf Breeze. A short “beep” would again sound, indicating that it was time to reel in and head to another spot. We all relished the time spent riding to a new fishing spot as there was virtually no gulf breeze—ironically—to be found that day.

Later in the afternoon, we heard the final “beep” sound and the captain announced that we were headed back to shore. However, we were not leaving because our allotted 10 hours was coming to a close, but because every person aboard the boat had caught a limit on red snapper and also a number of other species.

The trip had been a resounding success.

After riding back for a couple of hours to return to Destin’s harbor, we returned to find the docks bustling with jet-skis, yachts, and pontoon boats packed with happy beach-goers. Everyone aboard the board took turns swapping stories about the day’s many catches and talked about how we all planned to return again, very soon.

We reached the marina and were relieved to plant our feet on solid ground once again. A crowd began to assemble around the dock where our deckhands were unloading the huge stringers of fish and hanging them on the pegs at the marina to show off our hard-earned payload.

Children squealed and pointed to the large grouper and mackerel hanging atop the boards while men stood in front of the Gulf Breeze’s stern holding a heavy stringer and sporting smiles as wide as the ocean horizon.

Our group watched as the crew quickly cleaned and bagged our fish in neat filets for us to take home. The trip was a resounding success and was more than enough fun for us to begin discussing when we would return for another round of deep sea fishing next year.

We all agreed that there was no good reason to wait an entire year before our next trip. A consensus was soon reached that we would have to return for another trip before the end of summer.

Take trip yourself and you’ll undoubtedly agree that deep sea fishing is a must-add item on every outdoorsman’s bucket list.

Published by

Donny Karr

Donny is a writer from Carrollton, Georgia. His work has been published in magazines, newspapers, and many websites. As an avid outdoorsman, Donny enjoys writing about his adventures afield and on the water. He is a contributing writer for Georgia Outdoor News, and is co-founder of Man Can Outdoors. Donny is also a columnist for 1788 Sports, and co-founder of College Nation Tailgate Time where he covers college football.

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