Catching Mangrove Snapper on the Florida Keys

Hard Fighting and Great Eating

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Lots of people travel to the Florida Keys expressly for a Florida Keys fishing vacation. Some bring their own boats while others opt to rent when they arrive. But however they arrive, they all want one thing--to catch fish;  and mainly what they want to catch is the mangrove snapper (Lutjanus griseus).

Offshore fishing requires some substantial tackle investments and a relatively large boat. So does this mean you are out of luck if you are on a budget, or have a small boat.  You can catch fish--and do it with ease.

As I have always said, fishing guides are not successful because they know how to fish but rather because they know where to fish. Most of us already have a working knowledge of the tackle and equipment. We can cast, and bait hooks, and tie leaders. We are even somewhat versed in fighting a fish once it's hooked. 

Where we need help is finding the fish to catch.

On the Florida Keys, I have a sure-fire method to find fish and make even your first trip out a roaring success. You can and will catch mangrove snapper if you will follow this simple method, and the only thing extra you need is a good NOAA chart of the upper and lower keys.


Depending on where you plan to launch, there are numerous small mangrove islands that dot Florida Bay. Take your map and follow me as I take you through the paces of finding fish.

First of all remember – they call these fish mangrove snapper for a reason. They do stay in and around the mangroves. And while these mangroves are home mainly to the small to medium size fish, even the larger sizes can be found there.

Get Started

  • Look on your map for Bahia Honda. The state park there has a launch ramp and we will run north into Florida Bay from the ramp about 3 miles. Look for Friend Key, Teakettle Key, Sandfly Key and Hardup Key.
  • Take note of the water depth around these keys. The tidal currents run around these keys, and although the map does not reveal it, the water will be deeper on one side of these little islands than on the other. Generally a flat will show on one side and not the other.
  • On a high tide, you can idle up to the edge of the mangroves on the deep side of the island (deep is a relative term here – we’re talking about water two feet deep. What the map does not show is that the mangroves are undercut and the water depth drops off from about two feet to sometimes over eight feet under the mangroves.

Find the Fish

Move slowly and quietly and look for fish movement. Not many anglers get this close because the shallow water flat surrounding these islands hides this deeper water. When you stop the boat look for movement in the water under the mangroves. Nine times out of ten, you will locate a school of hungry mangrove snapper.

Which Bait is Right

Live shrimp on a bare hook with no weight is the bait of choice. But we have also caught them using a small red and white nylon jig with a small piece of cut bait on the hook. With the boat anchored a good casting distance from the mangroves, cast right up next to the limbs and let the bait drift down. With a jig, work it up and down more than in a line back to the boat.

Which Islands are Best?

For more mangrove islands that will hold these snapper look at the Budd Keys north of Cudjoe Key. There is a deep undercut around the western most key, and fish are almost always there.

These are excellent locations, easy to reach and I can almost guarantee that fish will be there. I have fished every one of these locations and been very successful.

Other Fish

While you are catching snapper, don’t be surprised to find a jewfish or two (goliath grouper) in and around the mangrove roots. Juvenile fish up to about 60 pounds along with small nurse sharks are common in these holes. If you catch one, release it. They are currently totally protected from any type of harvest.

Be Careful!

One more thing – they call these fish snappers for a reason as well. You will see what I mean when you catch your first one. Very sharp teeth with upper and lower canines can really hurt if your finger happens to get in the way.

Bottom Line

Mangrove snapper are my personal favorite fish to eat. They have a light, sweet, flaky meat that is great broiled, baked or fried. Try it broiled with butter and let me know what you think!

Mangrove snapper on the Florida Keys - no wonder the guides seem to have it so easy! And, oh yes - I do have other good spots (Can't give away all of them now, can I?).