There was a light north-northwesterly breeze blowing at 7:40 a.m. when Capt. Jay Sconyers of Aces Up Fishing pulled his 33-foot Hydra-Sports center console away from the public boat ramp in Murrells Inlet.
The calendar ready Nov. 3, and the occasion was the opening day of the 2017 red snapper mini-season in the South Atlantic region.
The season consists of two consecutive three-day weekends (Friday through Sunday, Nov. 3-5 and Nov. 10-12) with recreational anglers allowed to keep one red snapper per person per day, with no minimum size limit.
While this was a 3/4-day bottom-fishing trip in general, red snapper was the specific target for the group of five anglers, including Amy Armstrong Stadler and her son Grant Stadler of Garden City Beach, Scott Brown and Wick Fisher of Murrells Inlet, and myself.
Sconyers wanted live bait to drop down to the snapper, so after leaving the ramp he pulled up to an adjacent dock and broke out some fresh shrimp heads.
The captain dropped the shrimp heads around the pilings adjacent to the dock, waited about five minutes and then proceeded to cast-net pinfish and spots in the 3-5 inch range.
With at least 50 perfect baits swimming in the live well, Sconyers was ready to head offshore.
“I’m glad I saved those heads,” Sconyers said with a grin.
At 7:55 a.m. Sconyers zoomed past the Murrells Inlet sea buoy and headed in a south-southeasterly direction at 35 knots, with the wind at his back.
Sconyers’ plan was to fish ledges and rock piles in depths of 95 feet of water, and deeper, spots where he has caught, and released, red snapper in recent years.
About 9 a.m. and amid a much rougher sea, Sconyers arrived at his first spot and deployed the live bait on two Avet 80w reels on bent butt rods, one on each side at the middle of the boat.
As we all kept a wary eye on the two big rods, we dropped down assorted cut squid and cut bait on two hook rigs, on Shimano Torium 30 reels loaded with 65-pound test braid, on jigging rods.
The bites came quick and often on the two-hook rigs with plenty of vermilion snapper coming over the gunwale, most hovering right around the 12-inch minimum size limit.
A large grey triggerfish, which hit a piece of cut bait, was the top catch on that spot, but the bite tapered off, and Sconyers decided to make a move to a spot in a little deeper water, right at 100 feet.
This rock pile produced a little more variety, with vermilion snapper, black sea bass, triggerfish, large white grunts and a few huge jolthead porgy among the catch.
After a while, the tip of one of the big rods began bouncing and I cranked up what we were looking for, a red snapper in the 6-7 pound range.
Finally, after so many releases, Sconyers was going to be able to harvest a red snapper.
We had many more big bites on the big rods, but instead of the red snapper or grouper we were hoping for, marauding greater amberjack in the 20- 40 pound range were nailing the live baits.
Alas, the greater amberjack had been closed to harvest three days earlier, on Halloween.
At one point, Brown was battling the largest amberjack of the day, estimated at over 40 pounds, on the big rod on the starboard side of the boat, when something hit the big rod on the port side.
While Sconyers dealt with Brown’s amberjack, Grant Stadler, a 2017 St. James High School graduate and freshman at the College of Charleston, began cranking up the fish on the other side of the boat.
Suddenly a commotion arose from the Stadlers as they realized Grant wasn’t cranking up any amberjack.
“It’s a genuine!” Grant exclaimed.
Sconyers dropped dealing with Brown’s amberjack and frantically rushed over just in time to see a genuine red snapper in the 20-pound range pop to the surface.
Sconyers gaffed the brilliant red snapper and pulled it over the gunwale. The day maker was on the deck, and it was whooping, hollering and high fives all around for the crew.
In a total of three spots, Sconyers had put us on plenty of fish, including the two red snapper, three almaco jacks and an amazing variety of reef species in the snapper-grouper complex.
From 38 miles offshore, Sconyers headed back into the teeth of a 10-15 knot north-northwest wind and a rough ocean, but once we were 20 out the seas began to calm.
At the 10-12 mile mark the wind had dwindled and the seas turned smooth with only one-foot rollers, making for a very comfortable ride to finish a spectacular day.
In 2009, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) determined the South Atlantic stock of red snapper was overfished and undergoing overfishing, and the fishery was closed in 2010 with a 35-year rebuilding plan put in place.
Other than mini-seasons allowed in 2012 through 2014 and the current mini-season, the red snapper fishery has been closed ever since and only the fish that have not survived the release process, known as dead discards, have been removed from the population during the eight-year period.
On the first weekend of fishing, opening day was the only decent day for anglers to get offshore. This weekend looks like a total blowout, as a Gale Warning was in effect for the offshore waters on Friday and very rough seas forecast through Sunday, when the fishery was set to close again.
Anglers participating in the red snapper mini-season are urged to report detailed information of their catches at MyFishCount.com, a voluntary recreational reporting program being developed by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) in collaboration with the Snook and Gamefish Foundation and Elemental Methods.
The site uses an online web portal that allows recreational fishermen to report their red snapper fishing activities, including the length of the fish kept and of those released, catch location, depth fished, hook type, hooking location, release treatment, and reason for release.
Fishermen may also report trips that are scheduled and not taken for various reasons, including weather. This pilot will only be available during the red snapper mini-season. Afterward, the site will be revamped based on suggestions from participating fishermen.
As of Wednesday, a total of 82 fishermen had signed up for the pilot program and 80 trips had been reported through the South Atlantic region from North Carolina through Florida.
With the cold fronts of autumn limiting the number of trips anglers can make during this mini-season, fishermen can also report weather cancellations.
The SAFMC cannot set or change fishing dates, as that authority goes to NOAA Fisheries and the Secretary of Commerce.
However, information on abandoned trips due to weather conditions could be helpful to the SAFMC when proposing future management decisions.
Information provided at MyFishCount.com will be provided to NOAA Fisheries by Wednesday, Nov. 15 following the end of the mini-season.
Gregg Holshouser: firstname.lastname@example.org