The best baits for mangrove snapper in the bay at that water depth are scaled sardines in the two-inch range. Also, Atlantic threadfin herring in that same size range are excellent. Both can be caught at the majority of passes and grass flats throughout the bay. The South Skyway Piers are a great place to catch both. If I were to choose one of those as my # 1 bait, it would be the scaled sardine (pilchard) because it is a much hardier bait. It will live longer in your bait well and is much livelier when you put it on a hook. Many anglers use shrimp, but that would be my third choice. Here are some tips I highly recommend:
1 - Chum with your live scaled sardines or Atlantic threadfin herrings. First squeeze the scaled sardines or threadfins to knock the wind out of them a little so they can't quickly swim out of the strike zone where the fish are staged at. After squeezing them, place them in your chum bag and toss them up-tide and let the tidal current take your injured sardines or threadfins right into the snappers strike zone. The sardines or threadfins will not be strong enough to swim out of the tidal current or snappers' strike zone. This is an easy meal for them. This type of chumming will increase your chances of having a great day.
2 - Bring some glass minnows along also, either fresh or frozen. Snapper love these smaller baits and chumming with them is also super effective. If your going to catch your own, you will need a 3/16th mesh cast net. Lee Fisher International is a company that sells this net. The Bait Buster Cast Net from Lee Fisher International can be purchased at most Tampa Bay Area Tackle shops, or you can buy one from this link.
3 - Hook size is important, especially because snapper have great eyes, are fickle and you are using small baits. With baits being around the two-inch size (which I find perfect for Bay snapper) the hook size should be a 1/0 or less. Most of the time I use a #1 or a #2. You can adjust your hook accordingly. So if you are using a 1/0 and not getting any bites, go down in size.
4 - Fluorocarbon leader is what you should use and at least a 4 foot section. Fluorocarbon leader of 20 lb. test is a good size to start with and adjust it as needed. For instance, if you keep getting broke off or cutoff around the structure, increase the size. The opposite goes for not getting any bites; decrease the size. Try the new P-Line Shinsei fluorocarbon leader, it is excellent for this type of snapper fishing. Anglers ask all the time what is the difference what size the fluorocarbon is, if the fish can't see it. Well the answer is even though they can't see it, they can still feel it through their lateral line when tidal current moves.
Example: You are using 20 lb. fluorocarbon leader and the surface area is 0.411 mm. The water will flow easier by that thinner surface area and not push it out of the strike zone as fast. You now jump up to 50 lb. fluorocarbon leader and the surface area is 0.67 mm. The larger surface area catches the tidal current and not only moves your line and bait out of the strike zone faster, but the tidal current hitting the wider fluorocarbon puts out much more of a pressure wave that the fish can feel through their lateral line. I use this synopsis: A piece of plywood in the water turned sidewards (thin side) and water rushes by it quickly without moving it along very fast. Turn that piece of plywood to its large broader or flat side and not only does it move the plywood quickly away, but puts a very large amount of pressure against the face and more pressure waves out to the side.
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Captain David M Rieumont
The Online Fisherman Inc.