The Gray Snapper
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Where keys like emeralds in settings of silver seem to float on seas of lapis lazuli, where channels of turquoise wind in and about the coral reef and soft trade winds sough through palm, mangrove, and bay cedar, there is the home of the gray snapper of the outer reef, the most cunning and gallant fish in its mature condition, that swims in any sea, the most difficult to catch, and one of the most beautiful.
I first became a victim to the wiles and snares of the gray snapper far out on the Florida reef where the last key looks into the west. Here a maze of coral reefs once reached the surface. A mangrove seed came drifting in the stream, lodged in the shallows, took root and grew. To the angler coming from the east, following the sun, this resultant isolated grove forming Bush Key, rising apparently from the sea, is the first intimation that Garden Key and its satellites are in sight. Soon other keys appear, low sandy islands, capped with vivid greens bay cedar and cactus between which winds a channel so deep and narrow, so blue and beautiful in its clearness, that the angler in this out-of-the-way corner may well wonder by what trick of nature it was formed. It surrounds Garden Key, being in turn hedged by an outer fringing reef upon which the sea breaks now in soft monotone, or when a norther rises, forming a vast semicircle of foam from which rise weird and terrifying sounds, the grinding and gnashing of the teeth of the reef, as the dead coral heads are rolled hither and yon by the incoming and receding waves.
In the nooks and corners of this channel the gray snapper makes its home, and that it has the love of locality strongly developed, the home instinct if you will, is evident from the fact that week after week, month after month, certain fishes are found in the same places. A certain wreck was a favorite spot where the gray snappers congregated. The old ship had long since disappeared below the surface, but her huge timbers still projected from the sand, forming a covering or protected shelf about which the fishes delighted to lie in water from ten to twenty feet in depth. In general appearance the gray snapper resembles the black bass, but is longer and more slender. Its tints are a delicate gray, or green, in the shallows often adapted to the soft mauve of the bottom, or in deeper waters affecting in a general way the more brilliant hues of its surroundings the reddish and yellow gorgonias or browns of the sea-plumes. Its eye is extremely beautiful; rich in browns with a brilliant flash of blue and at times red an eye which follows every movement of the angler and is at once critical and expressive.
The first vision of these fishes was my undoing. I never rested until I had taken one, a consummation which came only after days of patient endeavor. I was drifting along shore, looking downward from the rail of the dinghy, when it floated over the old wreck, where, circling slowly about, were a dozen or more gray snappers. They ranged from one to two and three feet in length, well proportioned, graceful, the type of all that is beautiful in a fish. Their movements were dignified and impressive, and there was a suggestiveness of reserve power, as in the black bass, which made one eager for the contest. Stopping the dinghy, I anchored and cast my bait, a piece of white conch (Strombus gigas), the favorite grouper bait on the reef, in their midst. It was a striking dainty, standing out in the brilliantly colored water like ivory, and was at once seized by grunts, porgies, angel-fishes, and others, and jerked and bandied about in a manner that would have been irresistible to many fishes ; but to my surprise, the snappers paid absolutely no attention to it. I could see every movement, being directly over them, and they were not disturbed in the slightest from the even tenor of their way. I then tried crayfish, breaking the tail shell sidewise and taking the , meat out entire, selecting the lower end with its inviting tints of scarlet. Of all baits in tropical waters this is the most alluring and irresistible. Not a fish which I recall, save the barracuda, but can be seduced into biting it, and as it dropped slowly, out sprang a timid parrot-fish and seized it, dashing away followed by the grunts, chaetodons, and other courtiers which constituted the train of the gray snapper, that seemed to look with scorn upon the smaller fry so easily deceived. I scattered crayfish bait over the water, arousing the entire community of the wreck to a frenzy in their attempts to reach the bait. Staid old grunts performed miracles of agility, in vying with the parrot-fishes ; the great black and white angel-fishes, timid ordinarily to 'a painful degree, dashed at the delicious morsels; a long spotted moray dragged itself from the lower story of the wreck, and I could see by the rapid vibration of their whips that even the crayfishes, which were backed into sandy cells, were discussing the propriety of taking the chances and joining the melee.
I had been spending a part of nearly every day upon the reef fishing or floating over the beds of olive-green coral, but now gave up other piscatorial pursuits and devoted myself to the gray snapper. I fished early and late, even at night. I tried them at the flood and quarter ebb, with light lines and dark, with baits whose variety would have arrested the attention of the ghost of Walton. I laid at their shrine young mullets, live shad (Xystaema), gigantic shrimps; caught at great expense of time and patience luscious sea-worms; excavated from the deep mud the soft portions of the rare queen conch clams, not the base-born bivalve of commerce, but a brilliant, radiant creature of dazzling hues. In desperation, I even whipped the glassy water with flies, but in these early days of strenuous endeavor I doubt if I once attracted the serious attention of the gray snappers. Briefly, they ignored me, and the iron was entering my very soul when one day as I lay prone upon the beach, my line in hand, a Sacrata boy named Paublo, who later became my boat-man, came wading along with a cast-net slung over his naked shoulders, stopped, followed my line out, and as his bloodshot eyes rested on the snappers he innocently asked why I did not fish for them. There are times when the aver-age angler finds solace in an appeal to high Olympus ; whether I did on this occasion, or even added to my humiliation by taking Paublo into my confidence, is immaterial. My reply must have suggested that a doubt dwelt in my mind that a gray snapper could be caught, where-upon my companion proceeded to initiate me into the art. He waded up the beach and with his small bait-catcher, a cimeter-like iron barrel hoop, cut down a number of sardine-like fishes an inch and a half in length, which he called " hard heads." From his shanty near by, upon which roosted three tame asthmatic pelicans, he brought a line of a pale blue color of about twenty-eight strands; soft and pliable, having been well stretched before and after use. To this he attached a leader of very fine and pliable copper wire over four feet in length, and upon the long-shanked 6/o steel Limerick hook, impaled through the eyes six or seven "hard heads "; then with a graceful movement he cast the bait, so that it sank gently eight or ten feet from the wreck where the gray snappers were poising. It had no attractions for the small fry which rushed at it, nosed it, and retired. Then Paublo began a manipulation of the line, imparting to the bunch of silver upon the bottom a tremulous motion. The bait appeared to be a small school of sardines feeding ; the simulation was marvellous, and had immediate effect. A large snapper suddenly caught sight of the struggling mass and turning gracefully, moved forward, stopping within an inch of the lure, backing water with its caudal fin, its dorsal rigid, its eyes probably blazing.
Breathing hard, Paublo whispered, " Did yo' see datcher snapper, mawster ? "
Again the bait rested, as the suspicious fish backed away and the long wire disappeared in the sand. The snapper now swam around, keeping its eyes upon it, moving nearer and nearer until a deep shadow took shape over it and a big dun-colored shark appeared upon the scene, passing over the bait, then stopping as it caught the scent, driving away every living thing in and about that particular wreck.
The lesson was not lost, and on the following day, with a fresh supply of " hard heads," which Paublo cut down for me with his sabre, I again essayed the gray snappers. I fitted my light rod with a new and approved line and the long copper leader, then cast into the magic circle of the gray poseurs. As the bait touched the bottom I worked the line and leader into the sand, imitating the methods of my sable mentor. It was now irresistible, and a large snapper moved at the lure, stopping as did the other, like a Mexican who rides full speed at a stone wall, turns on the instant and touches it deftly. I had witnessed the feat, and the rush and sudden halt of the snapper was a vivid imitation. Its movements were so forcible that the current of water partly turned the bait, which I could see from the high ledge of dead coral rock upon which I was standing five or six feet above. Never was more cunning, more diplomacy, displayed. The fish was fascinated, but it swam over the wire a score of times, turning to scrutinize it, and failing to see it, returning to the bait, swimming about it again and again, a picture of grace and buoyant life. Now it deliberately approached and nosed the lure, lifting the "hard heads " slightly as though searching for the hook; then it swam away, to my despair, and joined the complacent school which poised and circled gracefully near by. But a vigorous movement imparted to the line summoned the snapper again, and with a single low rush of eight or ten feet, it seized the bait, which it shook as might an angry dog, and rose slowly, with fins en charge, while I overran the line. Higher it swam, rising slowly into the empyrean of the waters ; then with a sudden gulp it at-tempted to swallow the bait, felt the wire, and charged the blue waters of the channel to the melody of the reel, that, like the baying hound on fresh scent, repays the hunter for hours of weary waiting.
The rush was out and away into the deep blue heart of the channel, every other snapper disappearing at the charge ; and fifty or sixty feet of line were lost before I stopped the fish. Then it was a battle to the finish, with finesse, cunning, and wariness on the part of the game. I appreciated the delight of the old monarch at the discovery of a new pleasure, for here was some-thing novel in sea angling. It was six or seven three- or four-pound black bass in one, rushing to the surface, breaking the water into crystal spray, plunging down, and bearing against the deadly reel in a long splendid lateral surge. Repeatedly the fish broke away from me, tearing the line from the reel, then dashing in, in an attempt to reach the old wreck, where on rusted iron it might sever the delicate line, fortunately to be checked by my run up the beach.
In and out, giving and taking, I played this gamy creature ; and it played me for twenty minutes, now near shore, again leading me out into the shallows until at one stage of the sport I was waist-deep, literally hanging over the edge of the channel, prepared to swim rather than lose this splendid fish which had unreeled every inch of the all too short line. But the gods which watch over the fortunes of the angler were with me, and I slowly backed the snapper into shallow water, then, having no gaff, and no gaffer to witness my triumph, reeled and led it inshore, holding it at short line, while I admired its beautiful proportions. It rolled its eyes at me in protest, I fancied, and it was beyond my philosophy to kill such a rare fighter; so I carefully cut out the hook and released my quarry as Paublo came running down the beach, grains in hand in lieu of gaff-hook. That he questioned my sanity I have no doubt, but that was not all.
" Why, mawster, he exclaimed, "datcher snap-per gwine tell all de res'. Yo' ain't gwine to git no mo' fishin' dis day." Which was true for many a day at that spot.
But I was satisfied.. I had outgeneralled and caught what must have been a twenty-five-pound snapper, at least Paublo, who saw it swimming off, placed its weight at nearly twice that figure, and when I pressed him for logical reasons for his assumption, he said it was "de scales on de snapper's back dun tole him."
There may be a difference in the game qualities of gray snappers in different localities. The deep-water specimens in fifteen or twenty fathoms are caught much easier, and at Marquesas and Key West I took them in shallow water with crayfish, when sardines or "hard heads" were not to be had, but always found them thoroughly game. Even the small fishes from two to four pounds afforded excellent sport, readily taking crayfish. All were cunning, and well deserved the name of sea lawyer.
The gray snapper, Lutianus griseus (Linn.), has a wide range, having been observed as far north as New Jersey, though it is not a common visitor, and as far south as Brazil, ranging east to the African coast. At Bermuda it is common and attains a large size, individuals from fifty to sixty pounds having been caught near Hamilton by friends of mine, and I have heard of larger specimens. The largest gray snapper I took on the outer Florida reef weighed thirty pounds, and this was exceptional, the average weight being from seven to fifteen pounds.
I believe with the gray snappers there is a certain but limited movement into deeper water in the winter months. In summer large individuals are frequently found about mangrove roots in from five to ten feet of water. Along the coast of Florida, the spawning season is from about June 15 to August 15. The young are found almost anywhere, as gamy as trout, I discovered, and among the most attractive and interesting fishes of the reef from the fact that they would allow me to approach so near that I could almost touch them.
The fact that the gray snapper affects corn partitively shallow water makes it especially available to rod fishermen. It frequents old wharves and similar places. It is difficult to describe the color of the living snapper. I have taken individuals showing great variety of tints, but, as a rule, the deeper the water the more brilliant the coloring. Some fishes are a dark greenish hue, the centre of the scales showing a burnished black, the lower portion being a reddish coppery hue, very brilliant, giving the entire fish a suggestion of red golden bronze. Others, and particularly large specimens, taken by me at Garden Key, where the bottom was gray sand, were almost pure gray, suggestive of the specific name griseus given the fish by Linnaeus.
An interesting and very gamy snapper, a valuable food fish, at nearly all the West India Islands and Florida keys, is known as the dog snapper (Lutianus jocu). Its habits are similar to those of the gray snapper. The latter is at the head, so far as game qualities are concerned, of a large group of snappers, comprised in the family Lutianidae, and is the largest, but its many relatives and the famous red snapper, Lutianus aya afford excellent sport on the reef, and the red snapper as far north as Fernandina. The latter is a deep-water fish, found at various points in depressions in the bottom, and is not available for the rod unless one wishes to reel in a fish in water from seventy-five to two hundred feet in depth. With the hand or cast line it proves a hard-fighting and gamy fish. I have had excellent fishing for the red snapper north of Middle Key, Florida reef. The line was rigged with a heavy sinker, the hook with a strong six-inch leader being two or three feet above it, the reason for which was that if the sinker entered coral or gorgonias, the bait would swing clear above. At various points along the Gulf coast off Florida and off Fernandina, the mouths of the St. Johns and St. Marys, red-snapper banks are found, being well known to local and professional fishermen. The so-called red-snapper banks are met with all along the Gulf coast around to Texas and beyond. The "banks," which are really depressions in the sandy floor of the gulf, range in depth from ninety to two hundred feet. On the outer reef conch was a favorite bait, but the fish are by no means epicures, and fish bait is the ordinary lure. Off Middle Key fish were found in spawn in May, but I never saw a young red snapper at this point. On the upper coast Silas Sterns has found them with well-developed ovaries in April, May, June, and July.
On the reef about Marquesas, between Key West and Tortugas, and at the latter key, I have taken large specimens of what the fishermen called the green snapper, Lutianus analis (Cuvier and Val.). It has much the range of the gray snapper, and is a hard-fighting fish, attaining forty pounds, though I recall but one fish of this size, the average being much smaller. It is a very attractive fish, richly colored, the general tone a dark olive-green, but subject to much variation, red, blue, purple, rose, and even scarlet being conspicuous colors in its make-up. The iris is brick-red, the eye large, the head larger than in the gray snapper. The fins are also red in color, and at times the fish appears to be spotted blue, red, and white with indistinct horizontal bars and a black spot near the tail again it is severely olive above and white below. The dorsal is often beautifully tinted, roseate at its base, golden green at the tips altogether a radiant creature, yet lacking the grace of form of the gray snapper.. It is a valuable food fish at Key West and Porto Rico. It spawns in July and August and it is said to school ; but I have never seen such propinquity in the sense of schooling mullets, jacks, or other tropical schooling fish. Snappers, in my observations, were always seen together; that is, where there was one, ten or fifteen would be observed in the immediate vicinity, perhaps poising, or moving slowly about, never conveying the impression that there was a school - rather a community, as they have the home instinct strongly developed, and, like all snappers, live in certain localities, remaining there during the day, but wandering abroad at night, like many tropical fishes, to feed in the shallow lagoons or flats, where they were never found during the day.
The habit of night feeding in shallow water was very marked at Garden Key, so much so that when it was necessary to catch rare fishes we invariably hauled the seine in the lagoon between ten and twelve o'clock at night, always taking many forms which were never seen there at other times. There was one drawback large sharks and sting rays were particularly addicted to night strolling, and frequently became entangled in the nets.
Of all the game fishes of Florida the snappers afforded me the most sport, as they were essentially gamy at all ages and sizes. The small specimens, weighing from two to six pounds, often found in the shallow waters of the lagoon, were the trout of the reef. In one locality, where a key had been battling with the hurricanes for centuries, the great gales had swept the key away from the roots of the mangroves, leaving many stumps isolated and completely submerged. Anchoring the dinghy near these shelters, and casting with a heavy trout rod, using crayfish bait, rare sport was always had. The snappers lived among roots with a horde of other fishes, and would rise as soon as the lure sank a few feet, not having the discretion and coyness which marked or characterized the adult snapper of this region.
The snapper family is very large, including twenty genera and about two hundred and fifty species, nearly all of which have a high economic value ; and wherever they can be taken in water about twenty feet in depth, typify all that commends itself in a true game fish. In American waters alone, according to Dr. Jordan, there are about fourteen genera and thirty-five species; but including Porto Rico, now an American colony, the list would be larger. Among the small snappers, resembling the gray snapper, is the schoolmaster, Lutianus apodus, easily recognized by its reddish brown and orange colors and whitish stripes. I have taken twelve-pounders on the edge of a little channel near Bird Key, and have seen individuals on the edges of the channels which were doubtless much larger. As a hard fighter and vigorous fish it is unexcelled.
Another gamy snapper is the red tail, Lutianus synagris (Linn.), and seen directly from the water it is one of the most beautiful of all fishes. As it comes in on the line after a vigorous play, it appears olive-hued ; then as it reaches the surface and the sun plays upon it, rose, scarlet, silver, gold, deep maroon, and almost every color flash and blend to add to its beauties. Even the lips are vivid red, its eye or iris a flame of scarlet, marking the fish as a fitting companion to the gorgeous parrot and angel fishes of the reef.