This week I’m going to highlight one of my favorite Florida Keys fish species—the mutton snapper. Not only are muttons one of the most appetizing fish you can catch, but they also provide pound-for-pound one of the best fights of all Keys’ game fish. In addition, because muttons can be temperamental at times—often ignoring even perfectly presented baits or refusing a type of baitfish they were actively feeding on the day before—it’s always a rewarding experience when you get on the bite, and entice a few nice muttons to eat. And, because muttons can be targeted in a variety of areas and water depths, they’re accessible to all types of anglers, no matter where you like to fish, or if your vessel isn’t designed to fish offshore.
For those of you unfamiliar with mutton snappers, these beautiful fish have reddish/pink hues on their fins and tails, a bright blue line below the eye, and most noticeably, a black spot on their backs that best helps differentiate them from red snappers. It’s important to note that red snapper fishing is closed in the Florida Keys, so make certain that you have indeed caught a mutton before throwing it in the box.
Mutton Snapper Facts
Size Limit: 16” and greater
Bag Limit: Included within 10 per person Snapper aggregate bag limit
Florida Record: 27lbs. 6 oz.
Fun Fact: Muttons caught inshore will often have olive green colored backs and upper sides, while deeper water muttons usually are redder in color.
Targeting Mutton Snapper
Mutton snapper can be targeted from five feet of water all the way out to the deep wrecks.
Inshore: Muttons can be caught at many of the Florida Keys bridges during the late fall and winter months. Use live shrimp or live pilchards and you’ll have a good shot at landing a quality keeper in the 18 to 24-inch range.
Hawk Channel: Hawk Channel is a great place to target muttons during those windy winter days when it’s a little rough to fish the reef or offshore. As the water cools, the mutton bite heats up on the channel humps, with large live shrimp, pilchards, and ballyhoo (live or fresh cut) being the preferred baits. Note: If fishing Hawk Channel and a school of ballyhoo swims up in your chum line, chances are that’s what the muttons are feeding on and ballyhoo should be your bait of choice.
Patch Reefs: When fishing the patch reefs (25 to 40 feet of water), chumming with live pilchards can really spark a mutton feeding frenzy. The livies will often bring the muttons to the surface and then you can cast a pilchard at the hungry pack and watch in excitement as an aggressive mutton slams your bait.
Deep Reefs: While yellowtail fishing the deep reef (90 to 100 feet), I like to send a rod down to the bottom in hopes of hooking a big mutton. To target them, I will drop a live bait on 30-pound mainline with a six to eight foot stretch of 40-pound fluorocarbon leader. Use a shorter leader on the deep reef than on the wrecks so that your bait isn’t wrapped up in the jagged reef bottom.
Wrecks: One of the most popular places to target mutton snapper is on the wrecks and hard bottom out to 300 feet. Use 20 to 30 pound mainline with a long stretch of fluorocarbon leader and a six to 12 ounce lead, depending on the current. You want your lead to hold the bottom so use the lightest weight that will keep the bait down. Any number of live baits will work on the wrecks, so experiment with a variety of baitfish and stick with whatever works.
Also, always remember to let the fish swallow your bait, and then reel down to the fish. Do not set the hook when you feel the bite.
Mutton Snapper Parmesan Recipe
Muttons are one of my favorite Florida Keys fish to eat, and their thick white fillets are an excellent substitute for chicken when making a parmesan dish.
2 lbs. snapper
1 c. sour cream
1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. grated onion
1/2 tsp. salt
Dash hot pepper sauce
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease baking dish. Cut fish into serving size pieces. Place in baking dish. Combine other ingredients except paprika. Spread over fish. Sprinkle with paprika. Bake 25 to 30 minutes. Makes 6 servings.
Drew Dinan with some nice muttons caught on Middle Keys wrecks this past week.