red snapper

Chris Ruth caught and had to release a large red snapper a few years back, while fishing the Commanche Reef about 25 miles off Charleston. A third mini-season to keep catch is open next weekend. Provided by Mike Illing, Avid Angling Fishing Charters.

The weather was so bad Bill Parker didn't bother to launch his boat from Skull Creek — not into northeast winds kicking up stronger than 30 mph.

The 32-year veteran captain of Runaway Fishing Charter on Hilton Head Island said he wasn't the only one who didn't go offshore Nov. 10, even though at the time it was the last weekend they could bring back the sought-after and tasty red snapper.

But the bad weather has led to a third, weekend-long "miniseason" for recreational anglers to go after the otherwise restricted catch, from Friday through Sunday. That follows two earlier weekends in November.

The added days are partly because federal fishery managers need more data to crunch. Partly it's because there apparently are more fish to be caught.

"Preliminary estimates of recreational harvest indicate that the catch limit has not been caught, likely due to inclement weather," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in announcing the additional weekend. 

"Early indications based on feedback from some experienced fishermen suggest that the catch could be better than the last miniseason (in 2014), particularly if the weather would cooperate," said Mel Bell, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources fisheries management director.

Bell sits on the federal South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which called for the season.

Enough of the popular red snapper have been brought in commercially from waters offshore that they are showing up on plates at Charleston-area restaurants such as The Ordinary and Wild Olive. The commercial season continues to Dec. 31.

Recreational and commercial anglers have been required to throw back the fish for the past eight years after surveys indicated the stocks was being depleted. More recent data suggests the species is recovering. The remaining question is, how much. Anglers say the fish is back, and they can't wait to get back out there.

The red snapper catch "really hasn't been a problem around here," Parker said. "It was Florida waters. We've always had pretty good red snapper fishing (off South Carolina). For the past couple of years it's been outstanding."

"The catch seems better and the sizes are a little more varied," said Mike Illig, the captain for Avid Angling Fishing Charters in Charleston.

Conservationists are less certain.

"It's still too early to draw any conclusions from the data they're gathering," said Leda Cunningham, a manager of Southeast ocean conservation work for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The group is encouraging anglers to use a compression device to reduce deaths of the deep sea fish when thrown back, and to turn over catch reports to the council. The website is www.safmc.net.

The catch does seem to be coming back, said Capt. Lee Barker, of Get Hooked Fishing Charters in North Myrtle Beach. But it's not like it used to be. He recalls the days when his father would bring home three burlap sacks full of the snapper after a day on the water.

"There's nowhere near that many any more," he said.

The recreational bag limit is one fish per person per day with no size restrictions. Federal managers are still crunching the reports from the two earlier weekends when the catch was opened, but the numbers so far suggest it was far less than the 29,566 fish allowed.

Depending on results from the current seasons, NOAA is expected to open a longer season in July.

Staff writer Stephanie Barna contributed to this report.

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Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

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