In the early mornings along Florida’s coasts, you can hear the distinct cavernous pop of snook feeding on silvery finger mullet near the edge of a mangrove stand. The snook, hiding along the tangled knot of roots and branches, use the mangroves as ambush cover. That deep pop is distinct from the splashing of shouldered redfish that shake the mangrove branches as they forage for crabs and shrimp. When the finger mullet come into view, those same redfish will churn the water into thunderous boils. The mullet leap frantically away from the onslaught, darting into the cover of the roots. Whether in Florida, Texas or even Hawaii, mangroves are incredibly productive habitats for targeting many kinds of fish. Anglers who understand mangrove ecologies are better able to develop strategies for fishing these highly productive habitats.
Mangroves are trees that have adapted to high-salinity coastal environments where other trees cannot survive. They are halophytes, saltwater-tolerant plants. Their roots and leaves can filter out as much as 90 percent of the salt from salt water. Mangroves’ unique root systems spread widely, giving them added support on wet, unstable ground. Those masses of roots effectively draw nutrients from the coastal soil and sand.
Mangrove roots also serve as natural barriers for shorelines, trapping sediment that functions like an embankment along the coast, staving off coastal erosion. They also store carbon in their leaves, which then fall into the water and trap the carbon in the coastal soil, known as blue carbon. Though they grow on only 0.1 percent of Earth’s surface, mangrove forests store nearly 10 times as much carbon per hectare as other land-based trees.
Worldwide, there are approximately 80 varieties of mangroves that can be found along the shores of more than 100 tropical and subtropical countries. Four varieties grow in Florida: red mangroves, black mangroves, white mangroves and buttonwood mangroves. Across the Gulf Coast, black mangroves have established themselves in smatterings along the shoreline and continue to expand their habitats, often replacing native salt marshes.
Black mangroves are identifiable by their long, horizontal roots called pneumatophores that extend in short sticklike projections and grow up out of the sand; they look like root spikes around the mangroves growing up from the ground. Black mangroves tend to grow farther away from the waterline than red mangroves, so their roots do not appear as exposed. Black mangroves can grow as tall as 65 feet, but only reach about 50 feet in Florida. White mangroves grow at an even higher elevation from the water; thus, their roots remain underground and unseen.
Mangrove shorelines are dynamic ecosystems where fishing can be incredibly productive. Mollusks colonize their roots. Crustaceans tuck away under their corners. Juvenile gamefish and schools of bait swarm in their rich waters. The system feeds on a rich soup of plankton, eggs, larvae and flesh that washes in and out with the tide. There’s bigger game here too using the cover of mangroves to ambush bait, take refuge from the sun, or hide from the ospreys and dolphins that prowl more-open waters.
For inshore anglers, mangroves offer abundant opportunities for many kinds of target species.
How to Fish Mangroves
The first skill you need is a side-arm cast—one good enough to contend with thick tangles of roots and branches. Use single-hook lures. Weedless lures are even better. Rig up with heavier tackle and line, enough to stop a fish from swimming back into the mangroves and breaking off.
Target the edges. Fish as close to the roots and branches as you can. Look for fish all over, but concentrate effort on points, cuts, coves, bays, gaps, or other ambush points where structure and tide push bait past predictable places. Remember to fish points opposite the flow of the tide.
Look for deeper holes and cuts to find cooler water in the hotter months (and warmer spots in cooler months). In places like Crystal River, Florida, even a shallow hole along a mangrove stand can keep snook holed up along the mangroves.
Don’t pull your boat all the way up to the mangroves. The closer you get, the more likely you’ll spook fish out of that area.
Look for moving branches. On calm days, feeding fish like redfish might rub against the mangrove roots while foraging for crabs and shrimp.
Live bait can be tricky in the mangroves. Pinfish, pilchards, and even shrimp can swim into the roots and get tangled. Sometimes, though, tricky is good. A live bait fished under a popping cork can be effective if you let the current drift the cork past a point or down the edge of a mangrove stand. Just make sure the bait can’t pull the cork more than the current can. Cut bait works well when fish are tucked in tight because scent draws them out. Try chunks of ladyfish or mullet for redfish, snook and snapper.
Topwater lures are immune to submerged roots. Work topwaters like search baits, using long casts parallel to edges. The commotion they make will draw snook, seatrout and redfish out from under cover.
Learn to skip-cast. It gets you under branches with enough tension on the line for an immediate retrieve that will keep your lure out of the roots. Spinning reels skip-cast better than levelwind or baitcasting reels.
When fishing mangroves, remember that the fish are there for the cover, so it is less likely they are cruising around the mangroves than they are settled in. If you spook fish out of a spot, try that spot again later.
Mangrove Quick Facts
There are approximately 80 varieties of mangroves; four of these can be found in Florida.
Mangroves provide habitat for species such as snook, redfish, speckled trout, jacks, sheepshead, grunts, schoolmasters, gray snapper and juvenile grouper species.
In South Florida, approximately 75 percent of recreational gamefish rely on mangrove habitats during some part of their lives.
The rich muddy bottoms and tangle of roots in a mangrove stand make the ideal home for an array of animals, such as crabs, snails, barnacles, shrimp, oysters, muscles, clams and bristle worms. Some crabs and snails also live in the mangrove branches above the water’s surface.
Mangrove roots collect algae that many organisms living in that habitat feed on.