Mutton snapper are widespread in the tropical western Atlantic and common from Florida to South America making them a prized game and food fish. Muttons are easy to identify by their pink-orange color, blue streaks on the head and the distinct black spot on the back. The mutton resembles the smaller lane snapper closely, but rather than the mutton’s blue streaks, the lane sports yellow streaks. Larger mutton snappers have fewer patterns with a solid reddish color.
Mutton Snapper Are No Easy Mark
Muttons range from deeper reefs to nearshore structure, inshore channels and shallow flats. Smaller muttons, under two pounds, are found in deeper grassy shallows. Mutton snapper can ambush prey or hunt it down. Rather than hide in a reef, they tend to patrol the top of structure.
Like red snapper, adult muttons are aggressive predators. However, like grey snapper, muttons can be wary, with keen vision. They’re particularly tough to fool in shallow, clear water. Mutton snapper often grab a bait on the run, making a reel sizzle. Like all snapper, muttons fight stubbornly.
How to Catch Mutton Snapper
A wide range of bait will take them, with live herring, ballyhoo or cigar minnows a top bet. Mutton snapper will also fall for a leadhead jig with a plastic tail. Many muttons have fallen victim to slow-pitch metal jigs as well.
In general, anyone hoping to bag a mutton will be fishing gear sufficient to stop medium-sized reef fish from completing a dash for freedom into a reef or nearby structure. Most are taken on 20-pound-class spinning gear with 20-pound line and 30-pound leader.
How Mutton Snapper Taste
The sweet, firm flesh of mutton snapper is esteemed by seafood lovers. They are popular in restaurants, especially fried whole or grilled.
In rare cases, large mutton snapper have been implicated in ciguatera poisoning. Ciguatera poisoning is caused by build-up of toxins in large predators. Consuming a fish with the condition can affect digestive, muscular and neurological systems. For more information on ciguatera poisoning, visit www.cdc.gov.
Top Spots for Mutton Fishing
Florida’s Dry Tortugas are the source of the current IGFA World Record for mutton snapper. The islands are 60 miles off Key West, so kayakers mothership to the fishing grounds.
Closer to shore, anglers catch muttons from the Keys to South Florida. In the Keys, decent-sized snapper hang around bridge pilings and the coral in Hawk’s Channel. From north of Fort Lauderdale to Palm Beach, muttons live on deeper reefs closer to shore.
Expert Tips from a Mutton Master
Few pros have led more anglers to mutton snapper than Miami’s renowned Captain Bouncer Smith. Over his 50-year career, Captain Smith set multiple snapper records and developed proven tactics for catching these finicky reef fish. Here a few of his mutton tips to take to the bank.
Muttons are wary, so anglers targeting them with bait use a 40-foot, 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. Bouncer Smith uses a small longline clip on two feet of mono for the weight. The clip allows the weight to be removed quickly to reel the snapper to the boat.
Add a curly-tail soft plastic to the assist hook on a vertical jig. Smith suggests bouncing the jig off the bottom to kick up sand, rock and coral.
In addition to coral reefs, mutton snapper like grassy or smooth coral. In cooler months, Smith suggests fishing 10 to 60 feet from the edge of reef.
This article was first published in Kayak Angler Issue 46. Subscribe to Kayak Angler and get the magazine delivered to your front door. Download the Kayak Angler Magazine+ app to seamlessly glide between the digital archives, the latest articles and videos.
From the flats to the deep, these brutes are ready for a fight. | Feature photo: Adrian Gray