Snowbird snapping - Winter visitors get a chance to haul in big reds

Snowbirds Wayne Laing of Iowa (left) and George Lambrecht of Minnesota pulled in a big stringer of fish, including their share of red snapper while fishing aboard the Destiny on Wednesday with Capt. Chris McConnell. "It seems like this is a make-sense way to do it," said Laing of the new pilot program for the headboats and red snapper.

For the first time in a long time, snowbirds that venture down to the Emerald Coast every winter are getting a chance to pull in a few red snapper due to a Gulf of Mexico Headboat Collaborative Pilot program that allows specified boats to land red snapper and gag grouper.

The Destiny, Destin Princess and Sweet Jody are three of 17 boats from Florida to Texas that are participating in the program that kicked off Jan. 1.

"It's been years since we've been able to keep a red snapper," said George Lambrecht of Minnesota who fishes at least once a week while he winters in Destin.

"These are nice size fish and it's nice to be able to keep them," he said as he held up his snapper caught Wednesday aboard the Destiny with Capt. Chris McConnell.

Lambrecht, who is always sporting his Minnesota Viking hat, said he's been coming to Destin for the past 17 years and loves to fish.

Wayne Laing of Iowa got in on the snapper action on Jan. 1 as well.

"It's great to catch some snapper," Laing said. "What they are doing is making sense. I think they are on the right track and doing it the right way.

“And we appreciate all those in power that are giving us this opportunity," Laing added as he was getting ready to clean his snapper.

How this all works is the party boats that are participating in the program are locked in for at least one year. Each boat is allotted a certain number of red snapper they can catch based on their catch history from 2011. For example, if they have 800 red snapper in their "fish bank" once they catch a snapper it is subtracted from their account — when they land the 800, they are done for the season.

The captains that are participating hope to be able to stretch their allocation through the year until at least the end of July.

Plus the program has cost the boat captains quite a bit of money to participate in the pilot adventure. Capt. Cliff Cox of the Sweet Jody said he has about $5,000 invested in the venture — noting he had to get a Vessel Monitoring System on the boat.

"We basically have to have the same requirements as the commercial fisherman does," Cox said. "We have to hail out and give one hour notification and hail in … one hour before we get in."

But Cox said it’s worth it to be able to open up the opportunity for their winter visitors.

Jerry Ervin of Michigan fished aboard the Sweet Jody on Wednesday and had two of the biggest snappers aboard the boat.

"Jerry's been fishing with me since 1990 … he's been closed out of this fishery since the late ’90s," Cox said.

But 2014 is a new year with some new programs that are reeling in the fish.

See you on the docks.