Catching Red Snapper in Louisiana: State Versus Federal Permits

Red snapper is one of the most sought-after offshore bottom fish in the Gulf of Mexico. But what makes it so popular?

The health benefits are off the charts, and red snapper tastes great too. Whether you grill it, steam it, bake it, coat it with crumbs or slather it in butter, you won’t be disappointed. What’s more, red snapper accounts for a significant chunk of the Louisiana fishing industry. Our state is a recreational fishing destination for sportsmen from around the country, and that benefits the locals who cater to tourists.

Maybe you already know all of this, and you’re already planning a trip to come fish. What you might not know, however, is that different groups of Louisiana captains have different dates and areas where they’re allowed to take customers fishing for red snapper, and understanding this distinction is very important to maximizing the success of your trip. 

Louisiana State Captains Versus Federal Captains

You see, all Louisiana charter captains are state-licensed, but some choose to also be federally permitted. There are “federal waters” and “state waters,” as silly as that sounds. Depending on how your captain is permitted, red snapper can be harvested in either both sets of waters or only one. As you can imagine, these regulation overlaps have left both tourists and locals confused.

However, if you plan to fish for red snapper, understanding when and where you can legally fish is important. Read on to learn the differences between state and federal captains, the rules for snapper fishing, and why there’s so much red tape. In other words, let’s make sure your next trip is nothing but smooth sailing!

When and Where You Can Fish for Red Snapper

Like every other Gulf State, Louisiana controls the first nine nautical miles of sea off its coast for charter red snapper harvest. The federal government is in charge of the 191 nautical miles beyond that for charter red snapper harvest. This distinction has angered some captains but provides more red snapper fishing opportunities for others, which is a positive thing for Louisiana tourism and the customer experience.

There are good reasons for fishing regulations, and we’ll explain all that soon enough. Meanwhile, here’s what you need to know in order to fish for red snapper or other offshore species along Louisiana’s coast, depending on which type of captain you choose.

What to expect if you choose a federally-permitted captain:

  • These captains must have an official Gulf of Mexico reef fish charter permit. They can take you fishing in both federal waters and state waters, meaning in addition to your red snapper hunting, you can go after other large offshore species such as tuna and cobia or even marlin, swordfish, and dolphinfish (Not flipper! Also known as mahi-mahi) or you can cruise back inshore and hit some redfish and trout honey holes. Also, ask your captain about availability on the only 18 days of the year from Aug. 1-18 when both red snapper and amberjack season will be open!

  • The red snapper season for federally-permitted captains will span June 1 through August 18 and will run seven days per week. 

  • You’ll be able to catch two red snappers per person with these captains.

  • Red snapper trips are the most desirable trips of the year by your fellow customers, so don’t hesitate to book your trip ASAP before our captains fill up their calendars!

Click here to book a trip with these captains.

What to expect if you choose a state-licensed/non-federally-permitted captain:

  • These captains are not licensed by the federal government for reef fishing, therefore they cannot take you fishing in federal waters. Again, federal waters are between nine and 200 nautical miles offshore for red snapper. Charter captains with only a state permit must stay within the state water boundary. That means that, unlike federally-permitted captains, no ventures further out for amberjack, tuna, cobia, marlin, swordfish, or dolphin fish with these captains. It’s back inshore for trout and redfish after you catch your red snapper limits.

  • Fortunately for these captains and for you, the government can’t control where red snappers decide to swim, and they almost always can be found within nine miles of shore.

  • Much to the chagrin of federally-permitted captains who have spent thousands on their reef fish federal permits, the red snapper season for non-federally permitted captains not only takes up a greater portion of the year and usually spans more days in total, but in 2022, at least, you’ll be able to keep more red snapper per day!

  • The season for non-federally permitted captains will begin the Friday before Memorial Day (May 27). It will be open on all Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays (Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, etc.) until our state’s fisheries managers have determined Louisiana’s annual harvest allocation of red snapper has been met. Last year, it lasted all the way through New Year’s Eve!

  • But late fall and winter aren’t the most desirable weather months to head past Louisiana’s coast in search of red snapper, so in an effort to make sure Louisiana reaches its yearly allocation in more desirable weather months, you’ll be able to harvest three, not two, red snapper per person on a trip with a non-federally permitted captain. This also means the time is now to book one of these trips before the state’s annual allocation quota runs out!

Book Today with these captains. 

What licenses will you need:

  • Charter customers who won’t be fishing regularly in Louisiana are highly encouraged to purchase a three-day charter pass. This is the cheapest option, and it provides you with the ability to step on any charter vessel as many times as you’d like within the three-day span of your choosing.

  • If you fish Louisiana a little more often, the Basic and Saltwater Fishing License might be for you. Although it costs more, the Basic and Saltwater License gives you access to Louisiana fishing for a full year on both charter trips and private recreational trips. 

Click here for information on how to purchase both of these licenses, including purchasing them online.

In either case, you do not need a Recreational Offshore Landing Permit, or ROLP, to harvest reef fish such as red snapper. Your captain’s ROLP will cover you.

But Why All the Restrictions?

We get it. No one who’s headed for the Gulf on a beautiful day wants to hear about rules and regulations. In this case, though, red tape is a good thing. It makes wild-caught red snapper a smart, sustainable choice.

In the years following WWII, tourism grew along the Gulf Coast. Recreational fishing boomed, and fish populations inevitably declined. Between 1950 and the late 1990s, the red snapper population was practically depleted. No Bueno.

But regulations were put in place in the ‘90s, and guess what? They worked! The red snapper population is recovering by leaps and bounds. Now, there is an abundance of red snapper out in the Gulf to the point that we can almost guarantee you’ll have no problem reaching your limit, practically immediately 

Building upon this success, federal and state governments continue to work with scientists and fishery managers to rebuild overfished populations of many species. The expert's study spawning potential and track catches to come up with rebuilding targets. These efforts are paying off.

Additionally, fishing technology has improved, and artificial reefs are placed closer to shore. Also, red snapper remains extremely popular; apparently, fans tell all their friends about it. That’s why certain restrictions and limitations are still in place.

And Why Different Regulations for Different Captains?

Non-federally-permitted charter captains and private recreational anglers used to be locked into the one-size-fits-all federally-managed red snapper season that federally-permitted charter captains remain in. Due to the sheer magnitude of anglers and the federal government’s inability to estimate the volume of effort and harvest, the overly-cautious season for private recreational anglers and non-federally-permitted charter captains dwindled and dwindled over the years to the point that it was as short as three days for the entire year in the mid-2010s.

The powerful recreational fishing lobby said, “No more,” and successfully attained state management, which provides each Gulf State with its own annual allocation quota to manage however it sees fit. Non-federally permitted charter captains could participate in this state management approach. Federally-permitted captains could not. Despite the best efforts of the Louisiana Charter Boat Association, we have not been able to attain a separate state management approach for our federally-permitted captains to this point.

Although federally-permitted captains can take customers fishing for red snapper usually 60+ consecutive days per year (including weekdays) in the months of June and July and early-to-mid August, they are rightly frustrated and angered by having to sit on the sidelines and watch captains who did not invest thousands in a federal permit take customers fishing for red snapper Memorial Day Weekend as well as Labor Day Weekend and beyond while they cannot.

But none of that is your problem as the customer. More red snapper fishing opportunities are good for tourism and the Louisiana charter sector as a whole. This is just to explain why regulations are different for different captains and why some aren’t super joyful about that.

Send Us an SOS

If you’re drowning in rules and regulations, you’re not alone. It sure is confusing. Different captains, different rules, but rest assured that every captain found on understands these distinctions. They would be happy to explain them to you on the phone before booking a trip with them, and once on the water, they’ll keep you safe and legal. 

Unsure on which captain to reach out to? Give us a shout at the Louisiana Charter Boat Association for more information or for help planning your next trip!


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