No, it's not a re-make of the movie "Cocoon," but something below the water draws anglers to the wild blue yonder.
Boats are loaded with fishermen with a case of "red fever," an epidemic that spreads across the Carolinas during spring and summer. It infects many anglers with the urge to search for big red snappers, called "genuines" by South Carolina reef anglers.
Genuine red snappers are guaranteed to put a bend in a rod and smile on the face. Not only are genuine red snapper fun to catch, they are incredible as table fare.
Scientifically known as Lutjanus campechanus, it's the only true ("genuine") red snapper swimming in the ocean. Other reddish or pinkish snappers are commonly referred to as red snapper because of their colorations - but they're not the genuine articles.
True red snappers are top-of-the-line (or reef) predators, with an attitude toward baits and anglers akin to a pit bull. Anglers who have heard the expression "throw it to the dogs" understand the voracity and the eagerness that dogs exhibit during a feeding frenzy. And that's probably where the name "snapper" originated to describe these fish; they snap up baits lowered to them.
Red snappers are as aggressive and greedy as pit bulls during feeding time. As bait arrives in view of reef fish, red snapper are first-responders. However, just as any other fish, sometimes they can be finicky and crave a different menu than what's presented.
But most of the time, they're opportunistic feeders. Red snappers eat just about anything that swims, crawls or undulates in the water, including shrimp, squid and parts of fish. Commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico prefer squid and ladyfish as snapper baits.
Red snapper are associated with reefs, including low and high-relief structure reefs. Reefs contain an entire ecosystem from abundant zooplankton up the food chain to top-of-the-heap predators, such as red snappers.
Genuine red snappers are voracious eaters that pounce on oncoming baitfish, pushing smaller black sea bass, red porgies and grunts out of the way.
Their prized flavor and texture provides a high demand for these reef treasures. Commercially, 10 other types of reef fish that are mostly other species of snapper are marketed as red snapper. The demand for red snapper across the world ranks among the top for all marketed fishes.
Commercial red snapper fishermen use baited lines (with 10 to 40 hooks per line) dropped from electric reels. Trawling, long lining, hand lines and other methods also are popular.
Electric-reel fishing is the most productive of commercial methods at snapper grounds. Recreational bottom fishermen obviously and passionately oppose gross catches of snappers, mainly because of the differing regulations set down for recreational and commercial harvests of these fish.
While recreational anglers are allowed to keep only two fish per person with a 20-inch minimum length, commercial regulations are free of creel and minimum-length requirements.
"(Red snappers) are like lions on the prowl," said Capt. Eric Heiden, a South Carolina native and bottom-fishing expert.
Heiden, of the Eagle Claw fishing team at Heidenseek Charters in Georgetown, is well known along the East Coast for his success in the fishing world the past 45 years. His father, Jay Jules Heiden, taught his son to become one of the most productive and knowledgeable bottom fishermen in the country.
Heiden primarily fishes aboard the Heidenseek, his 26-foot Mako with twin Mercury Optimax outboards.
He spends a large portion of the year chasing reef fish, but especially targets "mules" (big red snappers) during early spring and summer. Heiden said "mules" fight like no other fish.
"Nobody catches many anymore, but you will never forget when you catch a mule," he said.
Trophy red snappers are well known for their awesome fighting ability, as well as their excellent table fare.
"The fishing for red snapper on the East Coast in general is a moderate fishery compared to the Gulf of Mexico," said Capt. Mark Brown of Charleston Fishing Charters at Mt. Pleasant.
Brown fishes offshore from Cape Romain to Savannah aboard the Teaser2, his 45-foot custom-built sportfisherman. He began his chartering business in 1976, and has been reeling them in ever since.
During the past decade, red snapper populations declined across the Atlantic, mostly because of fishing pressure from commercial boats. Recreational fishermen added to the pressure, but to a lesser degree.
Although the Gulf of Mexico fishery is thriving, Heiden said the unfettered commercial fishing creel limit has increased the take of red snapper, as well as other species of bottom fishes. He believes the red snapper population off the S.C. coast has declined by 10 percent or more.
"Historically, we caught literally tons of red snappers, but over the years, you could see a decline in catches and a shift in fishing methods," he said.
"I believe the root of our red snapper fishery comes from a Gulf of Mexico migration that probably happened a long time ago."
Also contributing to the decline, he said, is reduction in tackle sizes, use of live baits and anglers searching out, then mining new reefs - which takes more fish from the total population.
"The bright side is the management of all the offshore fisheries that came into effect in the late 1970s to early '80s," he said. "(Management changes) have had a good effect on fishing pressure with size and catch limits."
Brown and Heiden start chasing big red snappers during the late winter and continue through early summer.
"As the water cools in the Atlantic during the winter, the reef fish congregate at common reefs and structured areas in tight groups, probably trying to keep warm," Heiden said. "These fish can still be caught but are a bit harder to locate than during the warmer months of the year."
The Heidenseek team fishes for snapper the entire year but only totals about 40 trips. Most trips for "genuines" are made during May through July, a period that corresponds to the spawning season.