Pound for pound, heavyweight gag grouper are some of the strongest fighting fish an offshore angler will ever encounter. Few denizens of the deep have brought as many fishermen to their knees or humbled as many experienced sinker bouncers as monster gags determined to make it back to their lairs. I’ve been there and each time I locked up and held on, pushing my tackle to its very limits in an attempt to prevent the fish from rocking my world, I emitted strange moans and groans reserved for only such occasions.
Fortunately, the tables have turned and the majority of my recent hard-fought grouper encounters have left me on the winning end, but that wasn’t always the case. Years ago I was one of those lost souls who mistakenly believed he could get away with inferior tackle better suited for open water king mackerel fishing than beating industrial-strength bottom brawlers. I’ve since learned to take things more seriously and as a result, my success ratio has climbed.
Powered by wide broom-like tails and muscular shoulders, the large profile of a hefty gag grouper alone spells trouble. These dominant bottom feeders thrive in forage-rich habitats ranging from relatively shallow rockpiles to ledges and peaks sitting under hundreds of feet of water. They are almost always found close to unforgiving structure where they emerge to engulf unsuspecting fish and nutritious crustaceans. Deteriorated artificial wreckage is also a favorite gag grouper haunt and no less forgiving on fragile terminal gear.
Regardless of preferred fishing location, connect with a prizefighter and you’re in for a serious battle. Stout tackle suitable for the task is an absolute must if you want to head back to port with a big fish in the box. Heavy-duty outfits are required not only for slamming the breaks on determined adversaries, but also for dealing with heavy sinkers, big baits and deep water habitats. This fact was again driven home as Captain Steve Dougherty and I searched for monster gags with Captain Rich Kluglein of Fins Sportfishing out of Fort Pierce, Florida.
While no one reel is ideal for all gag grouper applications, large fish and heavy terminal gear require high-quality conventionals. The reel that has stood the test of time on the grouper grounds has been the Penn Senator 114H, known simply as a 6/0. In the right hands, 6/0s have spanked more big gags than all other conventional reels combined. Over they years, they’ve set the standard for what a reliable grouper reel needs to be—simple and durable.
The 6/0 isn’t the fastest reel, nor is it the prettiest or lightest for its size, but it is tough as nails with plenty of line capacity and substantial cranking power. With a proven yet simple star drag system, the 6/0 is exactly what is needed when pursuing such strong-willed opponents. Priced around $200, a 6/0 is perhaps one of the greatest values in all of saltwater fishing.
Modern two-speed lever drag reels are also a solid choice, with the Daiwa Saltiga SALD60 and Shimano Tyrnos TYR20II at the top of the list. However, while these modern winches are much lighter than a Penn Senator, they do require a chunky investment and may not be the ideal choice for relatively inexperienced anglers unfamiliar with lever drag systems or the benefits of two-speed reels. Whatever handle you decide to turn, use quality, performance and reliability as benchmarks and be sure to maintain your equipment. Otherwise, tackle failure will ultimately enter the equation and you will be left disappointed.
The Benefits of Beef
When selecting the perfect grouper stick, you’ll want to look for something that’s strong and designed for maximum leverage. I favor grouper rods that are 7’0” or 8’0” in length and rated for nothing less than 50 lb. line, while still exhibiting lightweight attributes to make for enjoyable fishing. High quality SIC guides are required for fishing braid. Also, be sure to select a rod with a relatively long butt section for added leverage when heaving back against misbehaving fish.
While I believe in custom rods built for the way you fish, Cousins Tackle manufactures an excellent off the shelf graphite grouper stick, the GLB 8050. The components and finish are excellent and with plenty of backbone and superb performance, it is also comfortable enough to fish all day. Another option at $139.99 is the Star Rods DLX507. This charter and head boat favorite is a proven big fish killer!
On the Line
Thanks to incredible strength and near zero stretch characteristics, today’s super braids have emerged as the line of choice for serious grouper diggers. Captain Rich prides himself on being a gag grouper specialist and consistently puts his clients on impressive 20- to 40-pound gags. Kluglein agrees that monofilament simply doesn’t compare. If you’re looking for gags on near-shore rockpiles and ledges of the Atlantic Coast, or fishing the Middle Grounds deep in the Gulf of Mexico, 80 to 130 lb. braid is the name of the big grouper game. That being said, a top-shot of 80 to 120 lb. monofilament (depending on the application) between the braid running line and the rig is mandatory. Along with added abrasion resistance, which braid has very little of, the elasticity of the top-shot acts as a shock absorber and helps prevent pulled hooks—vital when you’re left with no option but to sock down the drag and hold on with all of your might.
Leading the Way
Big gag grouper aren’t incredibly line shy, so relatively heavy fluorocarbon leader is standard across most fisheries. Eighty-pound test will seal the deal in many cases, but if you know there are really big fish below don’t hesitate bumping up to 100 lb. fluorocarbon or even 120 lb. You may think this is overkill, but in reality it’s completely reasonable for the task at hand.
While on the subject of rigs, faulty terminal tackle is likely responsible for the greatest number of lost fish. Grouper will easily exploit the weakest link in your terminal connections and it’s critical line and leader are free of abrasions. Swivels are rarely given the consideration they deserve, but you must select only the highest quality ball bearing swivels and also inspect frequently to make certain they rotate freely. Don’t allow something so small and simple to cost you the fish of a lifetime.
Stick it to ‘Em
Gag grouper fishing is primarily a live or fresh dead bait scenario. Non-stainless circle-hooks are the way to go and required by law when fishing natural bait across the Gulf of Mexico. The VMC #7387 in-line tournament circle-hook is an excellent choice, just be sure to leave the 9/0 hook fully exposed so you get a good hook set upon reeling tight. Remember that proper rigging is all about balance, so if you’re specifically targeting jumbo gags with beefed up gear, then upgrade your hook to ensure it can withstand the extreme stress associated with fishing heavier line and leader.
Even with the best equipment and finest terminal tackle, successful grouper fishing is as much a mental game as it is a muscle game. The fight is often determined in the first 30 seconds when the formidable fish instinctively runs for cover. If you can stop a big gag before it enters a cave or ducks under a sharp ledge, then you may get a chance to enjoy fresh grouper for dinner. Otherwise, shake off the frustration and re-rig. Maybe you’ll stop the next one.