After a lengthy closure along both coasts, grouper fishing is a great option no matter your port of call. There’s no shortage of quality fish roaming near-shore rock piles, artificial reefs, ledges and sharp contours. We all know grouper of all sizes and species fall victim to diving plugs, jigs and cut bait, but seasoned sinker bouncers agree there’s no better offering than something big and alive.
Those who regularly fish with cut bait in particular surely know miniscule and sometimes mushy offerings commonly entice a plethora of juvenile snapper, grunt, triggerfish and a variety of other pesky reef dwellers. This is exactly why serious grouper go-getters in search of the real deal turn to natural food sources like large grunts, blue runners and pinfish. They know these are the types of offerings that result in quality fish on ice.
Big grouper aren’t very polite eaters. They inhale their meals whole and often have eyes larger than their stomachs.
If you’ve ever been diving along a healthy reef system or watched Nat Geo, you’ve probably witnessed the habits of mature grouper that are fairly common across the entire species complex. Big grouper typically have a home turf in the rubble or reef and use these dwellings to seek shelter from larger predators (mainly sharks) and ambush unsuspecting prey. When you get rocked up, it is usually because a determined grouper made its way back into its lair where the stubborn fish flared its pectoral fins and literally locked itself in place.
Another common characteristic is that grouper prefer to inhabit healthy ecosystems with an abundance of large finfish like grunts, snapper, seabass and more. If you’re catching juvenile snapper, you can bet big grouper are nearby watching their every move. When an unfortunate victim swims within striking range of the grouper’s territory it’s usually game over. Big grouper aren’t very polite eaters. They inhale their meals whole and often have eyes larger than their stomachs.
When it comes to live bait selection the choice really depends on the availability of forage and the particular grouper species you are targeting. Along many regions of the Gulf, big pinfish are the preferred bait and can be caught with relative ease or purchased at local bait shops. No matter how you get them these hardy spot have a large profile and make slob reds and gags strike when nothing else will. Hooked above the anal fin and fished on a typical fish-finder rig, these frenetic live baits swim in the strike zone just off the bottom where the end is just a matter of time.
Along portions of the Panhandle a live vermillion snapper—also known as a beeliner—is the go to for enticing big grouper. Around the Big Bend black seabass are the live bait of choice.
Down in the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas, prized black grouper capable of exceeding 50 pounds are prevalent so it’s no surprise you need a super sized meal to entice these large fish. Live speedos are the ultimate bait, but more often than not anglers targeting blacks turn to one- to three-pound yellowtail snapper, grunts and blue runner.
Regardless of where you are fishing and the particular species of grouper that are prevalent, utilizing reef fish for bait is the number one way to match the hatch. The way you choose to present the bait is also absolutely critical. With super slobs always a possibility, nothing less than 30 to 50 lb. class gear should even be considered. Both monofilament and braid work, with the latter offering superior sensitivity and abrasion resistance, not to mention greater line capacity for today’s small, yet incredibly powerful conventional reels. A standard fish-finder rig with bulletproof connections is commonly employed with 50 to 80 lb. test leader material and an egg sinker heavy enough to keep the live bait just off the bottom.
One mistake to avoid is hooking your live bait too deep. Since FWC regulations require the use of non-offset circle-hooks when targeting Gulf reef species, this fact is even more critical. The mechanics behind the design work best when the circle-hook is impaled near the shoulder of the bait and fully exposed. This remains true whether you are live baiting grouper or sailfish.
When selecting a circle-hook you’ll need to match the size of the hook to the size of your live bait. However, not all hook manufacturers follow the same size chart. A 7/0 Gamakatsu may closely resemble a 5/0 Owner, so you’ll have to train your eye and choose the hook that’s best suited for the particular application. It’s also important you choose a hook that’s suitable for the task at hand. Big grouper fight down and dirty and are incredibly powerful fish fully capable of straightening out hooks. You can expect to apply a significant amount of drag on the initial strike to keep them from rocking you up. Weak hooks that you can easily bend with your fingers have no place in this arena. Additionally, stay away from heavy gauge hooks that could weigh the bait down. It’s best to use something light that’s capable of withstanding the pressure associated with such powerful opponents. We continue to have excellent success with the VMC #7385 wide-gap tournament circle-hook in size 9/0. This thin gauge hook allows the bait maximum mobility and penetrates easily, yet it’s also incredibly strong.
Remember, when you are searching for impressive fish, where there are grunts and snapper there are usually big grouper. Instead of messing with cut bait, turn to natural food sources and you may find yourself pinned to the rail in a serious tug of war!