If you like emerald water loaded with life and a tropical vibe, The Bahamas is the place to be and be seen. Florida anglers residing along the southeast coast are truly fortunate to have such a fantastic fishery a mere 50- to 70-miles away where both pelagic and demersal species abound. Although our so-called winter season is around the corner and the coming months bring their fair share of deteriorated sea conditions, weather windows with calm winds and comfortable seas do exist, beckoning anxious anglers to blast across the ‘Stream in search of one of the fastest fish in the sea.
While big wahoo will certainly be in the Bahamian spotlight, when the bite shuts down an alternative exists that keeps fishermen on the water: reef fishing. Sinker bouncers investing time exploring healthy coral reefs typically pick away at yellowtail and mutton snapper while always hoping for a shot at a prized black or yellowfin grouper. However, few crews ever anticipate a red hot strawberry grouper bite.
Underrated and unappreciated, red hind are a unique species that go by the street name strawberry grouper, clearly due to their polka-dotted color pattern. Rarely seen outside Caribbean waters in massive numbers, a healthy population of strawberries manages to elude Bahamian fish traps and thrives along rocky outcroppings surrounding the archipelago. The cooperative fish are also eager to eat. The colorful hinds, which more resemble something you’d see in an aquarium than on the dinner table, hide in caves and under ledges, only darting out to snatch unsuspecting prey like a fresh ballyhoo plug embedded on a sharp VMC 7/0 octopus hook.
Visiting anglers who have taken advantage of this fishery know the tasty treats are there for the picking in 50- to 100-ft. of water. The epicenter of the action may just be the south shores of Grand Bahama Island, with West End and Lucaya both top spots on the list of most visited ports in the island chain. Those who know the terrain have little problem throwing fish on ice by approaching the fishery with purpose. The ticket to success with these structure-oriented reef dwellers is to drift across coral reef lines with standard ﬁsh-ﬁnder rigs. Egg sinkers hang far less than bank sinkers so don’t try reinventing the game with any sort of fancy dropper loop rig. Weight varies depending on conditions, but during all but the most rare occasions a few 3-, 4-, and 6-oz. egg sinkers will keep you connected. The key is keeping the bait in the strike zone, drifting directly across the broken bottom.
Strawberry grouper are aggressive with big mouths and even bigger appetites so avoid small chunk baits and squid strips. Leave the child’s play for the yellowtail. In-stead, fish whole ballyhoo plugs with head and tail sliced off fresh bait. Half of a gog is also hard for healthy hinds to ignore and keeps bait-stealing critters at bay. Plus, large grouper and double-digit mutton snapper will inhale the same offerings so always anticipate shots at quality fish when reef fish-ing for red hind. For this reason, a 30 lb. class 7’0” or 8’0” conventional outfit is ideal, and you should complete your terminal presentation with 6- to 8-ft. of 40 lb. fluorocarbon.
If your plans include spending time in the islands this holiday season, don’t forget about reef fishing during incoming tides or whenever the wahoo bite leaves something to be desired. You just might be pleasantly surprised with the basket of fruit you end up with.
Prepared by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Bahamian Department of Marine Resources, the following information pertains to recreational vessels that have lawfully obtained the proper Bahamian fishing and/or cruising permits, and have lawfully harvested species according to Bahamian rules and regulations. Operators that have not complied with the conditions below being in possession of product from The Bahamas with the intent to land in Florida will be considered in violation of Bahamian law and may be subject to Lacy Act violations as well as referral to Bahamian authorities.
Bahamian regulations allow for no more than 20 whole fish, or 60 pounds of fillets per vessel, not per person. That said, you cannot transport any snapper/grouper species whole or filleted back to Florida that are in direct violation of state or federal regulations, even if legal in Bahamian waters. This includes state and federal closures and bag limits. In situations where a species is closed in federal waters but open in state waters, enforcement will defer to the federal regulations.
With 60 pounds of fillets, the quantity of fillets must not exceed whole fish bag limits. For example, two anglers returning from Bimini cannot be in possession of 50, 16 oz. yellowtail snapper fillets. While the accumulated weight would still be under the 60 lb. fillet limit, 50 yellowtail fillets indicate 25 snapper, which exceeds local regulations of ten snapper per person.
Regarding red hind, because the species is included in Florida’s daily grouper aggregate, recreational vessels returning from Bahamian waters may not be in possession of more than three red hind per angler, with the fish off limits from January 1 to April 30 due to the shallow water grouper seasonal closure.