Anglers in the Gulf have it pretty tough. Oil spills, red tide, a gradually sloping seafloor and ill-considered fishing regulations make it increasingly difficult for fishermen across the region. Thankfully, the following months provide a much-needed reprieve, with the allowable harvest of gag grouper across most of Florida’s Gulf Coast. Red grouper have been on the menu for months and can be found in the same general areas, but you’ll have to alter your approach to the prevalent conditions, depths, current and bottom structure. The following tips will help put more grouper in the boat no matter what port you call home.
While running to and targeting specific structures is a good way to catch grouper, trolling offers an exciting alternative that provides several key benefits. Perhaps the greatest asset is the ability to discover hidden bottom facets absent from local nautical charts. Throughout the Gulf, much of the bottom is made up of small ledges, rockpiles and areas of live bottom that feature the slightest contour variations. You won’t uncover many of these promising areas unless you troll directly over them and reveal them with your sonar. Trolling diving plugs is also a great way to eliminate pesky bottom fish like grunts, porgy and triggerfish that might otherwise chew up baits if you were fishing a vertical presentation.
Thankfully, the following months provide a much-needed reprieve, with the allowable harvest of gag grouper across most of Florida's Gulf Coast.
The depth your plug reaches will be determined by the lip size and your trolling speed. In the Gulf, many anglers drag Mann’s Stretch 25+ and Rapala CountDown Magnum 22 plugs, but no matter what you choose it’s imperative your lures run close to the bottom. While these plugs will make the rod tip tremble on their own, the occasional violent jerk of the rod tip signals you are bumping bottom and in the strike zone. While aggressive lipped plugs can be fished on their own, shallower diving plugs with smaller lips can be presented at the ideal depth by running in line with a 24 oz. trolling lead or off a planer. A downrigger will do the trick as well. Since grouper hit hard you’ll want a stout rod rigged with nothing less than 50 lb. braid. Four feet of 60 to 100 lb. fluorocarbon leader will suffice and lure pattern should be based on water clarity. When you get a strike don’t slow down. Forward momentum will keep the fish from rocking you up, but it also provides the opportunity to hook another fish. While even the smallest structures hold grouper, you’ll want to target large areas of live bottom because it will be difficult to make tight turns on the troll as you try to work a specific ledge or rockpile.
BUST ‘EM ON BAIT
No matter your location along the Gulf Coast, live bait fishing for grouper is hard to beat. Pinfish are the top choice for many, with threadfin herring, cigar minnow, squirrelfish and pilchard also commonly employed. Still, having the liveliest baits won’t do you any good if you don’t have quality GPS coordinates.
Many of the most productive spots in the Gulf are small ledges, rockpiles and areas of limestone bottom that are so slight they barely emerge from the sand. While you will encounter both red and gag grouper in the same general areas, they do prefer slightly different habitat. Gag grouper are more aggressive and prefer ledges and areas with greater relief and contour, compared to red grouper that scatter around large ledges and prefer areas with subtle relief that locals call “swiss cheese” bottom. Whether you choose to anchor or drift will be determined by the depth of water and velocity of current. No matter the approach you’ll need to find structure. When fishing live bait you’ll want to use a knocker rig. Dead baits are effective when fished with a Carolina rig, but the common ground among all bait rigs is the requirement of circle-hooks when fishing in the Gulf.
When hooking live baits you’ll have to take into consideration the species of bait. Threadfin and other whitebait can be hooked in the nose or shoulder, although pinfish should be hooked just above the anal fin. With baits hooked near the tail you want to control the rate of descent so the bait isn’t dragged backwards. When you detect the unmistakable thump of a hungry grouper inhaling your bait don’t swing back and set the hook. Simply crank the handle and let the circle-hook do the work. While you will have to adjust for the prevalent conditions, 80 lb. leaders, 6/0 circle-hooks and 4 oz. egg sinkers fished off stout conventional outfits will get you in the game.
Chunk baits can also be effective, but the problem with these enticements is that juvenile seabass, snapper and triggerfish will peck them to the bone.
Natural bait works wonders, but when you first pull up on a promising stretch of bottom you might want to start by deploying artificial jigs. While you can fire out a jig in a second, it will also save you from impaling a live bait if nobody’s home. While observing the current and checking the drift before setting the anchor, toss out a jig and make an exploratory drop to see if anyone comes out to play. When fishing with jigs braided line is a must. With zero stretch and incredible sensitivity, braid will help you keep in touch with the bottom while also telegraphing the slightest action on the fall. When selecting jigs remember that the shape will influence the action and rate of descent.
Traditional bucktail jigs plummet straight to the bottom, while newer style flutter jigs have a slower rate of descent as they erratically fall through the water column. Tail weighted flutter jigs are preferred for grouper since they sink fast, compared to center weighted vertical jigs that have a slower fluttering action. In the presence of amberjack and other predators, center weighted jigs might never make it to the grouper zone. Whatever you choose, free spool untill you hit bottom and then give your rod a swift jigging action. Don’t reel, simply lift the rod as the lure bounces bottom. You should only move the rod tip about five feet as you let the jig bounce bottom and stir up the substrate. When the jig is on the fall be sure to follow the rod tip to avoid line coming tight until it hits bottom. Some swear by this approach, while others prefer to work the jig erratically through the bottom third of the water column. Don’t be afraid to experiment and see what works best for you.
DOWN & DIRTY
When all else fails it may be time to suit up and jump in. Although the latest chart plotting systems and advanced sonar technologies paint a clear picture of what lies below, you really never have an exact idea of what’s on the bottom unless you get a personal look with your own eyes. The growing popularity and crossover of spearfishing is undeniable and by getting in the water and observing fish in their natural habitat you will undoubtedly become a better angler as you learn to think like a fish.
As you would expect, grouper are apprehensive and skittish when approached by divers, so you want to distance yourself while hunting a trophy. While making your way to the bottom, the fish will likely see you coming before you see them. If you spot a grouper in the open and start stalking you want to make it seem like you’re uninterested. Use an indirect approach to close the gap and don’t ever look directly at the fish.
Anytime you are in the water try to approach fish and see how close you can sneak up. Slow, deliberate movements will not only conserve your oxygen but also help you get within range. Every scenario will be different, but all grouper will seek the safety of the nearest hole or cave when threatened. If you shoot a grouper and don’t kill it on impact you can expect all hell to break loose. Try to gain control of the fish before it can retreat to its lair. If a grouper makes it back to its hole before you could fire off a shot you’ll have to evaluate the situation. Is there an entry or exit large enough to shoot and pull the fish through? You’ll have to make an educated decision because a poor choice could result in lost fish and spear. Keep your tips sharp, don’t forget about the buddy system and always shoot to kill!