Last Chance Grouper

It’s going to be here before you know it—Closed Season. The National Marine Fisheries Service shallow water grouper closure once again takes effect January 1 through April 30, 2011 in Atlantic waters, and February 1 through March 31, 2011 throughout the Gulf of Mexico. While this seasonal closure will only burden Gulf Coasters for two-months, the Atlantic ban lasts for what seems like an eternity. Although regulations can only benefit grouper populations around the state, both charter and commercial captains that rely on this bounty of the sea will have to look elsewhere. Completely prohibiting the harvest of gag, black, red, scamp, red hind, rock hind, coney, graysby, yellowfin, yellowmouth and tiger grouper, the closure coincides with grouper spawning season. Similar to the red snapper conundrum this issue is a particularly hot topic, as inaccurate data has forced fishery managers to deem grouper stocks overfished. What is important to point out is that grouper are, in fact, extremely vulnerable to overfishing and although the regulations are a burden, the ultimate goal is to protect spawning aggregations.


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Photo: Captain Jimmy Nelson

While everyone loves these tasty bottom dwellers, there’s a whole lot more to successful grouper fishing than simply dropping down bait and holding on. There are as many tips, tricks, tactics and techniques as there are anglers who target these highly prized bottom fish and although your particular rigging techniques and angling approach will be a direct result of the prevalent conditions and location you fish, successful tactics can easily be adapted for just about any scenario.

1. Panhandle
Captain Scott Robinson

Based out of Destin we’re fortunate to have a relatively short run to productive grouper grounds. Twenty-three miles south of the Destin breakwater and we’re in 200-feet of water. While we regularly connect with red, gag and black grouper, my all-time favorite is the scamp. Although there are no doubt exceptions; time after time we see the best results with live pinfish and cigar minnows. Our fall grouper bite is usually consistent, but with any tropical disturbances funneling into the Gulf the bite really gets going along the natural reefs off the Panhandle. Because we pass pressured ledges en route to deeper water, the grouper we catch are almost all keepers. While highly dependent on the velocity of the current and depth of water, a fish-finder rig with a 16oz. egg sinker, 80lb. test leader and 9/0 circle-hook does the trick. With red grouper averaging 10 to 15-pounds and gags weighing twice that, what more could you ask for?

2. Big Bend
Captain Jimmy Nelson

Fishing the waters off Crystal River we certainly catch our fair share of grouper on natural bait, although it’s hard to beat the heart-pounding excitement that goes along with vertical jigging. I prefer to fish with artificials because they work well and even better than live bait when used properly. A lot of my honey-holes are in 40 to 60-feet of water between 30 to 40-miles offshore. Some of my 70-foot spots are upwards of 50-miles offshore. It’s definitely a long haul, but there’s hardly any pressure. Even on a calm Saturday you rarely see another boat. While the prevalent sea state often dictates when and where we fish, the bite is typically best when water temperatures are between 65°F and 80°F. I think the grouper regulations are great for the fishery, but they should be tailored to certain geographical regions. There is no shortage of grouper along the Big Bend.

3. Southwest
Captain Joe Cacaro

Along the southwest coast grouper make their way from deeper haunts to near-shore reefs and wrecks during the late fall and early winter. Targeting structure in 15 to 60-feet of water, we see great success trolling large lipped Mann’s Stretch 25+ and Rapala Magnums, but any plug that can get down 20-feet will get bit. As for color, start with the classic red/white pattern. If the water clarity is poor troll a chartreuse lure. With good visibility, toss out a natural baitfish pattern. I always start by trolling with the current because this is the direction the fish will be expecting their next meal to come from. If this doesn’t produce, troll back into the current and then cross the current from both sides. If at this point you still haven’t gotten a strike, move on. Trolling speed depends on the velocity of the current and although 5-knots is usually ideal, don’t hesitate to try 3.5 to 6.5-knots.

4. East Central
Captain Art Boyd

Around Port Canaveral not too many anglers specifically target grouper. After a full day of bottom fishing if we bring back three grouper we’re doing really well. The key to successful bottom fishing here is proper anchoring techniques and knowing where to fish. Because public reefs are heavily pressured, if you don’t have your own numbers you are wasting your time. Although snapper make up most of our action, we always rig a live pinfish and send it down on a stout grouper rod. If anyone’s home they usually aren’t shy about letting us know. While we catch the occasional red grouper, we generally encounter gag grouper to 30-pounds with a standard fish-finder rig with 12-foot leader the norm. Target structure in 90 to 270-feet and look for 2-knots of current. When targeting these depths precise anchoring is essential and because it may take a few attempts to get it right, most guys simply choose to drift. This is a huge mistake. In my opinion grouper fishing is the toughest of all and when I’m taking out clients we don’t strictly target grouper because it would likely be a slow day.

5. Southeast
Captain Jay Cohen

Due to the large population in metropolitan South Florida, the reefs and wrecks off Miami see a lot of pressure. Because of this, when we want to catch grouper we don’t go out and pick at small fish. We go big or we don’t go at all. While it may seem unconventional, we routinely catch monster grouper on live bonito and have two custom livewells designed to keep two-dozen “bullets” alive. When targeting gags to 50-pounds we start our search in 100-foot depths and work our way to 300-feet. Live bonito require a unique rig. We use a three-way swivel with a minimum of a 20-feet leader—depending on the current and structure we may fish a 50-foot leader. With the long leader we can lay up further from the structure and try to coax them out a bit. The long leader also gives the bonito maximum mobility. Because of the strength of bonito we typically use 32oz. or 48oz. leads. If we don’t get a strike within the first 5-minutes chances are we aren’t going to get a bite. Although we have amberjack to deal with, we recently nailed a 50-pound gag on a 4-pound bonito.

6. Florida Keys
Captain Andrew Tipler

In the Lower Keys we use two methods when targeting shallow water grouper. While we have a wide variety of grouper along the reef line, blacks make up the majority of our catch. The first method involves anchoring and chumming, and is highly effective at drawing in snapper and other baitfish. In essence we’re building a food chain to coerce large grouper from their holes. When anchoring a variety of live and cut baits will do the trick, just remember that big baits catch big fish. The second method involves drifting, typically used when targeting deep structure. Here we use a mix of live and artificial offerings. Vertical jigs work well, as do big bucktails tipped with bonito strips or curly tail grubs. When the water is dirty we’ve had better success with cut bait, as the scent invites inquisitive predators. Even though circle-hooks aren’t required I like to use them because they help keep the leader out of the fish’s mouth. A fish-finder rig with a 15-foot, 60lb. fluorocarbon leader and just enough lead to get to the bottom will get you connected. The warmer the water gets the deeper we fish and that is what’s troubling. They’ve closed grouper season during primetime when big fish occupy patch reefs in shallow water.