Heading miles out into the Gulf of Mexico often leads to a successful day of fishing, with countless world-class species patrolling these rich waters year-round. However, a long run out into the Gulf isn’t always needed to put a big bend in the rod and fresh grouper on the table.
As air and water temperatures across the region continue to cool, grouper fishing heats up as these broad-shouldered demersals make a seasonal migration to rockpiles, bridge rubble, ledges and channel edges along the ICW and across inshore waters throughout much of the Gulf.
The most popularized venue for grouper trolling is the deep shipping channel that runs through Tampa Bay, though it’s not the only game in town.
Since gag grouper season closes December 31, the coming months provide anglers with one last chance to get tight before managers pull the plug. Among the different methods anglers employ when targeting grouper, trolling is certainly the most exciting, especially when focusing on depths less than 40 feet.
The most popularized venue for grouper trolling is the deep shipping channel that runs through Tampa Bay, though it’s not the only game in town. From the maze of remote mangroves giving way to Florida Bay near Shark River all the way up the coast to Crystal River where shallow grass flats are dotted with limestone rockpiles, the Gulf Coast is littered with prime ambush habitat where anglers can routinely find and fool keeper gags.
Unfortunately, catching grouper isn’t as easy as setting a few lines back and hoping for a quick strike. It takes the right location, conditions, equipment and lure selection to find consistent success. While you’re sure to encounter short fish, gags meeting the 24-inch requirement are common catches so you need to be prepared accordingly. While you don’t need the same no-nonsense gear that you would for presenting live baits in upwards of 200 feet, this is no time to dial down your grouper outfit to ultra-light tackle.
Heavy-duty spinning reels and stout rods enable anglers to apply sufficient pressure on fish determined to break you off on the nearest structure. Start with a full spool of 50 lb. braid terminating with a Bimini twist and 60-lb. fluorocarbon leader.
One of the challenges in grouper trolling is presenting lipped plugs at a depth where they pass just above the bottom. There is a multitude of lipped plugs on the market, with Rapala, Bomber and Yo-Zuri just a few of the most trusted brands offering many variations of designs that relate to specific diving depths.
When choosing a lure it’s imperative you first note water depth. The goal is to run the lures just a few feet off the bottom, and bouncing bottom every so often is a good way to tell you’re in the strike zone. Lure color selection shouldn’t be your highest priority; it’s more about finding fish and presenting lures in the strike zone. That said, natural colors are preferred for clear water conditions, with bright-er lures ideal for stained backwaters.
While most trolling exploits rely on gunnel mounted rod holders, here you’re better off holding the rod in your hands with a firm grip while pointing the tip toward the water to minimize scope and increase the depth the plug runs.
The most effective trolling speeds do not exceed 5 mph and are sometimes slowed down to as little as 2 mph, but it’s an equation that requires the helmsman’s awareness of a lure’s stated diving depth and amount of line set out in relation to the current and depth of water below.
As is the case with most angling endeavors, moving water is paramount to success. Tide is extremely important in determining where to set up and in which direction to troll. It’s important for anglers to know that the fish feed during both incoming and outgoing tides, but there are a few differences in approach.
Most claim that it is best to troll with the tide, since grouper face the current as they wait for it to bring their next meal. Therefore, trolling with the current will mimic a natural presentation as fish can see the bait coming from further away and have more time to react to it.
Trolling against the current brings lures across a fish’s back, so it won’t see the presentation until it has passed, but that isn’t to say that a hungry gag won’t chase it down and devour it anyway. When trolling into the current you’ll need to let out more line to get your baits to the bottom, while trolling with it requires less scope.
When you get a strike, don’t slow down. Forward momentum will not only keep the fish from taking the fight to structure, but maintaining your trolling speed also provides the opportunity to hook another fish. Additionally, make note of the depth, speed and direction of current so you can duplicate the same presentation in the future.
Though modern chartplotters provide users with a plethora of options and information including satellite photo overlay, raster, vector and fishing chart options with 2D, 3D and even 4D views with pan/tilt features, there’s a lot of beneficial information anglers can uncover long before leaving the dock. Studying aerial images available via Google Earth will reveal likely ambush points and deep channels traversing area shallows.
While the Sunshine Skyway shipping channel features depths upwards of 60 feet, anywhere you choose to target hefty winter gags requires precision, determination and patience. Your next keeper grouper roams a lot closer to home than you think, and trolling for these hard-fighting and delicious fish is an opportunity you won’t want to miss.