Gulf of Mexico Partyboat Fishing

Part one of a multi-day adventure to the Middle Grounds and beyond.

By Joe Richard

Boarding a partyboat recently at Madeira Beach took me back to a simpler time—except boats today have air conditioning, no smoking inside and crews who are not only experienced, but cheerful and hard-working. (Quite a difference from the old boats with their whiskey bottles on the table, all-night poker hands, thick smoke, short and cruel bench seats and very often, sun-ruined deckhands with a checkered past.)

Groping for coffee in the galley at dawn—that hasn’t changed. Nor my glancing outside both starboard and port, checking for bent rods. Gradually my head clears. On this first morning offshore, those who tumbled from their bunks to fish in darkness have only three mangrove snapper, so my extra sack-time was a good call. These sunrise bites usually develop slowly while on anchor; you still have time to savor the coffee. Time really does slow on these 57-hour trips to the Middle Grounds offshore. What? No cable TV, angry radio talkshows, road rage, spam e-mails or slow drivers on their cell phones? Oh my!

Somehow we manage with such deprivations. There is sudden action on the stern: Both deckhands with long gaffs move in, giving direction to this little drama. Other anglers with their lines out ease left and right, while two guys struggle with bent pool cue rods, moving away from each other to separate their fish. Someone shouts they “see color” below, the normal call for a deckhand with gaff, though help has already arrived. Soon enough a pair of big amberjack surface and are yanked over the rail, hitting the deck with a smack. Each is expertly gaffed in the head or belly on the first try, without tearing up fillet. (Our deckhands make perfect gaff-shots.) Minutes later another hookup, a good tussle and then a gleaming 10-pound mutton snapper is swung aboard, the rising sun back-lighting through red and yellow fins. My second coffee almost spills.

It’s mid-week and aside from the stern, there is plenty of elbow room. Each angler on the 72-foot catamaran Florida Fisherman II has his own numbered station, with numbered seats that function as private livewell covers. Inside of many is seawater that constantly circulates around dozens of hand-sized pinfish. These cost about $9 a dozen back at the marina, but out here are like gold when the bite turns on. Gag grouper, the most wily grouper in the clan, often prefer live bait over frozen. Thorny pinfish are also tempting snacks for bigger amberjack. Evidently some of the lads already are dipping into their private stashes of pinfish.

Here at the Middle Grounds some 80 miles off Tampa, the variety of bottomfish runs the gamut from AJs to yellowtail snapper, so the boat carries frozen bait and huge chunks of squid from the Pacific, as well.

There are few secrets out here on how to hook and drop bait to the bottom. After clearing the jetties at St. John’s Pass the evening before, a crew member gave a lively demonstration with equipment and bait, good enough for any fishing show demonstration. So now, even the rookies on board know where to pin a hook, or twist off a frozen bait’s tail to avoid spin that might twist up a leader. Judging from the boat’s gear, a standard drop means a 6-ounce egg sinker with about 3 feet of mono leader. The mates favor a tandem set of sharp hooks, rigged in snell fashion. Drop that frantic pinfish down and watch what happens.

Not everyone fishes the same way. When the grouper bite was slow (and we all know they switch on and off in very random fashion) I switched over to very small but strong hooks for snapper, porgies and triggerfish. The smaller fish seem to spend more time feeding. Drop down three small hooks, each with a thumbnail-size chunk of squid, and action was continuous at some stops. Several times I brought up three fish, each of a different species.

Each angler is allowed two keeper AJs during this 2-day trip, and the captain knows where to load up on these, by stopping at favorite deep springs or wrecks where these fish gather. Anchored in the right position, mayhem soon ensues, people strain mightily, lines become crossed and the deckhands are very busy. It doesn’t take long for 30 or 40 AJs to hit the deck with some crews. Many of these AJs are now caught with the long, 6- or 8-inch heavy metal jigs that flutter through mid-depths where the AJs prowl. These jigs are good for multiple strikes on a single drop; there’s none of this business of lost bait and a long retrieve for a reload.

Mark Hubbard is owner of the charterboat fleet. He agrees that these longer trips offer more value, since you fish farther out and have many hours to fish, both night and day. With the standard 12-hour day trips, bait-soaking time is more limited. On these longer trips you literally have time for a peaceful hot lunch in the galley, read a book, take a nap.

Since the Hubbards began their operation in 1972, they’ve seen many wonders offshore.

“The Middle Grounds is an amazing hangout for fish,” Mark says. “It just attracts a huge variety of fish. With short bag limits on some species, the big variety out here helps.

“We get warsaw grouper, huge hog snapper, queen snapper, tilefish. We sometimes fish a little on the other side of the Grounds, where the bottom drops to about 250 feet. It’s called the 40-fathom break.”

Mark has lots of memories out here, after spending so many days offshore. “On a single trip we saw about a 400-pound pelagic sunfish on the surface, then a 40-foot whale shark. Soon after we were motoring between three small waterspouts, and this big sailfish jumps right through the nearest ’spout. That sail must have thought the ’spout was a baitfish school. An incredible sight, and all three fish within a three-hour span.”

Sailfish jumping through a waterspout—that’s something we haven’t seen yet from a marine artist. Probably too difficult to grasp.

Reminiscing aside, Mark agrees that times have certainly changed for partyboats. “There’s probably been six companies who tried but couldn’t continue the Middle Grounds trips. Some made it for three or four years, but couldn’t make it go. Their boats would break, their crews would break; it’s a difficult trip. We seem to have narrowed it down to where it works for us. The hours and days have just stuck with us for 35 years and withstood the test of time.”

Currently the only other partyboat company visiting Florida’s offshore Middle Grounds is the Viking fleet out of Tarpon Springs. That company also has boats based out of Montauk, New York and New Bedford, Massachusetts.

“Fishermen are just a different crowd from years ago,” Hubbard continues. “We get pure sportsmen now. Years ago we had a lot of commercial guys on the boat. Some of them actually made money at it, while others subsidized their fishing by selling their catch. Today it’s a true recreational sporting activity. People require more comfort today and so we have more modern amenities.”

Not the least was Tammy’s cooking. Eating three hot, square meals a day was something new for me after 35 years of offshore fishing. Crispy bacon, sausage, eggs and fresh coffee for breakfast? You’ve got to be kidding. Bunks and AC were adequate.

Before we even left the dock there was a lecture on safety, with a life jacket demonstration, fire response advice, and how to move around safely. An old hand might shake his head over this common sense, but there are newbies in this fishery, and it’s good to have everyone on the same page, so to speak.

Fishing pressure at the Middle Grounds offshore fluctuates with the times. Some days, they’re just about the only boat out there.

“Because of past hurricanes and the rise in fuel prices, we’ve seen a drop in fishing pressure at the Middle Grounds,” Hubbard says. “We have seen more go-fast boats that can be out there in two hours, especially after the development of 4-stroke outboards. Hang two or three of those motors on the back of a big center console, and they can get out there quick. But fuel prices are knocking those people off their horses, as well.”

Hubbard and other skippers may one day begin fueling marine diesel engines with a mixture of used (but free) restaurant oil, called Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO).

“Fuel prices are tough; our fuel bills have gone up from $100,000 annually, to $350,000,” Hubbard says. “You can run marine engines with a 50-50 mix of diesel and vegetable oil, but I haven’t tried it yet.”

Learning that trick may be crucial for long-range boats running offshore in the future. After all, some of us would like to keep fishing these trips until we’re 80 or so. Maybe longer, if we’re lucky.

Tough Customers

Hubbard’s most famous regular customer until recently was Lauren Peruche, who fished on a regular basis on the overnight trips until 92 years old, then downgraded to the 12-hour day trips not as far offshore. He caught snook in Tampa Bay only two weeks before he died, the day before reaching 94. He also wrote the book Mr. Snook about his years of fishing local waters, which Hubbard’s Marina still sells.

Partyboat Contacts

In our August 2007 issue we hopped on an Atlantic partyboat. With stocks of reef fish and migratory species on the rebound, these affordable, multi-person vessels are again becoming a viable option for Florida anglers. Most every inlet has at least one partyboat available. We list phone numbers for many of them at www.floridasportsman.com/xtra

Special Cubera Snapper Trip

Hubbard’s has found enough big cubera snapper during the past 35 years to target these fish at the right time and places. FS will have a man on board during their next 55-hour cubera trip, during the peak spawning period for that species of snapper in this part of the Gulf. The boat sails on July 26.

“It’s an area very common, it’s just the way you fish and when to stop there,” says Hubbard. “Use lobsters for bait if you can get them, otherwise big sardines work fine. No need for live bait; they’re a big old lazy fish, until you hook one. That’s when they turn mean. We’ve caught up to 12 cuberas in one trip and each generally weighs from 40 to 100 pounds. We have a 94-pounder mounted in the office.

“After that, we have another 3-night pelagic trip in August, then skip September because of possible storms, then a pelagic trip in October.”

Check out their Web site on long-range trips offshore at: www.hubbardsmarina.com/um/specialtytrips.html

And watch for the article “Pelagic Magic” in the December FS, when we explore offshore on the same boat and run into swordfish and wahoo.