An uptick in red grouper stocks pays dividends for Gulf Coast anglers inshore and off.
By Will Geraghty
You’re hooked up, bent to the rails and seeing red!
Red grouper, that is.
On Florida’s Gulf Coast, consistent, back-to-back summers of excellent grouper fishing have many longtime anglers recalling the robust catches of bygone days.
Gulf of Mexico red grouper were heavily exploited by commercial fleets from the 1950s through the 1970s. The passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1976 granted the stocks a momentary reprieve, by restricting foreign vessels to beyond 200 miles of U.S. shores. Even then, maintaining acceptable stock levels wouldn’t be easy. In subsequent years, red grouper stocks suffered from fish traps and longlines, apparent flaws in stock assessment data, misappropriation of quotas, and numerous red tide events.
Today, anglers are seeing what may be a glimpse of a brighter future. Employing a mix of old-school and new-school tactics, we’re finding more and more red grouper on the shallow, near-coastal, intermediate and distant offshore waters. Four veteran grouper-diggers revealed their insights.
Shallow Water Skinny
Famed more for the color silver than red, the nearshore waters of Southwest Florida now feature a thriving red grouper fishery.
Captain Ozzie Fischer, an ace tarpon and flats guide out of Captiva Island, has been taking full advantage of the grouper bite. He began tapping into the fishery after the cold-related inshore fish kill during the winter of 2009. Fischer chose to search slightly outside the flats and shallows toward the red grouper as a viable alternative for his clientele.
Whether it’s cyclical or evidence of better management, catching keeper grouper in as close as two miles off the beach or as shallow as 25 feet is now part of the routine. It’s not how far you go, it’s where you go, and how you fish.
Fischer’s basic approach is drifting over low-relief hard bottom, a proven method for locating red grouper. These fish tend to be more scattered than gags; it’s common for them to spread out over a broad area of pock-marked limestone-and-sand bottom.
His fishing methods, however, are definitely new-school. Where grouper-diggers once favored cut bait or leadhead jigs with plastic tails, Fischer employs 2- to 4-ounce metal speed jigs in a variety of color schemes.
Throughout the course of a drift, Fischer has each angler vertical jigging, frequently changing up the pace or lure. There’s usually some culling of “shorts” until larger fish (minimum 20 inches) are located. Once on fish, the captain saves the location on his GPS, and prepares to anchor.
Here is where being in tune with your vessel’s electronics package and anchoring skill will be put to task. Typically, a minimal deviation or feature amid sandy bottom will harbor an aggregation of red grouper. Precise boat placement, upcurrent (distance dependent upon sea conditions/tide velocity), will be crucial. The ideal presentation of jigs or baits is pinpoint-focused on small targets of artificial structure, broken limestone, sea fans and vibrant soft corals.
Hooked up and on the bite, Fischer stays true to his jigging methods, but also adds natural baits to the mix.
“What makes red grouper fishing so enticing to many is that they will eat a broad variety of baits,” he said. “I’ve found that the deeper I focus my efforts, the more effective dead baits seem to be. In the shallows, live bait always entices the larger dominant fish.”
Fischer attributes a large part of his success to advances in tackle. Lighter, specialized jigging tackle has taken the place of cumbersome conventional setups.
“Early generation jigging rods were designed for a deepwater application,” he said. “Today, tackle manufacturers have taken notice of the shallow water opportunities, developing rods with tremendous pulling power, yet easy and light to handle.”
Fischer uses light 6-foot, 6-inch Shimano Trevala spinning rods and Daiwa Saltist workhorse reels spooled with 65-pound Hi-Seas superbraid, finished off with 6 feet of 40- or 60-pound fluorocarbon.
Mid-Range Method to the Madness
Lots of guys are again bagging big red grouper in the intermediate 8- to 15-mile range. Tried-and-true tactics are what it’s all about for skippers Eric Alexander and Brandon Lawson aboard the Naples Bay-based Solo Lobo. In these waters, once upon a time the “bread-and-butter” running distance for much of the local half-day charter fleet, a good plan focuses on being on the move, and fishing big baits and big tackle.
Captains Eric and Brandon are aggressive about moving to find fish, making as many as six 20-minute duration drops per half-day outing. “We look for little fuzzy spots or marks on our depth sounder,” exclaimed Eric, who has witnessed the ups and downs of the fishery. “We locate new spots on each excursion, as it doesn’t take much structure to hold a couple of big red grouper.”
Armed with stout custom 30- to 50-pound-class rods, Solo Lobo anglers employ 40-pound monofilament fastened to 4 feet of 60- or 80-pound fluorocarbon shock leader using a standard Albright special or blood knot. Approximately two feet above a heavy wire 5/0 to 8/0 circle hook rests 3 or 4 ounces of lead. Proper lead placement is paramount, and it’s much better if the lead is fixed, as opposed to sliding.
“For many novices, the sink rate of big baits presents issues,” Eric said. “We always attach a stop above and below the lead weight, or pass the leader through multiple times to achieve the fixed application. Otherwise, inevitably, heavy weight will beat the bait to the bottom, creating a twisting effect. This leads to less fishing time.”
A variety of big live baits always grace the livewell aboard the Solo Lobo. Palm-size pinfish, squirrelfish, tomtates and freshly procured threadfin herring are the baits of choice for these two savvy captains. They forego frozen block chum, to help avoid pesky sharks.
Arriving in Naples in the late 1970s, Eric remembers the overindulgence days of 15-inch fish and very high bag limits.
“Everyone participating in the fishery could keep too many. The overall pressure led to increased size/bag limits, which resulted in a quick turn around for red grouper here in Southwest Florida by the mid 1990s. We were easily catching our limits within seven miles of our pass,” he said.
Eric says offshore of Naples the red grouper fishing has almost returned to the glory days of yore. “In the midst of some of the best red grouper fishing, we had some of the worst red tide outbreaks on the grouper grounds. I watched thousands of reef fish floating to the surface, many of which were, sadly, red grouper. No outbreaks in nearly five years, we’re back to big fish now!”
Author and captain Will Geraghty with a nice red grouper taken in home waters off Naples.
Deep Water Digging
As you might expect, given the inshore rebound, red grouper ought to be thick offshore. And that’s certainly the case. Out beyond the 40-mile mark, the fishery has benefited from increased limits, absence of commercial fish traps, further longline restrictions, and the implementation of mandatory circle hooks and venting tools.
Captain Vic Vazquez still uses some of the same red grouper techniques he used 25 years ago. However, he is quick to note, “A lot of things have changed since I entered the charter industry. Back then there was no size or quantity limits on red grouper and full fish boxes were the norm. Boy, if we knew then what we know now!”
Vazquez strictly employs a chicken rig when probing the deep Gulf for his red grouper catch. “There is no guesswork for my anglers on how far to reel up after the weight is resting on the bottom and no tangling of the bait and leader on the way down.”
Exclusively applying a broad quiver of 15- to 50-pound Penn spinning and conventional outfits, Vazquez will only use a single 3/0 to 7/0 circle hook, tied with a dropper loop 2 to 4 feet above the weight in the construction of his 30- to 60-pound fluorocarbon chicken rig. While the weight (3 to 6 ounces) rests on the bottom, the bait will always be a perfect presentation within the strike zone.
“The chicken rig is as simple as it gets and an absolute must when we are fishing in deep water or where there are amberjacks and barracuda present,” Vic said. “The rig will allow the bait to get down to the grouper faster, minimizing strikes from fish other than the red grouper we are targeting.”
Opting to fish the flat limestone, Swiss-cheese and honeycomb bottom areas beyond the reaches of the charter fleet and small boaters, Vazquez always arrives on the grounds well-stocked with live bait.
“We will put forth a pretty good effort, on the ride out, to stock the livewells. Pilchards, squirrelfish, spot tails and small blue runners accompanied by a variety of dead baits make our trips successful. Red grouper in our area are really not too picky, but it’s always safe to have several options on board just in case a selective bite pattern does develop.”
The stakes are high for red grouper stocks to continue to flourish and remain a robust, viable target for local and visiting offshore anglers alike. Here, as well as throughout the entire Gulf region, communities are relying on this red grouper uptick to continue, as the socioeconomic impacts are significant and far-reaching.
On the Cusp of Red Glory?
How often do you read a federal fisheries update stating that “a relaxation of recreational regulations is warranted?”
That’s in fact the case with Gulf of Mexico red grouper, which a NOAA assessment recently declared not overfished, and not undergoing overfishing.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council will meet in Austin, Texas, this month to make a final decision on a set of regulatory changes for red grouper. Among alternatives is an increase in the recreational red grouper bag limit from 2 fish (where it is now) to 4 fish, within the 4-grouper aggregate bag. If recreational anglers as a whole were to exceed the annual allowable catch under the new bag limit, that limit could be cut back the following year, according to preliminary reports. There appears, however, to be little concern that the loosened bag limit would result in overfishing, based on two facts: One, NOAA reports that the recreational sector has not caught its red grouper allocation in recent years, and two, the Gulf Council has initiated a regulatory amendment to increase the Total Allocable Catch for the years 2011 through 2016.
All of which means a fish stock yielding more landings as the years go by.
This takes some, but not all, of the sting out of the 76:24 ratio—the number reflecting the percentage of the fishery granted to the commercial and recreational sectors, respectively. That makes red grouper one of the most heavily commercialized finfish species in Florida (wreckfish are 100 percent commercial, and Atlantic golden tilefish 97 percent).
Also, recreational anglers should be aware that gag grouper regulations are likely to remain tight. This year’s short Gulf of Mexico season (Sept. 16-Nov. 15) will likely be followed by another limited season in 2012 (possibly July 1-October 31), as well as, perhaps, a first-ever grouper slot limit, 22 to 30 inches.
The Gulf Council delayed final action on these regulations—originally scheduled for early June—in order to allow the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) time to review the alternatives. The Council also held additional public hearings in Florida.
—Jeff Weakley, Editor