Trolling Inshore Ship Channels for Grouper

The Bay-sics of Grouper Grabbin’.

Normally, when Capt. Woody Gore fishes near the Port Manatee spoil island, he’s looking for snook. No doubt, the spot holds a ton of linesiders during the summer spawn, but this wasn’t a summer trip, Woody wasn’t slinging live sardines, and he wasn’t fishing the shallow brine where snook roam.

Gathering his sons, Mike and Mark—also Tampa Bay guides—Woody fished the deep water of the Port’s ship channel. The target: big gag grouper. The tactic: trolling plugs—a highly effective presentation for these bottom-hugging brutes.

Resembling mullet, bluefish, ladyfish and trout—common forage for channel gags—hefty lures attract attention from aggressive predators with the means, motive and opportunity for a big-time aggravated assault.

“The fish are just sitting there, waiting for something to shoot by,” Mike said. “They’re all fighting for an easy (meal), and if we put a lure right in front of them on the side of the channel, they can’t resist it. If anything rolls by these fish, they’re going to eat it.”

Big-lipped diving plugs like the Mann’s Stretch 25, MirrOlure 111MR, Magnum Rapalas and Rebel Bombers present hefty targets with lots of vibration, so if a grouper doesn’t see it coming, he’ll feel the tremors. Productive colors include orange, pink, gold, chartreuse and firetiger, but Mark said it’s more about the speed. Unlike bottom fishing, where grouper have time to examine the bait and calculate their escape route, trolling shifts more advantage to the angler.

“The fish has a moving object going by him, so it has to make a split-second reaction,” he said. “He’s going to hit the plug as hard as he possibly can to take it out before he misses it.”

WHERE & WHEN

Grouper range throughout the Tampa Bay shipping lanes linking the Egmont Channel to Port Manatee (south shore), Port Tampa (Old Tampa Bay) and Port Sutton (Hillsborough Bay). Some spots are sweeter than others, but there’s plenty of highway to search, so don’t think you have to hug close to the Sunshine Skyway at the mouth of the bay.

Mark said anglers who master trolling tactics can expect keeper gags (22-inch minimum) on each trip during the spring and fall seasons. Moderate water temperatures keep the fish active, while mild tides bring the best feeding.

“You want a moving tide, but a really strong tide is harder on the fish,” Mark said. “They’re trying to stay out of the current as much as possible. If they swing up off the bottom, they get pushed farther away and they don’t want to leave their spot.”

Mark prefers trolling on weekdays because there’s less boat traffic. “It’s not the pressure on the fish, so much as the pressure of other boats. You have to avoid other people and you’re not always able to hit the areas you want to hit.”

Trolling with the tide is best, because grouper will be looking into the current. Running downtide pulls the baits over the fish’s back and they rarely see them in time to strike.

“You might spook one out once in a while because [your lure] came close enough for the fish to grab it,” Mark said. “But usually, they’re not looking that way. So, by the time they go to do anything, the opportunity has already passed them.”

In deep environments, the sound of a passing boat doesn’t spook the fish—in fact, Mike considers it a stimulant.

“The fish will usually hear the boat and they’ll know something’s coming,” he said. “All these big ships coming through will stir up the bottom and all the bait gets pulled out of the holes. So, the fish hear the noise go by and they assume it’s feeding time.”

Mark adds: “A lot of people hook up right behind (a ship).”

Of course, a good dose of awareness, tempered with boating safety will help prevent mishaps in these ditches dug for commercial traffic. Recreational boats must yield to ships underway, and while it’s hard to miss the big guys, collisions aren’t the only concern. Huge wakes can jostle fishing boats, and smaller inshore vessels face a serious risk of swamping when hapless skippers allow swells to sneak up on them.

“Keep an eye on the wind and current and know that (big boats) can’t stop like we can stop,” Mike said. “Stay as far right or left as you can in the channel. You don’t have to stop trolling because the channel actually goes outside the markers.”

Daily tide schedules will keep you on target in the channels. As Mike notes: “The markers may be outside or inside the channel by a good 50 feet because of the swing in the (anchoring) chain. If the tide’s really ripping or if the wind is pushing the marker one way or the other, you can go to either the inside or the outside depending on the tide.

“If you’re not careful, you’ll get your gear caught up on that chain and lose your plug or your downrigger weight. So you want to give the cans plenty of room.”

HOW IT WORKS

Running at about 1,000 rpm, Mike uses a split screen function to monitor his bottom recorder and chartplotter. This affords him optimal perspective on channel depth and contour to keep his lures in the strike zone, while allowing him to identify hotspots for repeat passes.

“When we get a strike, we’ll circle back and a lot of times, we’ll pull one off the same spot,” Mike said. “We’ll just follow the same trail until we get another one.”

Double-headers happen, too, Mark said. “If we hook up, we’ll put the boat in neutral and sometimes another grouper will pick up the other plug. When you hook a grouper, you usually see others running after it because they’re hanging together.”

Running lures about 50 and 100 yards back ensures a staggered presentation with sufficient line to present the lures at the right depth. Once they’re set, Woody likes to see an occasional bounce in his rod tip. This means his lure is running right across the grouper’s porch and putting on an irresistible show in the process.

“I like for that lip to hit the bottom now and then,” he said. “Every time the lip hits the bottom and puffs the dirt up, that’s a definite attractor for gag grouper. He’ll see that and come right after the plug.

“Also, when that lure bumps the bottom the rodtip goes down, and when it comes back up the lure starts to float. The grouper will hit it on the rise.”

In deeper areas, trollers may replace diving plugs with heavy jigs run behind planers or, for more precision—downriggers. Bullet shaped jigs with horsehair skirts and chartreuse, pink or white curl tails do the trick.

The jig’s skirt pulsates in the water and the tail’s undulating action also draws attention. Jigs won’t create the enticing vibrations like a plug, but Woody has a way of bolstering the attraction.

“I like to cut in and out of the channel to bounce that jig on the side,” he said. “You’re going to lose some jigs this way, but most of the time, if you’re paying attention, when you see it (snag) you can back up and let it come loose.”

GEAR UP

Conventional or spinning gear will work for plug trolling. As Mark notes, his inshore fishing background has made him more comfortable with the latter, so he simply moves up to heavy-action gear for grouper and spools 65-pound braided line. About four feet of 80-pound fluorocarbon leader strengthens his presentation while decreasing visibility.

A braided line’s small diameter cuts through the water faster than bulky monofilament, so plugs reach their effective range in a hurry. Moreover, there’s no stretch with braids and that proves strategic in separating a grouper from his fortress.

“As soon as they hit the plug, they’re coming out,” Mark said. “They don’t have any chance at all to get back to their structure. That’s the whole benefit of trolling, too. They’re not going to rock you up as bad (as with bottom fishing). They’re coming up off the bottom to hit the plug and as soon as they do, they’re just gone. We’re pulling them along with the boat.

“Sometimes with a big fish, the rod’s bent over so much that it’s difficult to get it out of the rod holder. But that’s a nice problem to have.”

The Gores use a heavy-duty Frabill salmon net to scoop up their grouper. Nets are fine, but when treble hooks tangle in the mesh, retrieving fish gets complicated. Slipping the hook of a short-handled gaff under a grouper’s chin also works well, but be careful not to dislodge the lure before you have the fish secured.

The Gore’s family affair concluded with a trio of confirmed 10-pound gags sending fresh fillets to each household. We launched just before sunup, iced the first keeper at 7:30 and closed up shop around 10. No one’s knocking the Gulf’s offshore fishery, but considering the impediments of high fuel costs and frequently bumpy seas, ours was a fine morning.

By the way, we fished in Mike’s 23-foot Ranger bay boat—the same one he uses to chase snook at the Port Manatee spoil island.

Vital Skyway Access Details

On May 9, 1980, the phosphate freighter Summit Venture rammed the original Sunshine Skyway Bridge at the mouth of Tampa Bay. The collision occurred during a blinding squall and sent large sections of the elevated roadway, along with several motorists, crashing into Tampa Bay. There’s no minimizing the tragedy, but this event delivered an unexpected gift to local anglers—fishing piers and artificial reefs.

A decade after the accident, the rest of the bridge was demolished, its ends were capped and in 1994, the North and South Skyway Piers opened with bait shops, restrooms, lights and parking. Rubble from the original Skyway, strategically placed adjacent to the piers, has attracted a resident population of gag grouper, along with mangrove snapper and black seabass.

The pier bait shops can provide reef location details, and anglers drifting live pinfish, squirrelfish or pilchards to these spots regularly haul in keeper gags. Dropping live or cutbait directly under the piers occasionally produces an ice-worthy grouper, but the outlying reefs prove most consistent.

The Skyway Pier grouper fishery somewhat offsets lost access to the new bridge’s central pilings. Before 911, dropping pilchards or pinfish near the main channel edges was nearly a guaranteed hookup with feisty gags who feed aggressively in this food-rich environment.

National security concerns have led the U.S. Coast Guard to prohibit vessels from stopping or anchoring beneath the central main span of the Skyway Bridge. Mooring with or contacting any of the bridge structures—including bases, pilings and dolphins—is also prohibited.

Boaters must also stay at least 100 yards away from moving or moored cruise ships, and moored container ships carrying dangerous cargo. Within 200 yards of such vessels, you must proceed at the minimum speed necessary for save navigation. Certain channels require 500- or 1,000-yard security zones around fuel container vessels (LPG and NH3).

You can obtain a complete Boaters Guide to Safety and Security Zones on Tampa Bay online at: homeport.uscg.mil/stpetersburg. On the right side of the screen, scroll down to Community Outreach and click on Security Zones in Tampa Bay. You may call (727) 824-7531 for clarification.

Keep ’Em Running Right

Big plugs with big trebles are good at catching grouper, but they’re also good at catching leaders. If a fish hits and misses the plug—or shakes off after a hookup—one or both of its hooks may swing around the fluorocarbon. This mars the presentation and usually prevents a hookup on subsequent strikes.

Other grouper may take a follow-up swipe at what looks like a wounded bait, but the running action of a fouled lure just doesn’t get the job done and interest quickly diminishes. Plugs that rise topside and skip are clearly in need of attention.

Sometimes, lures foul during deployment, so Capt. Woody Gore advises this preventative measure: Drop your lure into the water a few feet from the boat, but hold the line against the rod for a few seconds. Once the lip digs in, release the line and let the lure shoot out into the current. Water drag keeps everything straight.

Vegetation can also create problems for trolling. Grouper don’t care for salad with their meals, so keep watch for the tell-tale signs of trouble.

“Earlier in the year, we find a lot of floating grass that will gather on your line and work its way down to your plug,” Woody said. “You can tell when you have grass on your plug because your rodtip stops bouncing—it’ll be a dead pull instead of that side-to-side vibration.”.

FS