Gag grouper season opened July 1st in the Gulf of Mexico, marking the first opportunity in 2012 for grouper diggers to head out into Gulf for gags. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) gag grouper are considered to be overfished, which has resulted in this year’s unusual season. With good weather following Tropical Storm Debby, anglers headed out into the Gulf in droves.

Generally speaking, reports have been pretty good, even though July is not typically considered the optimum time to target gags in Southwest and West Central Florida. However, with the relaxing of the red grouper limits (up to four per person within the four grouper per person aggregate), anglers should not have too much trouble filling the cooler.

Although recreational fisherman have always struggled with reconciling anecdotal observations with agency science, one really has to question the overfished status of grouper when the success of a fishing trip is often measured by the number of minutes to fill the limit, as opposed to the numbers of fish caught, or even number of keepers caught. During the last fall season, it frequently took less than several hours to fill a three person limit of twelve fish. In fact, on a recent family trip during closed season, I tried to explain the “overfished” rationale of the NMFS in closing the season. As my wife and kids reeled in grouper after grouper, they just gave me that quizzical look as if I must have been pulling their legs.

On my July 1st trip out to the sixty foot depths, we found fishing to be steady for red grouper, but a little slow for gags. In this depth off of Southwest Florida, this is fairly typical for July. However, we were still able to put seven nice fish in the cooler (two gags and five reds) by shortly after lunch with several reds released that were just over the minimum size and dozens upon dozens of short fish sent back to the depths. With some snapper and other assorted bottom fish thrown in for good measure, we had plenty of fish to feed the family and enjoyed a good day on the water. Regardless of what the federal regulators say, the grouper fishery off of southwest Florida appears to be vibrant and healthy.

On a related note, anglers should pay attention to the federal management alternatives for the 2013 season that are currently being contemplated. While there may be no relief in store for bag limits or more fishing days, the NMFS is currently considering splitting the gag grouper season to provide fishing opportunities during more desirable times of the year. Given that different parts of Florida experience optimum conditions for targeting gags during different times of year, it is likely that any split season would try to accommodate anglers in different parts of the state with at least one peak fishing season, albeit a relatively short one. Even though the recreational fishing community is frustrated with the feeling that their input falls on deaf ears (and they are frequently correct), this is one topic where regulators will likely be responsive to angler input.

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