West Coast summer grouper are easy to find, once you know what their homes look like.
Capt. Jim Bradley, better known as Big Daddy in his home waters off Weeki Wachee, was giving me the stink eye as I slid off the gunnel into 10 feet of water over one of his choice summer holes–a small sand patch that from the surface looked more like a white dishpan lying on the dark grassy bottom.
“There’s grouper down there for sure,” growled Bradley, “and they ain’t gonna bite if you swim through them taking pictures.”
But with 10 keeper gags in the box and another dozen shorts released earlier in the day, I was intent on witnessing one of these patches close-up to confirm Bradley’s description of “…small rock outcropping where current and grouper fins have washed the sand from beneath and created a small ledge. The white patch is the washed sand right in front of that little ledge.”
Sure enough, as my eyes were drawn to the tiny bright underwater beach, several gag grouper swam from the sandy patch, high-finning it away from my clicking camera. The biggest surprise was that after I climbed back aboard the boat, we landed two more keepers to finish a day spent slugging it out with midsummer gags.
Each sandy patch we stopped at produced grouper, almost always on the first drop, attesting to Bradley’s formula–white patch plus dark bottom divided by 10 feet of warm summer water equals grouper.
Finding good bottom has always been the secret to finding good grouper fishing, and in the waters off Citrus and Hernando counties, there is hardly anything but good bottom.
For most grouper diggers, spring and late fall are peak grouper-catching seasons, and by the time August doldrums set in, the few well-known areas of hard bottom and wrecks that dot the shallow, sandy depths of the Gulf have been pounded so hard that grouper are in short supply. With the advent of inexpensive lorans, these popular numbers continue to get pressure throughout the summer as they become known to more and more anglers. Experienced anglers have learned to avoid them, looking instead for little-known areas where fleets of grouper fishermen are seldom seen. Trolling lures is one way to locate these rarely fished patches, but given the enormity of the Gulf, anglers might troll for hours before a strike.
Bradley’s method of running on plane and watching for white patches is quicker and more efficient and works well for locating concentrations of grouper from Suwannee to Port Richey. South of there, the Gulf bottom is not much more than a vast sandy desert, with occasional structures that are heavily fished.
Given the traditional formula of one foot of depth for each mile out in the Gulf, there’s gotta be untold numbers of yet-to-be-discovered white patches between Suwannee and Port Richey up to 20 miles offshore. And since summer water is usually clear, running on plane while wearing polarized sunglasses makes it easy enough to spot these sandy patches, even in 20 feet of water.
Grouper are almost always found near some sort of bottom structure, such as ledges, wrecks, rockpiles and soft bottom made up of sponges and colonies of soft coral. Unlike the deep mountainous ledges of the Gulf’s Middlegrounds or the Atlantic shelf, nearshore bottom structure in the Gulf is comprised of shallow, submerged islands of limerock where these soft marine animals have taken hold, appearing from the surface as dark, mottled quiltworks.
If you motor along on plane, you will notice that this dark bottom is broken every so often by a brilliant white patch–that’s what turns the heads of guys like Bradley and his crew as they quickly mark the spot with a buoy and punch the numbers into their loran. The best strategy for getting into position is to first pitch a marker buoy near the hole and continue along, marking several spots before coming off plane. This allows the hole to settle down after the buzz of the engine and the splash of the buoy disrupts the finny inhabitants below. Slowly motor around, back to the first marker, using that time to rig baits and tackle for the ensuing slugfest.
Anchor uptide of the marker, taking advantage of the wind and current to position your boat barely within casting distance of the white patch. Unlike deep water anchoring where you want to be right over the mark and being off a ledge by a foot or two can make the difference between catching and fishing, boat positioning in shallow water is not as critical since accurate casts can make up for the miss.
Choosing baits in summer is easy, given the abundance of bait schools that migrate inshore when the water warms up. Bradley uses live bait whenever it’s available, which is just about all summer long, and he prefers sardines, which are thick in August. But squirrelfish and pinfish work well, too. It’s great to get away from winter dead baits like frozen sardines and cut mullet, because with livies you won’t catch the grunts and sea bass. Ninety-nine percent of the summer bite is grouper on live bait.
Summer feeding patterns also favor live baits. As shallow Gulf water starts to warm, inshore gags begin to slow down. As the water warms through August, the fish become lethargic. So before casting into a patch, pitch out a handful of crippled live baits to get the fish in the hole excited. Remember, in eight to 15 feet of water, a grouper will blast a surface bait much like a snook and it pays to stimulate their feeding instincts. This teasing will reduce your chances of catching fish on frozen or cut fresh baits, but you shouldn’t plan on staying long at any hole that doesn’t produce an immediate strike from live bait.
Shallow-water grouper aren’t all that big, usually between 20 and 30 inches with an occasional 12-pounder hitting the deck–Bradley’s best of 17 years of fishing the Hernando County waters is a 20-pounder. But don’t think that just because you don’t have to drag a Volkswagen-size grouper out of a hundred feet of water that you can step down your grouper tackle to 12-pound test. That would be real sporting of you, but be prepared to lose many of your fish to cutoffs in the tangled mess of limerock and coral.
With a broad powerful tail and streamlining meant for speed, gags are notorious for dashing out from under a ledge to crunch a bait then turning a blurred about-face back to his hole. In deepwater grouper fishing, it’s a groaning fight to get him away from that hole, but once you do that, there is little chance of a cutoff on the remaining haul to the surface.
But a shallow-water bite comes with perhaps 30 feet of line out in 10 feet of water and the fish is fighting to stay on a bottom that is well within reach all across that distance. He might pass by several holes or rocks on his way to the boat and be only a foot or two above safety. From a different perspective, imagine wrestling a grouper out of 60 feet of water with a vertical wall of coral-encrusted bramble within 10 feet of the fish.
There may be an even greater need for heavy tackle in this shallow water, so instead of downsizing, I recommend you stay with the 50-pound test, 3/0 stuff you usually use farther offshore. You’ll get more fish to the boat and leave less mono on this snarly bottom. Five feet of 100-pound leader ending in a 3/0 hook should take care of terminal business.
Instead of a slip sinker rig, Bradley recommends a swivel sinker–the ones with a barrel swivel protruding from each end of the lead. Two problems led him to abandon the standard slip sinker rig when shallow-water gag fishing: Big summer sardines and pinfish can easily pull several feet of line through a slip sinker swivel and have more opportunity to swim the leader and line into the tangled bottom. And perhaps most importantly, the bait can swim slack into the line between itself and the sinker and you can’t feel the grouper until he’s already into the rocks.
With a swivel sinker, the bait is only allowed the freedom of the leader. Hook the bait in the center of the belly, which causes it to swim in a tight upward circle creating lots of flash and action. One or two ounces of weight is all you’ll need to maintain castability with a medium action, soft-tip livebait rod.
For summertime west coast gag grouper fishing, you don’t always have to jockey for position at one of those secret loran numbers listed in every fisherman’s black book. Just get up on plane north of Port Richey and head for Suwannee–the gags are there, just keep an eye open for sandy dishpans.
By Robin Smillie
Boat Ramps of Hernando and Citrus Counties
— Fort Island Gulf Beach–from U.S. 19, turn W onto W. Fort Island Trail, 8.9 miles.
— Fort Island Trail Park–From U.S. 19, turn west onto W. Ft. Island Trail, 5 miles.
— Pete’s Pier–From U.S. 19, turn W onto S.E. King’s Bay Drive. Go south to S.W. 1 Place, turn right.
— Knox Bait House–Downtown Crystal River, across from fire department on U.S. 19.
— Plantation Inn Marina–From U.S. 19, turn east of Ft. Island Trail.
— Ozello Community Park–From U.S. 19, turn west onto N. Ozello Trail to end. Turn right on W. Sand dollar.
— MacRae’s–5300 S. Cherokee Way. From U.S. 19, turn west onto W. Yulee Rd, 3.2 miles to Cherokee Way.
— Mason Creek–From U.S. 19, turn west onto W. Yulee Rd., go 3.2 miles, turn on Mason Creek Rd. to end.
— Cross Fla. Canal–From U.S. 19, on the south side of bridge, turn onto access road and go 2 miles.
— Chassahowitzka River–From U.S. 19, turn west onto Miss Maggie. Drive 1.8 miles.
— Hernando Beach Marina–From U.S. 19, turn west onto SR 595 (Osowaw Rd.) and go to Shoaline Blvd. Turn north to Calienta St. left to ramp.
— Bayport Boat ramp–From U.S. 19, turn west onto SR 50, follow to end.