Jim Higgins holds a red drum caught off the coast of Carrabelle.

From FWC “Goin’ Coastal”

The calendar says it’s February, but you sure can’t tell it by the fishing action. February is generally considered to be one of the slowest months of the year, but my Super Bowl weekend half-day fishing trips out of Carrabelle proved otherwise.

With water temperatures in the mid-60s, which is probably 8 to 10 degrees above normal for February, out-of-season and out-of-place gag grouper were hungry on the limestone “grouper” ledges in 28 to 44 feet of water. This time of year, gag grouper are usually in deeper and warmer water, and many popular pelagic species such as king mackerel, cobia and Spanish mackerel have moved to sunny south Florida. Gag grouper is closed to harvest right now to give the overfished species time to rebuild, but can still be caught and released.

As our captain, “Big Jimmie” Higgins, said, “Boy-howdie, those buggers are fun to catch in shallow water.” Higgins, who has been fishing these waters since the 1950s, said this is the best shallow-water gag fishing that he’s ever seen at this time of year, and trust me, he’s seen more than his fair share.
“It’s clear that the lengthy seasonal closure is increasing the average size of the fish in this area,” Higgins said. The 2013 season for gag grouper in most state waters will be open from July 1 through Dec 3. State waters off Franklin, Wakulla, Jefferson and Taylor counties will be open to gag grouper harvest April 1 through June 30. State waters off this four-county region will not be open during the July 1-through-Dec. 3 season. Monroe County state waters are also excluded from this opening because they are managed the same as Atlantic state waters. While not everyone will agree with the seasons, it is becoming very clear that the limited recreational harvest season is making a huge difference, and the fishing will only get better.

After catching and releasing a couple dozen gags in the 7- to 12-pound range, along with a handful of huge red drum, aka redfish, we were back at the dock with photos of the ones we released and a five-gallon bucket full of black sea bass and white grunts that were destined to become fish tacos as part of the halftime feast.

The plan for Sunday was to head out early, do it all over again, and be back in time for the four-hour pre-game show. But Mother Nature had another idea, and by 7:30 a.m., the wind was beginning to make the rods and antennas howl and it was clear we were in for a rough and wet ride to the offshore ledges. About three miles out, as we were about to lose the protection provided by the shoreline, I could see Capt. Jimmie searching his mental database for a “Plan B.”

Luckily, we observed a very large flock of pelicans and seagulls diving on bait along the Gulf side of a nearby barrier island. While it’s common to see Spanish mackerel, bluefish or ladyfish pushing bait up to feed the birds in the spring and summer months, I have never seen such a sight in this area during February. Being curious, and less than excited about the prospects of pounding offshore, we decided to go see what all the commotion was about. As we got close you could see that whatever was crashing the bait from the bottom was very large and very hungry. I quickly grabbed the first rod I saw and flipped out a semi-frozen menhaden, which was immediately inhaled, and it was “fish on.”

If you’re guessing big “bull” reds, you are correct, and there had to be thousands and thousands of them along about a half-mile stretch of beach. This was yet another strange occurrence likely brought to us by the warm weather.

Our first mate, “Little Jim,” immediately grabbed a light grouper rod and hooked one up from the front of the boat. Five minutes later, Jim’s fish was photographed and free, and my fish didn’t even know it was hooked yet. By now the massive school of reds was moving down the beach to the east, and I could tell by the boatful of dirty looks that I was in big trouble. You see, in my haste to get bait in the water, I inadvertently grabbed a very light spinning rod with 8-pound test, and that is not the tackle of choice when you’re in hurry and trying to keep up with a school of fish.

Forty minutes later, I had my fish unhooked and back in the water. The fish was a beauty: 25 pounds or better. I really wanted to get a picture, but my popularity at that moment was so low that I was not about to ask for any assistance. Lucky for me, the school of hungry reds stayed up just long enough for us to hurry over and hook up two more.

The smallest fish of the day weighed 18 pounds, and while those are way over the slot limit and cannot be harvested, we were all very happy that those fish showed up and saved our day from ruin by the weather.
When you’re looking at thousands and thousands of beautiful, mature fish that cannot ever be harvested for the remainder of their lives, it makes people ask the obvious question: why? Well, here’s the deal. The 18- to 27-inch slot limit is a management strategy that is designed to protect juvenile fish, which predominantly inhabit freshwater or brackish creeks, rivers and bays. It also helps red drum populations by ensuring plenty of fish survive through the slot and become part of the protected older brood stock. This conservative management strategy provides assurance that future generations will enjoy an abundant supply of red drum and get to experience fishing days like the one we just had.

Even though we caught and released nine redfish with a more than 20-pound average (which is plenty by the way), the others on board couldn’t help but remind me how many we would have caught if everyone had used the right sized tackle! As they took their jabs and had their fun at my expense, all I could think about was “If this is February, I can’t wait to see what the fishing is like in April and May.”

Don’t forget to record all of your catches on the iAngler phone app or at snookfoundation.org. Share your photos, video and fishing tales with us as well by emailing them to Alan.Peirce@MyFWC.com.

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