Gear up, anglers. Grouper’s back in session.

Sliding sinker rig with 6-foot mono leader, ready to drop sardine, pinfish or other bait.

Captain Robert Johnson of Jodie Lynn charters in St. Augustine has been counting the days until the May 1 reopening of shallow water grouper season in Atlantic waters.

“Sometimes it’s hard to grouper fish with mahi swimming around your boat, but our stretch of offshore reefs can give up some really quality gags and scamps this time of year, particularly on spots deeper than 120 feet,” he said.

Johnson’s favorite rig? A modified fishfinder with an 8- to 16-ounce sinker; weight depends on the current. The rig consists of an egg sinker sliding on an 18-inch piece of 100-pound mono between two swivels. A 6-foot piece of 100-pound mono leads to a circle hook, with the size depending on the bait. “If I’m fishing for gags, my favorite bait is a live golden spot or a pinfish,” said Johnson. “They require a 7/0 or 8/0 hook. If I’m fishing for scamps I want live sardines or cigar minnows and my hook may be as small as a 4/0. It’s a balancing act on hook diameter. Thinner hooks are deadly on hooking fish, but can straighten out under a heavy load.” For starters, a 2X-strong hook is a good choice—large enough diameter for holding power, small enough for penetration.

Trolling plug took this fine gag grouper.

Johnson prefers the slip sinker rig, because fooling big grouper is all about presentation. He’s a live bait fisherman and the bait needs to be able to move naturally in an attempt to avoid the grouper. If the bait is pinned to the weight, he doesn’t look natural. Keep the sinker pinned against the bottom swivel and at the first sign of panic in the bait, let him swim away from the weight unencumbered.

Hook placement is also often decided by current. Johnson says he’d always prefer to hook his live spots, grunts, and pinfish behind the anal fin, but cautions that you have to consider the current. If there’s too much current for the bait to swim naturally with the hook in his back, hook him through the lips.

In extreme current, Johnson will fish a three-way swivel with a 16- or 20-ounce bank sinker. But mostly he favors the sliding sinker rig.

“Finding the right spots is the biggest key,” said Johnson. “The longer the weather is good, the more the bigger, more popular spots get picked over. Contrary to popular belief, neither scamps nor gags need a big ledge to hang around. They are perfectly capable of hiding up against a couple of rocks, or the tiniest ledge.”

For complete details about the spring and summer grouper openings, see this month’s “Dig Those Gags” feature. FS

First Published Florida Sportsman Magazine May 2018

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