December 01, 2004
Gulf Coast anglers are rewarded for the long run.
Red grouper's perpetual appetite makes it a common Middle Ground catch.
A grab bag that grabs back—often with astounding force. That pretty well sums up the fishery at the Florida Middle Ground.
With the thump of a lead weight hitting bottom, you feel like a gladiator standing before the coliseum's tunnel door. You don't know what's about to burst forth and you're not sure if you're ready for it.
Ready or not, anything edible is fair game for the next rod-bending behemoth. And that's the thrill of fishing here.
Chock full of bottomfish, mid-depth swimmers and pelagics, this angling oasis sits about 75 miles west of Tarpon Springs and attracts angling patrons throughout the Gulf Coast. It's a long run, but the rewards of big fish more than justify the travel.
How big? Consider some of the catches recorded on The Florida Fisherman, a headboat making regular Middle Ground trips out of Johns Pass:
- 107- and 93-pound black grouper (Both ate mangrove snapper that anglers were fighting.)
- 110-pound amberjack (with common catches of 80- and 90-pounders)
- 34-pound, 6-ounce yellowfin grouper
- 28-pound, 5-ounce mutton snapper, plus two muttons over 27 pounds on one trip
- 7-pound yellowtail snapper
Can you find the same fish elsewhere? Yep. How 'bout similar structure? You bet. But when it comes to density, the Middle Ground packs a whole bunch of fishing into its 348 square nautical miles.
The key element here is bottom structure. With depths ranging from about 85 to 150 feet, the 'Grounds abound with topographical diversity. Lined with a sand and sandshell substrate, this area features steep limestone peaks, live and hard coral formations and seemingly endless ledges dropping 15 feet or better.
“The appeal of the Middle Ground is the bottom—the amount and variety of structure over such a limited area,” said Capt. Mike Whiteman of Mega-Bite Sportfish Charters. “It's as diverse an area as I've seen.
“It's an area you can fish where you don't need numbers. If you have one number in the Middle Ground, you can start slowing down about a mile from the spot, and you'll have 10 numbers by the time you reach your primary number.”
So rich is the bottom bounty that a single waypoint proves a sufficient conduit into the Middle Grounds mania. As St. Petersburg skipper Randy Rochelle puts it: “If you don't have any private numbers, just grab a number off a chart and use it as a starting point. Look around and watch your bottom machine for those big shows of fish. You'll definitely find them.”
Strong ocean currents upwelling against Middle Ground structure deliver a constant supply of food. For predatory fish, this is a luxury condo with an endless buffet right in the living room.
“Those ledges and peaks hold bait, the fish eat the bait and they just congregate around the tops of those structures,” said Florida Fisherman Capt. Mark Hubbard. “They can just go in and out of the bottom and have at whatever they want to eat.”
Top Middle Ground targets include grouper (red, gag, black, scamp), snapper (mangrove, red, mutton, vermilion), hogfish, pink porgies and triggerfish. Amberjack, cobia and barracuda patrol several wrecks scattered throughout the 'Grounds, but bottom fishing is the big draw.
MAKING THE RUN
For Middle Ground trips, Rochelle gathers a well full of live baits a day prior and trailers his boat from St. Petersburg to the Tarpon Springs/Anclote area to reduce his seaward run. Anclote Gulf Park and Anclote River Park—both just north of the Anclote River—are popular public ramp options.
Capt. Angelo LoGrande, a frequent Middle Ground patron, favors overnight trips in which he targets snapper during dark hours and grouper the next morning. Leaving St. Petersburg at sundown, he leisurely makes his way offshore and sets up shop around midnight. For starters, he likes the cooler temperature and the snapper's accelerated after-hours appetite. Also, he said, the Gulf is typically more hospitable from dusk ‘til dawn.
“Ninety percent of why I do overnight trips is because of the weather,” LoGrande said. “By 9 or 10 a.m., I've got a bunch of worn out people and I'm working my way inshore. By around noon, I'm 40 miles offshore and that's a lot better than 80 or 90. Until noon, you're in great shape, but after that you better really be careful with thunderstorms. You can get into trouble quick.”
Noteworthy, he adds, is the fact that beachcombers often experience vastly different conditions than do offshore anglers. “The weather you have on the coast is not the same out there. I've left port when it's flat calm and gotten out to the Middle Ground and it's 4-foot seas.”
Favoring what he terms “hilltops”—-peaks in bottom contour—-LoGrande starts his night mission by hanging a long, green fluorescent light from his stern. The haunting glow attracts bait schools and lures mangrove snapper off the bottom. Staggering baits from the bottom through the water column is a good bet when the snapper venture from their fortress.
At night, LoGrande uses mostly frozen sardines, as low visibility makes the attraction of live bait less strategic than the snout-tempting aroma of a stinky dead bait. Rip the sardine's tail off to maximize the scent output and hook it through the eye sockets for a firm connection.
The Florida Middle Ground is famous for producing monster catches like Andy Sterling's 70-pound gag grouper.
If you're short on dead bait, cut each sardine into three or four chunks. You'll find cutting easier when the baits are still partially frozen. Chopping fully thawed sardines isn't quite as frustrating as trying to slice oatmeal, but it's close. In any condition, dead baits separate nicely with a pair of garden or kitchen shears.
Now, night fishing—especially on a full moon—can certainly prove to be an effective theater for live baits, but too much of a good thing can become a bad thing when Stage 2 of your game plan is at stake.
As LoGrande said, “If you get on the snapper good, you can go through 100 pieces of bait in a hurry. You want to save some for the grouper.”
Life could be worse if you're limiting out on tasty mangroves, but big grouper can turn silly for tender, terrified livies. And though dead baits catch plenty of grouper, greeting daybreak with an empty livewell tends to dampen optimism.
And don't disparage smaller catches like grunts, porgies, vermilion snapper and blue runners. Considering that little fish exist to feed big fish, most anything with fins is a good indigenous bait choice. Live presentations can work, but a hefty bait will often drag around even an 8-ounce sinker. Instead try a butterfly presentation where the bait's flanks are cut partially through, but left attached either along the backbone or at the tail end. The benefits are 1) lots of natural scent, and 2) enticing action as the flanks wave in the current.
TACKLE & RIGS
As with any bottom fishing scenario, Middle Ground missions require stout conventional outfits for easing big fish away from where they'd rather stay. For wary snapper, you'll want to go as light as possible to minimize their suspicion. Forty-pound main line with four feet of 40-pound fluorocarbon leader works well.
LoGrande likes a 4-ounce lead for snapper because it optimizes strike detection. Sticking a snapper as soon as it commits is paramount, so don't tarry. He typically uses 3/0 or 4/0 “J” hooks, but when sneaky snapper frustrate inexperienced anglers, he switches to circle hooks. Not only do circles take the guesswork out of when to set the hook, they also puncture the lip securely to ensure that a fish doesn't unbutton itself on the way up.
Grouper rigs, on the other hand, are more about livebait presentation. Six-foot leaders and slide sinkers of 6 or 8 ounces will afford your livie sufficient room to dance and flutter naturally, while keeping the little guy tethered to the target area. Gear up with 80-pound main line, 60-pound leader and 6/0 to 8/0 hooks.
For an artificial approach, 6- to 8-ounce jigs with hair skirts and white, pink or chartreuse swirl tails will often irritate a big grouper into vivid displays of aggression. Tipping a jig with cut squid or a sardine enhances its appeal, and leaving the rod in a gunnel holder lets the rocking boat apply jigging motion.
Over wrecks and reefs, you'll also do well with the time-honored AJ getter—the diamond jig. The elongated multi-faceted metal flash-maker resembles a wounded baitfish fluttering in the water column and brings AJs running to the dinner table. (Replace the standard J or treble hook with a 10/0 or 12/0 circle hook for better connections.)
In deep water, braided line will aid in strike detection and cutoff prevention. When using mono, remember that line stretch greatly diminishes hookset attempts. When you feel a bite, just reel down until you come tight and crank hard and fast to separate fish from bottom structure. Once your opponent rises in the water column, lift your rod tip to about 10 o'clock, reel down to the surface and repeat as needed.
Tip: If you're having trouble hooking fish, just drop the bait to the bottom and set the rod in a flush-mounted holder. You can't do much about little nibblers, but if a big Middle Ground monster decides to eat, he'll hook himself and there's no question when it's time to start reeling.
Rapidly rising from deep water causes distended stomachs and bulging eyes in most fish. Give undersized fish a fighting chance by properly ventilating before release. Insert a hypodermic needle or other thin, sharp ventilation tool about half an inch into the gastric chamber until you hear the air release and the fish's body will return to normal. Never puncture an extended stomach or attempt to force it back down the fish's throat. Proper ventilation requires maybe 30 seconds, so take time to keep that spot full of fish for next year.
THE RIGHT SPOT
Now, to say that “it's all good at the 'Grounds,” isn't far from true. Nevertheless, personal honeyholes and significant spikes and ledges merit close attention. When you locate a target area on the bottom machine, drop a weighted float to mark the spot and then line up for an anchor heading, which factors in wind and current.
Even though most Middle Ground structure produces fish, LoGrande doesn't waste time with shorts when a truckload of keepers is probably just a peak or two away. A 50- to 100-foot move is usually all you'll need to find the big'ns.
Of course, repositioning in deep water necessitates an arduous amount of anchor pulling duty. However, LoGrande saves his mate a trip to the chiropractor by dragging his anchor from spot to peak to peak using a small buoy. This enables him to line up on a new heading and reset the anchor on a hilltop with minimal effort.
Complementing its bread-and-butter bottom action, the Middle Ground often offers bonus shots at ocean roamers such as tuna, wahoo, dolphin and king mackerel. Proving this area's pelagic potential, accomplished kingfish tournament angler Marcus Kennedy traveled from Mobile, Alabama to fish a high-dollar event out of Clearwater in April, 2001. Surmising that the Middle Ground offered habitat similar to his Northern Gulf stomping grounds, he plowed the long run and snared a 46.78-pound tournament winner.
For kingfish pursuits, dripping a trail of menhaden oil and dropping a few chunks of cut sardines every few minutes will attract the big macks, while slow trolling big baits like jumbo blue runners, Spanish sardines, mullet and ladyfish usually draws a strike. At the moment of truth, you'll need stout wire leaders tipped with stinger rigs to put the brakes on a Middle Ground smoker.
When targeting tuna, dolphin and wahoo, step up the trolling speed and deploy a mixture of jethead lures, diving plugs and dead ballyhoo dressed with nylon skirts or Sea Witches. Stagger your spread by rigging one of your ballyhoo with a 2-ounce egg sinker under its chin and dropping another on a downrigger.
When positioning on his spot, LoGrande demands accuracy. “You want the fish on top of the structure, not to the sides. It's harder to anchor on the sides of the structures because the current is so tough. You can lose your anchor that way.”While bottom fishing, always keep a live baitfish freelined off the stern for passing pelagics. Such opportunistic fishing often yields a reel-screaming interlude between grouper and snapper bites. Seven- to 7 1/ 2-foot conventional outfits with at least 300 yards of 30- to 50-pound line will handle most pelagic action.
If boat or budget limitations put the Middle Ground out of your reach, consider an overnighter on a local partyboat (a.k.a. headboat). Most offer sleeping quarters, shower facilities, packaged and prepared food options and all the bait, tackle and ice you'll need. Deck mates help with rigging and gaffing fish. With trip costs spread among 40 or more anglers, headboat options make for an affordable deal.
So, whether you take a private Middle Ground trip, or visit via the tour bus, don't miss a chance to browse these aqueous aisles. The doors never close, so you can shop till you drop in the Gulf of Mexico's bottom fishing Super Center.
Where is the Middle Ground?
Cedar Key actually has the closest boat ramp to the central Middle Ground. However, Tarpon Springs, a close second, launches far more boats because the Tampa fleet is based nearby. The Middle Ground is within reach of boats from a great many ports along Florida's Big Bend and down south, from Steinhatchee to Tampa. For many, it's a run of about 100 miles offshore, a mission that calls for very seaworthy boats.This large area of natural, productive bottom is roughly bracketed by the following GPS coordinates. If you have “lat-long” numbers inside of this box, chances are they're Middle Ground numbers. The north corners of the box are 28-45.00'N by 84-13.00'W and 28-45.00'N by 84-30.00'W. The south corners are 28-15.00'N by 83-57.00'W and 28-15.00'N by 84-16.00'W.
Live bait is the American Express of offshore fishing: Don't leave the coast without it. Dead bait has its place, but livies make big things happen.Most Middle Ground captains stock up on pilchards, threadfin herring or pinfish in nearshore waters, but never pass up the opportunity to supplement your supply when deepwater opportunities arise. Offshore pods of Spanish sardines are worth a few minutes of gold-hook jiggling, while nearshore and mid-range reefs can add larger baits such as blue runners, grunts, spottails and small vermilion snapper.
Cut squid fished on 1/0 or 2/0 hooks with two ounces of lead usually tricks the reef rats. Boost your productivity by tying two or more hooks in a row with dropper loops and rigging your weight at the terminal end.
Also try gold hooking with heavier sabiki rigs (for instance, No. 8 hooks, 20-pound main line and 16-pound branch line) on deeper reefs, but tip the bottom two hooks with squid to attract hefty baitfish. You'll catch smaller baits on the bare gold hooks at the rig's top end, but the extra scent appeals to those with larger appetites, especially in low light conditions. Use at least a 4-ounce weight to quickly reach bottom and avoid tangling in the current.