November 08, 2021
The reports I was seeing posted with large grouper being caught in shallow water got me thinking. “Honey, I think it's time we spent Thanksgiving with your family in St. Petersburg.” It was already mid-November, but the three-and-a-half-hour trip from Stuart doesn't take much planning. My wife Chris called her parents and happily told me they were looking forward to seeing us.
It was a good thing considering I had already booked a three-quarter day grouper fishing with my friend Capt. Ed Walker for Thanksgiving Day. That part of seeing her parents for Thanksgiving had to wait a day. But I didn't fear too much resistance because I'd be fishing with her father and brother in-law.
I lived in the St. Petersburg area for 14 years and always wanted to target the fall time inshore gag grouper bite. Each October when the water temperature starts to drop, beginning at 76 degrees and peaking at 70 degrees, the gags begin to show up on the inshore rock piles of the northern Suncoast, ranging in depth from a super-shallow 8 feet to 20 feet.
I wasn't going to let another fall go by without being able to bottom fish for grouper without a sinker. Walker says the prime grouper grounds begin around Anclote Key (Tarpon Springs) and go north all the way to Cedar Key. He said what you're looking for are isolated rock piles, not typical west coast limestone cheese bottom or ledges, in 15 to 20 feet. These features are mostly found in about a 120-mile stretch.
Walker's GPS book is thick with grouper producing rocks, but even he gets out the heat-seeking, deep-diving Rapala X-Rap 30 to find hungry gags. “I normally troll one lure, but if the grass isn't bad I'll troll two. Sometimes there's no getting around the floating grass,” Walker lamented, “even one blade will foul the lure.”
“While trolling I'm always watching my side scan as well as traditional sonar. What I'm looking for on the side scan are rocks, not fish. The trolling lures will tell me where to begin fishing.” As for what type of rockpile to look for, Walker stresses the smaller the better for later in the season. “The key is finding rockpiles someone else hasn't already been fishing.”
“Fish on!” screamed Al, my brother in-law. It only took three or four trips by two different rock piles to hook up.
The first gag was small so we released it, and kept trolling. The next fish was a keeper, signaling a quick change of tactics.
Once Walker catches a keeper, he marks the rockpile, both visually via his sonar and with his GPS. The next step was establishing our anchor heading. The quickest and easiest way of doing this is by shifting to neutral and letting your boat drift in the current and wind. This becomes your course over ground, COG on your GPS. Once you have your COG, your anchor heading is merely the reciprocal (180-degree opposite) of that. One trick I've used is by adding or subtracting 200 to your COG, and then adding or subtracting 20. Easier math to do in your head, for example, if the COG is 70-degrees, I'd add 200, giving me 270, then subtract 20, giving me an anchor heading of 250-degrees.
Once Ed established our anchor heading, he wrote it on his console with a dry-erase marker. “An accurate anchor job, meaning the rockpile ends up just off the stern of the boat is key,” emphasized Walker.
As you're probably already thinking, yep, anchoring around rocks is tricky. Walker said more than once, “Line it up, don't hang it up. Ideally you have the wind and tide working with you, it's a small victory every time you get your anchor back.” But, we didn't have any problems in our five or six stops. Making a point to make sure you're dropping the anchor in sand with enough scope to let the wind and current bring you back to your spot helps keep from hanging up your anchor.
A couple of anchoring tips: One is, you may want to think about shackling the terminal end of the chain to the fluke end of your anchor, then use twine, wire ties or heavy mono leader to fasten the chain along the shank. A second is, if you do get hung up, get right up over your anchor and try to jiggle it out before trying to pull it out with your boat (never from the transom of the boat, by the way).
Finally anchored up, it was time to get serious about catching our Thanksgiving Day gag.
“Don't stop'em, let the line peel off the reel. Once your bait realizes that there's more harm in the rocks than in the livewell you won't get him to swim back down,” said Walker. Freelining live baits while you're bottom fishing isn't your typical grouper fishing. And just as Ed predicted after a swing and a miss on a grouper strike, my pinfish wouldn't go deeper than the keel of the boat with my next attempt to send it back down.
Ed motioned to bring him in and change the bait. As soon as we had a new recruit pinned to the 9/0 Owner circle hook he eagerly, and quickly, made the wrong decision and beelined it for the rocks. It was an instant hookup.
Ed's tackle is simple but specific and finely tuned. He only uses a 6-foot spinning rod in the 65- to 200-pound class. He used to use an 8-foot spinner, which he liked for pulling, but it was awkward for his clients to cast. For line Ed uses 50-pound mono, no leader; 60-pound is too thick and jumps off the spool and 40-pound breaks too easy. “Don't ask me about braid, I hate it,” Ed emphasized. When it comes to the reel, “I like the lower the ratio the better. A 4.6 to one is good. The first few seconds of the fight is everything. You need to be able to get a crank.” As for the hook, Ed likes the 9/0 Owner circle hook, saying the 8/0 is too small.
As soon as my clear keeper came over the gunnel, Ed was encouraging my father-in law, Art, to cast his bait towards the rocks ten feet off our starboard side. “Once the bite starts you have to keep it going,” Ed said. “Once it stops, it stops.”
And much as Ed called it, the bite stayed hot. Both Art and Al were simultaneously together in the bow trying to get that “first” crank of the reel. Ed said something about it being like trying to ride your bike up a hill in tenth gear. Soon I knew exactly what he was referring to while trying to keep the rod off the top of the gunnel of his boat.
Art's fish was a keeper and Ed made an update on the console next to the anchor heading.
“When things get hot it's hard to keep track of the important numbers, the number of keepers in the boat and the anchor heading.”
The bite cooled to a stop, so it was time for a move. But not far. Within minutes we were trolling again and equally as fast we were establishing our COG and anchor heading. We were catching a keeper grouper, over 24 inches in the Gulf of Mexico, on about every third fish. The small fish we released all swam away healthy and happy.
Ed pointed out, “The release mortality when fishing this shallow is nearly zero. When fishing this shallow it's nearly zero. You don't have any barotrauma nor fish predation.”
It wasn't even 11 a.m. when Al brought over the gunnel the biggest fish of the day and with that, Sharpie in his mouth, Ed exclaimed that his streak was alive. “I've caught our limit on every trip since October 8th. It's getting a little harder, but you keep picking and picking.”
I couldn't have asked for a better start to Thanksgiving with my in-laws. No talk of politics, religion or… well, we kept two out of the three off-limits convos out of discussion.
Gag Life: It's a Trip
WHY THE SUDDEN SEASONAL APPEARANCE OF KEEPER-SIZE GAG in shallow waters? Rockpiles north of Anclote up to Cedar Key, on Florida's Gulf coast, represent an important aggregation zone for pre-spawning females.
Gags are what scientists term protogynous hermaphrodites. All gag start out as females. After transitioning, they get black bellies and stay year-round at deepwater spawning sites (some 150 to 250 feet deep), which the females visit during winter spawning months. Gag eggs have to be spawned at the right time and place to ride with ocean currents to estuaries 50 to 100 miles away, where they spend their first months of life.
After gag are about half a year old, they begin to move to shallow nearshore habitat. All gag caught in these relatively shallow waters are female. Some of them are old enough to spawn (usually around age 4) and these fish will swim the 50 to 100 miles back to the deepwater spawning sites to meet up with the guys. But before this, they form all-female pre-spawning aggregations that begin to show up when the cold fronts pass through. At this time, females feed heavily to build up their reserves before migrating. They also “size each other up” in these female-only groups, with a few fish cued to change sex (presumably the most aggressive). These big bad mammas may also take a hook more aggressively.
Dr. Sue Lowerre-Barbieri's lab (FWRI/UF) is researching gag behavior, movements, and sex change, working with knowledgeable fishermen. Lowerre-Barbieri has been working with Ed Walker for years on a range of projects. Ed shares his expertise, what he is seeing on the water, and often is hired to help with sampling. As part of the gag research he has been sharing data from shallow-water pre-spawning aggregations and dart tagging females he releases. One such fish was tagged a day before our trip (11/23/2018). It was a 26” female and would be recaptured the following July 65 miles away, off St. Petersburg.
If you capture a gag with a dart tag, please call the FWRI hotline at 1-800-367-4461 so we can better understand the habitats these iconic Florida fish. FS
Published Florida Sportsman Magazine November 2019