March 27, 2012
This legendary fishing ground is still producing for long-range partyboat anglers on the West Coast.
The 45-foot ledge glowing from the video depth recorder of the Florida Fisherman II partyboat had me confused. Could it be that the captain had lost his way and ended up somewhere other than the Middle Grounds? After all, this was supposed to be the Gulf of Mexico--a body of water known more for its flat bottom and gradual slope than for the red and yellow Grand Canyon I was looking at. Perhaps during my 6-hour sleep out of Hubbard's Marina at Johns Pass the captain had instead steered us to Florida's east coast through the Okeechobee Waterway and I was now somewhere in the Bahamas.
But after shaking off the 4 a.m. grog, I realized that we were anchoring over one of the hundreds of breaks that have made the Florida Middle Grounds the destination for overnight trips for decades.
Atop the underwater cliff on the screen of the depth recorder was an immense yellow blizzard, studded with red--a pixel clue to the fish below awaiting the baited hooks of some 50 anglers on board. The break had created a rising current in the water column, attracting all sorts of baitfish and the predators that follow.
"See that cloud suspended above the break?" said Capt. Mike McDermott, a second generation Hubbard captain, as he spun the wheel and backed down for precise positioning of the boat. "Those are fish--grouper, snapper and amberjack. This is a (loran) number my dad passed on to me--I can always count on that cloud to be there."
The aisles in the bunkhouse came alive with yawning and stretching anglers as they broke out of their racks to sit on their coolers while they laced on shoes or dug through gear bags for the right sweatshirt to match the morning chill.
Hooks were baited and rods extended into the darkness for the gunnel warfare that was about to begin.
Sometime between that predawn anchoring and the final anchor-pull at 10 that night, three very busy mates--their bruised and weathered fingers wrapped in protective tape--stringered, tagged and iced 2,500 pounds of mangrove snapper, grouper and amberjack. It was a fish fest that made me a partyboat believer.
Hubbard's Marina has been chartering overnight trips to the Middle Grounds since 1969 when Capt. Wilson Hubbard first heard rumors of big and plenty far out to the left of Florida.
"My dad was hearing reports about walls of fish from the commercial boats that regularly fished the Middle Grounds," explains Capt. Jeff Hubbard, who started working the overnighter trips when he was 17. "We were running night trips out 20 to 30 miles, so a 2-nighter to the Middle Grounds was a natural--twice the distance, twice the time."
Hubbard says the original 90-foot mono-hull Florida Fisherman was the first "sleeper boat" out of Pinellas County, and at the time, the premier partyboat on the west coast, making the 9-knot run during the first night, fishing all day and returning the next night.
"I remember Mom clipping articles out of the newspaper. Most of the other partyboats were wooden and slower--ours was steel and the darling of the partyboat fleet, so it got a lot of publicity."
What used to be a 10-hour run on the original Florida Fisherman is now seven hours on the Florida Fisherman II, a 75-foot aluminum catamaran that does 13 knots and extends fishing time by six hours, not to mention the heightened comfort factor of fishing from and sleeping on a cat-hull platform.
"I tell all my customers it's just like camping out," says Hubbard. "If you plan it like a camping trip--cooler, sleeping bag, change of clothes and such--you'll have everything you need."
For far-out grouper digging, the 50 miles out of Bayport or 70 miles out of Johns Pass to the southern end of the Florida Middle Grounds is a couple hour's run in a Scarab-type fishing boat on a calm summer day, and Capt. Mike reports seeing more and more of those types of Middle Grounds fishermen. "I counted 50 boats during a dive tournament last year," says Capt. Mike.
But for the weekend fisherman who has neither the boat nor the inclination, booking passage on a partyboat like the Florida Fisherman II is the best way to sample some of the hottest bottom fishing found anywhere in the Gulf of Mexico.
The best way to learn how to fish from a Middle Grounds partyboat is to first spend some time observing the regulars--guys who know the drill from making the trip weekly for years. These regulars opt for heavy tackle and bruising technique, often dropping to their knees to use the rail for leverage against a big fish, and are a good source of how-to information for the novice.
Since all fishing stations, livewells and bunks are numbered and assigned, the regulars are usually found on the stern, a spot that's not so easy to rent given the pecking order established by regulars over the years. The regulars with the most seniority take the stern corners, the less senior anglers filling the spots in between.
They have some pretty good reasons for preferring the stern, not the least of which is being next to other regulars who are less likely to foul their neighbor's line. But party boaters have another, more biological incentive to fish the stern--a natural chumline caused when hooked fish are rapidly hauled to the surface and their embolized air bladders cause their stomachs to invert, expelling their contents into the current.
Another argument for a stern position is that many times, the biggest fish in a school will patiently lay back in the current, away from the crowd, watching for the right moment to strike into the school--not at a bait but at a member of the school. Remember, to a 50-pound grouper, a 16-inch vermilion snapper is a light lunch.
Stern anglers, using current and casting technique to their advantage, are in the best position to get their largest live baits past the school of smaller fish and into the waiting maw of a big boy. The jackpot pools are consistently won using this technique. I noticed that when we first anchored at a new spot, regulars fished their heaviest tackle and biggest baits. Sometime during the first half hour, one by one they switched to lighter tackle and began targeting snapper.
The tackle provided is standard partyboat grouper fare--Penn 67s screwed to 6 1/2-foot boat rods and spooled with 40-pound mono for snapper or 80-pound for grouper. Terminal tackle is nothing fancy--doubled 5/0 hooks on 40-pound leaders for mangos, single 7/0 to 9/0 hooks on 80-pound leaders for grouper and amberjack.
To keep the weights from sliding up the line on the drop, a 6-ounce slip sinker rides a foot of leader between two 100- pound swivels in a modified fishfinder rig. Most of the regulars bring their own tackle, but their line class usually matches the stuff provided by the boat. A few opt for 20-pound spin gear for the mangos, knowing from years of experience that gray snapper are wily and more difficult to get to bite.
While gray or "mango" snapper make up half the catch and amberjack about a third, the real prize of a Middle Grounds trip is an outsized gag grouper. Misnamed black grouper by left-coasters, gags have a reputation for preferring live pinfish over other edibles. The pinfish available at bait shops are usually standard snook baits--2- and 3-inchers--so most regulars catch their own live baits shortly before the evening departure, and can be found lugging 5-gallon buckets filled with pinfish big as your hand and spadefish big as a dinner plate to their assigned livewells. Guess who catches the biggest grouper and AJs?
Pinfish, big ones, are by far the best live baits to take along on a Middle Grounds trip. They stay frisky in the well- aerated livewells allotted to each angler and survive the 100- foot drop to the bottom quite well. Be sure to bring along a dip net to gather them out of the well or you'll quickly find out how they got their name. Remember, gag grouper are reared on shallow grassflats and grow up on a steady diet of pinfish, and even though the Middle Grounds don't normally harbor pinfish, a gag grouper's memory for fine dining is long enduring.
Live baits are hooked through both lips or the nose, which makes them more streamline as they plummet to the bottom trailing a 6-ounce lead. A helicoptering bait can cause line tangles with a neighbor, a constant problem when fishing elbow- to-elbow. Regulars have perfected an underhand softball lob that takes the bait out away from the boat 20 feet or so; weekenders usually just let the weight carry the bait straight down, a move that occasionally causes tangles.
Frozen bait is provided, sardines and squid, but again, it's best to bring along your own live bait, either caught beforehand or bought at local bait stores. I only saw one angler, the boat's only lady guest, using live shrimp, and she landed the trip's only hog snapper--a beautiful 15-pounder. She also did quite well on snapper, stringering a mixed bag of vermilion and mango, as well as porgies, tilefish and triggerfish.
One disadvantage of partyboat fishing is the constant threat of tangles with neighboring gunnel-mates. The tangles are a nuisance, mostly because they cut down on fishing time, and losing a big fish to a crossed line can be downright maddening.
"Don't pull, don't pull!" was often heard, barked out by a regular as he cranked a big fish to the surface, feeling the pressure of another's line across his. "Someone is across me--don't reel, don't pull!" But more times than not, the offender didn't get the message and continued to reel, slicing across the stretched-tight line of a hooked-up angler. Close examination of the dismembered tag end revealed a melted squiggle, a clear indication of another line melting its way through the tighter line. Surprisingly, most regulars, showing their years of experience, patiently explained the faux pas to the offender and re-rigged from his rail padding studded with pre-tied leader rigs. I soon learned that a regular's reason for frantically reeling and pumping is not so much to yank the fish out of his hole, but more to get 'em up fast so that their line doesn't tangle in the spider web of 50 other lines in the water.
In spite of a few arguments with the bottom and occasional tangles with a neighbor, Middle Grounds fishing can be enjoyable and productive aboard a partyboat. Back at the dock, the mates hollered out stringer numbers and slid piles of mangrove snapper and single big fish down a gangplank made slippery by hundreds of fish. Not one partyboat angler went home skunked--most dragged stringers heavy with fish.
As I drove home to Tampa with a cooler full of fish, I thought about how Jeff Hubbard had said it right--except for the mosquitoes, it was "just like camping out."