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Close-in Gag Grouper

Now's the time to target Gulf grouper on the nearshore rockpiles of the West Central coast.

Patches of limestone attract winter gag grouper, liek the ones shown here by Ed Walker.

You know the grouper fishing is good when two guys in a flats skiff with no loran, no GPS and no "real" bait catch eight keeper gags in an hour.

My buddy Ed called one Sunday morning several years ago and asked if I'd go do a little grouper fishing with him. A mile out of Johns Pass, an old-timer buddy of ours told him, was a nice, little, easy-to-find area of limestone bottom. He'd been catching limits of grouper off the spot for the last 20 years (not to mention smoker kingfish in the fall and spring but that's a whole 'nother story by itself), and though he refused to throw down any TDs, we did at least get a heading. He said the area was as big as a football field and shouldn't be that hard to find. The groupers, he said, could be hanging on any part of the area.

It was a lot more like grouper hunting than grouper fishing as compass headings and land bearings were all the navigational aids we took with us that winter morning. Clean winter water and a high-detail bottom machine would help us in our search for hard, grouper-holding bottom but we were still hunting for the proverbial needle in a haystack. To make it a little harder on us, the specific needle we were after had fins and a habit of swimming. Needless to say, we weren't too sure of our chances.

"Even if we don't catch any groupers we'll still be home in time for the Bucs game," was how I justified it to Ed and myself. Grouper and the Bucs wasn't exactly what I expected.

It was a chamber December day--no wind, a cloudless blue sky and a rising temperature that saw us stripped down to shorts and t-shirts by 10 a.m. Coming out of Johns Pass, we headed west-northwest at about 285 degrees.

Rigging was simple, a pair of 40-pound outfits that doubled as summertime tarpon jiggers and a couple of deep-diving MirrOlures. One was a big-lipped model, tied to a 20-foot piece of 80-pound mono rigged to an eight-ounce swivel sinker. A short-lipped plug with 30 feet of leader behind a No. 1 planer was tied to the other rod. I couldn't tell you exactly how deep either rig dove but in 19 to 21 feet of water, they caught a lot of grouper and only got snagged every once in a while.


Finding hard bottom that day was no problem. The dark patches of limestone rock stood out against the clean green water and cloudless sky like black socks and sandals. We dropped our plugs over the side on the first dark spot we found in 19 feet of water. Initially the bottom was flat and hard with little indication of life. We putted along at four knots, watching our rods with one eye and the bottom machine with the other.

And there it was: a small ledge, about a 2-foot rise off the bottom haired over with giant chevrons from the bottom up to 10 feet.

"Look--," was all I could muster before both rods doubled over and did that twisted, shaking bend that trolling rods do when 12-pound grouper try to break them. It's something of an excellent strike, the most obvious thing you've seen outside of 5-gallon buckets on two-dollar fishing shows. Just getting the rod out of the holder can be a chore and sometimes, if you just can't do it, cranking away with the rod in the holder is the only way to get the big dawg in the boat.

As it turned out, three successive passes over "the spot" were automatic doubleheaders, with keeper fish coming to the boat, albeit in descending size. After working the rock on four additional passes without a strike, we moved on. We eventually landed two more fish off another rock within a half-mile before heading in for kickoff.

In hindsight, I suppose we could have jiggled up a few fresh live baits and dropped them down on the spot. It's often too much for even lockjawed gags to turn down a fresh pinfish, squirrelfish or Spanish sardine. It just seemed a little redundant with eight 21- to 28-inchers in the boat.

A near limit of tasty gags, a fuel bill under $10 and plenty of time to fry fish before Sunday's 1 p.m. Church of the NFL kickoff. Now this is what shallow-water grouper fishing off the west central coast is all about.

To call it a season would pin some kind of predictable beginning and end to it. To call it an invasion would be a little drastic. "Run" implies some sort of speed or quick movement, of which these fish have little of. It's more of an influx, a flow, a temporary aggregation.

I can see the bumper sticker now: "Shallow-water grouper happens."

What's really cool is that for about four or five months a year, shallow-water grouper could happen on any given day within three miles of any beach from Marco Island to Anclote Key. Find a decent rock or just some crunchy bottom in 12 to 25 feet of water during winter and early spring and you can be a hero.

Most of the time. You might not sink the boat with 15-pounders but, with a decent understanding of grouper basics, more often than not you can bring home plenty for a fresh gag dinner. Then there's the hip bruises and aching forearms that are the byproduct of grouper catching.

It kicks off in late October, as the first northwesters blow in and start pulling the water temp down into the 70s. As the Gulf cools, aggregations of gag grouper move eastward, from the deeper, cooler waters to the shallower, cooling waters. The action seems to peak in December before slowing down during the extreme cold of January and February. You can still nail some quality catches between the fronts but it's not until March when things get a little more predictable. The action continues through April and even to May until the water temp climbs in to the high 70s. You'll catch a few fish in the shallows throughout the year but without the numbers and consistency of cooler climes.

The great thing is, you don't need a little black book full of secret honeyholes to make it happen. A quality bottom machine, a little patience and a couple of marker jugs is all you need. Off Anclote there are ledges that run a mile or more. These well-known spots attract a lot of attention and when you see a row of boats lined up north to south, you can bet they're on a ledge. Even if you can't get on the specific spot, chances are you're in the right neighborhood. Anglers blessed with one honeyhole can easily find new spots just by putting around the adjacent area and watching the screen. Any aberration from the flat bottom, be it a 1-foot ledge, a school of bait or an odd rock, is worth a look. Rocky areas surrounded by sand are especially inviting to aggregating gags. Artificial reefs are another great place to start your grouper education. The bigger le dges seem to produce best early in the season. As they get pressured, the fish seem to move out to the smaller, lighter traffic areas. Head back to the bigger spots after a big blow as the fish often get scattered and seem to use the higher relief as shelter from the storm.

Trolling plugs is a great way to cover a lot of area looking for grouper, but a common thread among pro grouper diggers I know is the utilization of live bait. Pinfish are high on the list but just about anything you can catch in a baitnet along the shadow line of a bridge or dock will work. Grunts, croakers, porgies, mullet, butterfish, scaled sardines, shad, threadfin herring and blue runners are all potential hot baits. You'll eventually find that it's the odd baits, like the grass porgies and silver trout that you catch that often account for the biggest fish. All the pass bridges are scoreable at times as are those along the Intracoastal Waterway adjacent to the passes.

When netting isn't a possibility, hook-and-lining pinfish works. To catch them in numbers, set up a chumline along the edge of a grassflat or uptide of a channel marker or bridge and drop bits of shrimp or squid down to the bottom on No. 8 hooks. Moving tide is key to this operation as slack water does little to broadcast your chum and seems to scatter baitfish.

At some point in the winter the pinfish will move into the shallow Gulf and out to hard bottom areas. Look for bait showers around crab trap buoys and small, non-grouper inhabited ledges to find the coldwater pinfish. A stop inshore of your grouper numbers could be all you need to load up on fresh livies.

When the water temp drops into the low 60s and beyond the situation changes and dead bait becomes the ticket. A fresh livie can sometimes draw the big strike when the fish start to rally but a frozen sardine is pertinent in getting the whole thing going. Octopus, common in local waters in winter as they seek out the migrating stone crabs, are also hot for coldwater gags. A wiggling slab of tentacle would tempt even a frozen grouper. Squid also performs well in cold water. More than once I've seen a whole squid tempt a chilly gag that wouldn't eat anything else.


PAGE 2 >>

These dead baits also get the smaller bottom dwellers going. Catching a few grunts, triggerfish and seabass creates a natural chumslick as the fish peck away at your big dead baits.

This beefy gag struck just one mile off Anclote Key. North-to-south ledges, some rising only a few feet off teh bottom, hold fish here.

In fact, employing a bucketful of sardines as grouper chum can do wonders for your shallow-water catches. A wire chum cage stuffed with diced 'dines and lowered to the bottom can often turn a dead rock into a grouper free-for-all.

When the fish are cold and lethargic, they often take up to 20 or 30 minutes to bite. I've sat on spots when the water was 58 degrees that I knew were holding grouper but they wouldn't bite. Thirty minutes, a little chumming and a dead sardine on a light leader (40- or 50-pound test) and sinker (1/2- to 1-ounce) and the bite begins. Even then it's often so subtle it's almost undetectable. It may feel like a snag and it's not until you start pulling that the fish starts to swim away. It pays to pay close attention to your bait without banging your sinker on the bottom. I can't tell you how many fish I've seen caught by anglers who never felt the bite. They just started reeling up to check their bait and lo and behold, there's a grouper on the other end.

Most of the time, feeling the bite isn't the problem. It's what to do when you hook the monster in the skinny stuff that can get tricky. He doesn't act quite the same as he does in 80 or 100 feet. He makes runs, pulls you all over the boat, even jumps. There's something about catching 12-pound grouper in 20 feet of water that hits you like few other angling phenomena. As far as I'm concerned it's right up there with shoal-side tarpon, tailing redfish and a trio of slash-happy sailfish working a ballyhoo teaser in the propwash. The thrill doesn't last long (funny how those short thrills are always the best) but it leaves an impression on you that can make or break your entire day.

At least until the next bite anyways.

It starts with the moment you first feel your pinfish getting jumpy. I like to lower my rodtip slightly and position the rod butt tight to my front hip (you'll love your butt caps and rod belts after a few days of this). My left hand slides up the foam grip with my thumb lightly touching the line. I keep my right hand on the crank, just waiting for the telltale thump. Then it's simultaneous pumping and reeling in an insane effort to keep this fish from cutting me off on the bottom.

The first three cranks are key, as is getting the rod up high without losing control and letting the fish turn the other way. It's important to use your rod as a crowbar as opposed to trying to winch the fish in with the reel. Pry the fish from the bottom and as you drop the rod, reel like crazy or all you're doing is giving the grouper back to the bottom.

It doesn't take long for the victor to emerge. You're either smiling ear to ear as you casually crank your fish the rest of the way in, you're hung in a rock or you're re-tying because you just got cut off.

Generally speaking, this type of fishing doesn't lend itself to the light-tackle game. A minimum of 40- or 50-pound test is the norm. I have several buddies who swear on 80-pound line just because they've been abused by too many 20-pound-plus fish to fiddle with "the light stuff." While most of the groupers you'll hook won't be 20-pounders it's a sad day when you finally get the hog to bite only to find that you showed up to the party with dental floss. Leaders of 60- to 100-pound test get the job done but if you feel like you're missing the bite, lighten up. And use just enough lead to hold your bait on the bottom.

An outgoing tide in the Gulf flows south. The incoming tide runs north. As you acquire more and more grouper numbers, you'll notice that some work better on the incoming tide while others are better on the outgoing. This is typically due to some aberration like an undercut, cave or crack that is specific to the spot. The groupers may favor that area of the ledge and only during certain tides can you anchor and present baits appropriately. Keeping notes of your catches will help you find trends that can put more fish in the boat. Slack tide generally shuts the bite down. Use this down time to find more spots and wait for moving water to start fishing again.

It may take a while to get the hang of anchoring on these small, shallow spots. The cool part is that the water is shallow, so pulling the hook 15 or 20 times in a day won't kill you. The key is getting just uptide of your jug. Dragging your anchor through the fish effectively ruins the spot, at least for a little while. Banging the bottom of the boat is another way to scatter the fish and make them pick y. Treat shallow-water groupering just as you would sight fishing on the flats. Silence is golden.

My personal rule is that if it takes me more than one shot to get the anchor right, I've compromised the spot. I'll still fish it, but I've found that the groupers are much more cooperative when you are able to get the heading right the first time. More than two passes over a spot in 20 or 30 feet of water can be enough to shut the bite down for 30 or 40 minutes.

As new grouper laws go into effect, it will get harder to find legal fish. The majority of these shallow-water dwellers lie somewhere in the 18- to 22-inch category. But like any other species, the more you catch, the better chance you have of hooking the right one. And some days, you'll find, especially early in the season, that all the grouper you hook are 10 pounds and up. Savor those days, and the bruises you get from them.

Starter Numbers for Gulf Groupering

The sunken barges, culverts, pilings and concrete FADS of the average artificial reef make for great grouper homes. Although steady angler traffic keeps the populations in check, you can sometimes score big on the artificials. Try to be one of the first boats on the reef after a good blow for your best shot at an impressive catch. You'll lose a lot of tackle targeting reef groupers but if you lack any other numbers, it's a good place to start. Just remember that most of these groupers have seen it all before (including lots of spearfishermen) and are somewhat spookier than those living over natural bottom. Don't be afraid to change baits frequently and employ plenty of chum. Here's a listing of some West Central Florida reefs inside 50 feet of water:

Reef Site Loran Lat. Long.

St. Pete Beach 14192.0 44704.1 27-40.60' 82-51.75'

Treasure Island 14200.8 44738.7 27-44.50' 82-52.85'

Madeira Beach 14201.5 44768.0 27-46.30' 82-54.90'

Indian Shores 14200.5 44859.2 27-51.40' 83-01.81

Rube Allyn 14212.3 44886.6 27-55.60' 83-01.40'

Clearwater 3 mile 14243.8 44859.4 28-00.95' 82-53.70'

Dunedin 14248.3 44887.5 28-03.20' 82-54.55'

Tarpon Springs 14259.6 44935.0 28-08.25' 82-55.85'

Pasco #1 14276.1 45099.3 NA NA

Pasco #2 14275.7 45050.9 NA NA

Pasco #3 14274.8 45048.2 NA NA


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