May 16, 2011
Join the bottom bunch for a freight train ride.
Gag grouper are a popular target throughout Florida.
There's something special about preparing for a bottom-fishing trip. Knowing ahead of time that you're gonna pick a fight, hopefully with a cagey, heavyweight grouper...on his own turf. Kind of a man against machine scenario, where, when you hook that freight train below, it's up to you and no one else to stop it. There's no time to back down from the challenge. Passing the rod to your buddy is a sure way to tip fortune in the fish's favor. Give a grouper time to reach his rocky hideout and he's history.
Grouper allow no second chances.
Watching Steve “T-Bone” LaCour rig tackle for my first grouper expedition years ago raised many questions. Particularly when he used a light ball-peen hammer to tap the star drags on the 4/0 and 6/0 reels tight, way past the point where he could turn 'em.
“We'll get up at 3 a.m., catch bait and run out to some rocks along the 23-fathom ledge,” LaCour explained as we loaded tackle later that night onto his boat, Comin' Back.
Our destination, a rockpile in 140 feet of water, was surely loaded with grays—East Coast slang for gag grouper. And maybe a “black belly” or two, that is, monster male gags pushing the 30-pound mark or more.
We dropped anchor at the first hint of dawn. There would be no drift fishing. If there's one theory LaCour holds dear, it's that drifting baits over small clusters of rocks and ledges only serves to pull grouper off the structure. “It scatters the fish,” he preached.
What he forgot to mention was how quickly, deftly and determinedly a big gag will suck in a lively pinfish. About halfway to the bottom, I felt a definite thump. After winding in the slack line I came back hard, hoping to show the brute below that his nemesis lurked above. That didn't go over too well. The fish charged for the depths, almost jerking me over the gunnel, thanks to the hammered-down drag. Seconds later I was down on my knees with the stout 50-pound-class rod wedged under my armpit, hoping the bad-boy gag wouldn't take me for a swim. Worry creased my brow when the fish didn't stop and actually lifted my knees off the deck.
Background laughter filled the cockpit, somehow registering through my overworked system. “Turn 'em. Show him who's the boss,” rang repeatedly through fits of laughter and hearty chuckles. I'd been set up. Led down the primrose bottom path so to speak. The guinea pig of all guinea pigs. Bone and the boys let me drop the first bait for good reason, just to watch me hook into a certified freight train, the likes of which I'd never experienced before.
Thankfully, one of the crew members quit chuckling long enough to tackle me when the runaway locomotive below poured on the coal and almost snatched me over the coverboard.
About that time, I realized this fish had the upper hand. The big grouper slammed me again, despite my knees being locked under the gunnel and a 200-pound linebacker doing everything he could to keep me in the boat. Although I grunted, groaned and pulled with all my might, the overweight gag made it to his hideout in the reef, shredding the 80-pound leader without so much as a second thought. Score: grouper—1, me—0.
That fish ignited a fire in my soul. I set forth on a mission to learn all I could concerning gag grouper and to develop a strategy that might afford me an edge on my next encounter.
Florida anglers have plenty of reasons to list gag and black grouper among their favorites. Out of a diverse clan of many grouper species, these two cousins are praised for their aggressive feeding tactics, strong fighting ability and wide range.
Gags and blacks are Florida's foremost representatives of the Mycteroperca family of groupers, which also includes the less common scamp. On the other side of the taxonomic fence—and to be covered in a future article of their own—are the Epinephelus groupers—reds, warsaws, jewfish and a number of hinds.
Stories abound up and down both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and throughout the Keys, recalling battles with heavyweight grouper. For the most part, Flor-ida anglers catch more gags than black grouper. Gags range along the entire Florida coast, from shallow to deep haunts. You can find 'em on wrecks and reefs off Fernandina, in the Intracoastal Waterway skirting Edgewater, on the rocky ledges stretching from Canaveral to Ft. Pierce, all the way around the Atlantic and Gulf sides of the Keys right on up the Gulf Coast into Tampa Bay and beyond. They're familiar targets from the vast grassflats and patch reefs of Cedar Key and the Big Bend, on out to the offshore grounds of Apalachicola, Pensacola and Destin. So you might say gags are right at home in Florida.
Black grouper are fish of a different color. Although gags are often erroneously called blacks along the Gulf Coast, black grouper are a separate species. Blacks range mostly along the southern end of Florida, from Stuart south to the Keys and along the lower stretches of the Gulf Coast, overlapping with gag populations in some neighborhoods. It should be noted that the swift, hard-fighting black grouper receive many of the same accolades anglers give to gags.
While a black grouper's coloration is similar to that of gags, an angler with a trained eye can discern the two fish every time. Gag grouper are usually light brown or gray (hence the nickname grays among Atlantic fishermen), with wavy markings that form no particular pattern. Often the edges of their fins have a bluish hue. Black grouper usually display a dark gray coloration. Their markings form distinct box-like patterns that are almost black, much deeper in color than those of gags. Another giveaway is their fin coloration. Fins on black grouper are often exactly that—black with edges colored deep blue or black. Other discernible black grouper identifiers are reddish-gold spots speckling the head, back and tail.
One reason for the popularity of these two groupers, besides the fact they taste great, is that a variety of techniques can be employed to catch 'em. All you need to do is match a strategy to where you find them. The old standby method, “grouper groping” which I outlined earlier, is to drop a live bait to the bottom, remove all the slack line so you can feel the bite, then wrestle the fish in a piscatorial style tug-of-war to the surface. It's a method that works time after time—on both sides of Florida. Live baiting remains the standard modus operandi for fishermen working deepwater rockpiles, ledges, wrecks and artificial reefs bristling with line-parting cutoffs.
ing the past decade another game plan, trolling, has gained popularity among gag and black grouper anglers, particularly for those who fish shallower 20- to 50-foot depths. Trolling allows you to cover much more water and take advantage of a serious grouper trait, their inherent aggressive behavior, specifically when they go on the bite. Usually considered a Gulf Coast tactic, trolling works anywhere you can get a lure or bait down into the strike zone. Anglers in the Florida Keys, for example, sometimes catch black grouper around shallow coral reefs.
During a recent trip with Capt. Randy Rochelle, Ray Hervey and Vance Tice, this trio of seasoned Gulf Coast grouper veterans demonstrated the ins and outs of trolling for shallow-water gags. We worked the waters inside the Skyway Bridge. That's right—inside Tampa Bay. Using 4-ounce bucktail jigs adorned with curly plastic tails, we boated half a dozen gags in about two hours, with the biggest fish pushing the 12-pound mark.
Look closely, although black grouper resemble gags, their markings are different.
Rochelle, Tice and Hervey worked the edges of the cut limestone channel with the jigs deployed deep via downriggers. Almost every time we marked a small rockpile or hump, the rod would pop up from the bowed position signaling yet another gag intent on gobbling the slow-trolled leadheads. I have to admit I was amazed, considering the ease of this type of fishing. Gathering some grouper fillets is almost a sure bet for trollers hitting it during the appropriate season in the Tampa area.
“We get fantastic action for inshore gags from October through late December. Sometimes the bite lasts through January and February, if we get a mild winter,” Rochelle said.
This characteristic cool-weather grouper fishing occurs not only in Tampa Bay. Charlotte Harbor, Sarasota Bay and many limestone reefs skirting Gulf Coast beaches offer excellent gag grouper trolling possibilities. Reefs adjacent to Indian Rocks Beach came highly recommended.
“During June and July these fish spread out, often moving to offshore grounds located 15 to 30 miles out,” Tice added.
Big Bend fishermen also tap the Gulf Coast gag bite. Capt. Mike Winn utilizes both livebait and trolling approaches when targeting grouper in his home waters.
“My first choice of baits in the spring and summer is live pinfish, followed by frozen threadfin herring and squid. For tackle I use a 4- to 8-ounce lead, depending on depth and current, above a swivel with an 80-pound leader that measures four feet long. For hooks, go with the 6/0 and 7/0 sizes,” Winn explained.
Winn switches gears when water temp drops. “With the scarcity of bait in the winter months, gags are much more likely to chase down a trolled plug. Trolling can be very effective and it's a great way to find new bottom-fishing spots. Rebel Jawbreakers, Magnum Rapalas, MirrOlure CD 18s and Mann's Stretch 25 and 30 series are all good. But, keep a variety on hand. Grouper do show a definite preference from day to day,” he said. “For trolling I like a 7-foot rod coupled with a levelwind reel spooled with 60-pound mono.”
Another method gaining popularity on the Gulf Coast is sight fishing for gags. The technique involves chumming gags to the boat on the extensive offshore grassflats, drawing the fish within range of fly casters or light-tackle enthusiasts. Or, when the water is clear enough, anglers punch in GPS or loran numbers for scattered rock and grass patches in the 12- to 25-foot depths. It's fast and furious fishing with limits coming almost daily for anglers using bucktail and plastic-tail jigs. Some guys even reportedly catch 'em on topwaters, eliciting tremendous surface strikes you wouldn't normally expect from bottom-hugging grouper.
East Coast anglers face different, yet somewhat similar circumstances. Gag grouper here also move inshore during the cooler months. However, the bulk of the population remains beyond the inlets. Many of the best spots for hanging into a full-blown gag lie in the nearshore waters, around the 60-foot depth. Summertime finds the fish moving offshore with reefs and wrecks in 100 to 140 feet of water getting the nod from serious grouper gropers. The 21-fathom ledges off Jacksonville and St. Augustine along with the 23- and 28-fathom ledges from Daytona south can be exceptionally productive for mid-summer live baiters. Deep jigs will account for a few grouper during this time. But, if you're serious about hanging a freight train, stick with livies.
While many hotspots stretch from inshore to offshore along both Florida coasts, there's a secret to learn, one most grouper fishermen usually keep tucked neatly under their hats. The best grouper fishing doesn't always happen on big, well-defined structure. Often the hottest bites occur on mini-numbers, i.e. areas of slight relief. Ledges of one to three feet usually hold the big boys. If you find one, keep the numbers to yourself and you should be able to work it time and time again.
Gag grouper display another peculiarity. They are protogynous hermaphrodites, beginning life as females and later changing into dominant males. The change takes a minimum of 10 years according to biologists, sometimes more. And, when grouper gather to spawn, it's these males that are first in line at feeding time. These are the 40-plus-pound brutes you hear about—like the fish that slammed me on my first grouper trip. Fisheries managers now realize their importance and are taking the necessary steps to protect them from overfishing. Protect these spawners and it's likely we'll see grouper for generations to come. Exploit them and the pool will soon dry up. It's our job to safeguard this resource.
It's November and the weather's cooling down. Gags are moving in, establishing winter residence and beckoning bottom bumpers. Want to really find out if grouper are as powerful as folks claim? Pull out your best grouper groper rod, hammer down the drag and prepare to hold on. The time's right to stretch your line and judge for yourself.