The Fishin' Report: Gag grouper cooperating, making life easier for offshore anglers

This happy angler shows off her limit of shallow-water gag grouper taken while fishing recently with Capt. Josh Fritz. The longtime Nature Coast fishing guide is going no deeper now than around 10 feet of water for gags like these.

We offshore anglers along the Nature Coast love our cooler months. Not only do we avoid baking under the hot sun, we actually save some money.

Consider that the depth of the Gulf drops off very slowly along this stretch of coast, which means much of the year getting out to productive grouper bottom means very long boat rides and lots of fuel burned. Not so now.

Local anglers and guides were hoping for a good shallow-water gag grouper season and they have not been disappointed. Catches started picking up nicely inside of 20 feet of water by Halloween. As we head into Thanksgiving, the gag bounty continues.

Capt. Josh Fritz is running charters almost daily to the shallow limestone bottom in 8 to 12 feet of water west off Hernando County. In his words, the gag fishing this season is “fantastic,” and he’s planning on staying on the bite through winter or as long as it may last.

“We’re limiting in an hour or less,” he said. “The fish are there and they’re big.”

Capt. Mike Manning is reporting much the same. Fishing the same depths off our coast — a large portion of bottom known for its sheets of limestone with many cracks, crevices and ledges where grouper like to hide.

“It’s really good right now,” said Manning. “We’ll have those fish for a few weeks, which is nice because it means you don’t have to go so far.”

Area tackle shops are reporting their regular grouper diggers are fishing their “shallow numbers” now. For many that means 15- to 25-foot depths. It’s a bit more of a run but fishing for grouper in 8 to 10 feet of water is a bit more specialized than anchoring up a making straight drops of the bait to the rocks below in deeper water.

That style is fine in deeper water, where the boat overhead is far enough above to prevent spooking fish and sending them hiding in their protective caves. Fishing gags in 10 feet or less means carefully positioning the boat up-current and well away from the rocks and casting baits to the fish. Hooking into grouper in such shallow water is quite the experience, and the uninitiated learn quickly that the battle is different in every way. Rather than a hooked grouper pulling down vertically and the angler battling with a heavy rods and 4/0 reels to raise it off the bottom, shallow-water gags are pulling horizontally from a position away from the angler. The fight is more akin to battling a monster snook or cobia.

Fritz and Manning use heave spinning gear for the job and coach their anglers to get as many turns on the reel as possible after the fish is hooked. That’s to pull it away from the rock crevices and holes it will instinctively try to retreat into. One “rocked up,” the fish can be lost to broken line.

The frozen sardines popular for deep-water bottom fishing work, but most shallow-water diggers prefer a live sardine or pinfish. As the weather changes, schools of sardines are getting trickier to find and net, so pinfish rule among live baiters right now. But artificial plugs are a good alternative and may actually out fish natural baits some days. The plugs are cast on the heavy spinners and cranked over the hard bottom. The wiggle and vibration they send out is hard for gags to resist and they’ll often charge full-force of the bottom to gulp them down.

The real challenge of fishing so shallow is not only setting up on a spot correctly but finding the spot in the first place. The most successful anglers fishing 12 feet of water and less have been fishing the shallow rock beds for years and have logged a lot of productive spots. Those new to the this fishing may spend a lot of time hunting, anchoring and striking out, as searching for spots with a bottom sounder to identify high rocks and bigger ledges where deep-water gags live is useless. The rocks in the shallow limestone beds are not the high relief variety, to the tell-tale spikes and drops aren’t seen on sonar. That’s why so many opt to work between 20 and 30 feet, where good grouper bottom is easier to identify via the sonar images.

Ten feet or 30, cooler Gulf temperatures mean shorter boat rides and more time spent with a bait water rather than traveling, so enjoy it. If it doesn’t get too cold too fast, we should be able to take advantage of this fishing into the new year.

Anglers are permitted two gag grouper of a minimum 24 inches per day. It would be rare to catch a legal red grouper in such shallow water, but the regulations permit two of that species with a 20-inch minimum length per angler for a four-grouper aggregate.

A bonus catch when bait fishing between 10 and 30 feet of water this time of year is mangrove snapper. Grouper and snapper are excellent table fish when baked, broiled, fried or grilled.