There are just a couple of weeks remaining in the gag grouper season (closes Dec. 31) and that’s significant, because it doesn’t reopen until June 1. That’s a long wait for a grouper dinner.
Many are planning their final trips now, and fortunately, one doesn’t have to go far this year, as conditions and water temperatures have remained in the sweet spot, meaning the gags are closer to shore, happy and hungry on the rocky bottom they love. Find the rocks and you have a good chance of finding gags.
How close? Many have been going no farther than the so-called “short rocks,” a loose term used to describe the first patches of rocky limestone bottom amidst the vast sandy bottom off our coast. The Hudson short rocks, for example, start in around 18 feet of water. The patches of hard bottom off Anclote Key start in around 20 feet of water. The shallow rocky zone northwest of Hudson in just 8 to 12 feet of water, has been particularly hot this year. This bottom is roughly dead west of Aripeka.
Grouper hunting takes time and experience to learn the most productive areas, but there are ways to speed up the process and a good clue that give away rocky bottom.
A popular technique to locate grouper is trolling large plugs. This allows anglers to cover a lot of water, dragging the plugs that dive to near the bottom until a fish is hooked. A bottom sounding machine is critical to identify high relief rocks and ledges the grouper like to inhabit. It’s not unusual for the boat’s driver to spot a nice pile of rocks on the sounder and predict a grouper on one of the trolling rods as the trailing plug approaches the spot just identified as promising.
When a gag comes off the bottom to grab a plug, it is a furious strike, followed by the grouper doing everything it can to get to the bottom and the rocks he calls home. There, he stands a chance of winning his freedom, wrapping the line and cutting it on the abrasive rocks.
But trolling provides an advantage for anglers in that unlike soaking natural bait on the bottom adjacent to the rocks, plugs ride higher in the water column above the rocks. That along with the forward motion of the boat, which is traveling at 3 to 4 knots, pulling the fish away from its rocky lair after the hook up, means a gag attempting to escape back to the bottom where he came from has a lot farther to go.
Plugs do not have to be trolled to do the job. Pros like Capt. Mike Manning are on the shallow-water gags now in just 10 feet of water northwest of Hudson. He’s been having his anglers cast and crank large diving plugs over rocks and doing very well on some of the biggest gags he’s seen in the shallows in recent years. Casting works better in the shallows, as the sound of a boat that close overhead — along with the shadow it casts — in such minuscule depths is more likely to send the fish into hiding amongst the rocks. Trolling is most effective in 15 feet or more of water. The key is using plugs designed to dive to near the bottom without snagging in it or use downriggers or planers to get the lure down to the strike zone, which is anywhere from 2 to 8 feet above the rocks.
Traditional bottom fishing with dead or live bait on the bottom requires knowing where the rocks are, and longtime grouper diggers have a list of proven GPS numbers. Navigate to the number, locate the rocks on the bottom machine and mark the spot with a weighted buoy. Then anchor up-current and feed out rope until the boat settles back to the buoy and drop those baits to the bottom and wait.
For those without a database of prime spots, stone crabbers provide a clue. This time of year the crabbers have the traps in the water and finding a line of traps is a good indication that the bottom is gag grouper friendly, as the crabs like rocks as much as gags do.
Working around crab lines and scanning the bottom via a sounder will help you zero in on likely spots to try. Be sure to give the trap lines some breathing room. You don’t want a line wrapping in the engine’s prop ruining your day or the crabber’s livelihood.
Typical grouper tackle is a 4/0-class reels and heavy rods or a big spinning outfit. Typically, 50- to 60-pound-test braided line and mono leaders of up to 100-pound-test are used. By regulation, non-stainless steel circle hooks must be used when bait fishing.
The law allows two gags of at least 24 inches long per person per day. Some fish for gags for sport, but they more often are brought home. Known as one of the best local fish for the table, grouper is excellent fried, backed or broiled. It’s a bit flaky and prone to falling apart when grilled, so a grilling basket is the best bet if going that route.