It’s a day every offshore angler anticipates the way a kid waits for summer vacation, and it’s finally here.
The gag grouper season opened June 1 and closes after Dec. 31. The five-month annual closure is to give the fish a break from fishing pressure, a move designed to permit the fish to concentrate on spawning, which occurs between January and May.
Within a few days the catch reports will be coming in, but based on reports from anglers scouting out their favorite grouper spots over the past month, there are plenty of big fish around this season.
Veteran gag anglers call it grouper digging, and that’s not surprising, since many consider grouper a prize almost as valuable as a gold or silver nugget. One the state’s most popular fish on the table, the grouper has been enjoyed by millions. Fried, blackened, broiled or grilled, it’s thick, flaky white meat chunks are hard to beat. Anglers are allowed two fish 24 inches or larger per day. A pair of 24-inch gags is enough to feed the whole Brady Bunch — including maid Alice — with some leftovers in the fridge.
Gags are caught in a number of ways, but there are favorites along this region, the most popular being bottom fishing with live or dead bait. Based on preseason information, Capt. Mike Senker, a longtime charter captain running offshore charters out of Hernando Beach, said a good depth to start this season is around 32 feet of water for keeper-sized fish. A bottom machine helps find the rocky bottom, rock ledges and holes where gags live, especially when the water is cloudy, but when the water is clear anglers who don’t already have GPS coordinates for good grouper spots can motor around and look for them. Rocky bottom patches appear as dark patches in the clean water (just be aware of shadows from clouds, as they’ve fooled many a gag newbie).
Capt. Mike likes 4/0-class reels and beefy boat rods for gags, as when spooled with 50- to 60-pound-test line they provide the muscle needed to keep gags out of the rocky bottom once hooked. Gags immediately try to get to the safety of rocks. If they get into a crevice or under a ledge, you have what’s called a “rocked-up” fish.
“I usually hand-line them out for my customers, and that works most of the time,” said Senker.
Another option is to place the rod with the rocked-up fish in a holder and let it be. Once the grouper senses nothing is trying to force him out of his hiding spot, the fish usually swims out. A moving line or a bouncing rod tip signals that the fish is clear and the fight can be resumed.
Capt. Mike likes 2 feet of 80-pound-test leader, a 7/0 hook (non-stainless, non-offset circle hooks by law) and 4- to 6-ounces of weight to hold the bottom depending on how strong the current is running. Frozen threadfin herring are a great bait, though live pinfish are another option.
Anchoring for ideal boat position is important, said Capt. Mike, with the best spot to being the transom of the boat over the rocks so line can be dropped vertically. Grouper generally grab a bait when it is on or near the bottom, and the angler’s job is to raise the rod firmly and get a few cranks of the handle in as quickly as possible to get the fish off the bottom and away from rocks.
“If the boat ends up setting off the rocks a little bit, you can try casting toward the rocks,” Senker said.
If the gags are hungry, they will even travel off the rocks and come to baits well away from the rocks.
“I’ve had a GoPro down and watched as many as 20 gags just sitting out on open sand bottom,” he said, adding drawing gags off the rocks like this can sometimes be achieved by ensuring the boat is up-current of the rocks. The scent of dead baits travels back to the fish and they are known to follow their noses to the source, he said.
Senker’s final tip is to be prepared to move around a lot to find big fish, generally working deeper if the fish being landed are too small. He also says going to a smaller leader in clear water can sometimes improve the bite, as the fish are less likely to spot the line and suspect that something fishy is going on.