Get your fill of gag grouper while you can
It's going to be short but, hopefully, sweet. This year's gag grouper season, which opens July 1, will run just four months to the end of October. Since there's been no harvest and no targeting of these tasty reef dwellers since last November, however, odds are many of the prime numbers are covered up with keepers just waiting for a pinfish or a frozen cigar minnow to drop from above. Gags are among the favorites of reef anglers because of their large average size and fighting ability – as well as their very tasty fillets. Gag grouper harvest has been closed in the Gulf since Nov. 16. Formerly, the season was closed only during the spawn, from Jan. 1 to March 31, with nine months of open season. The new regulations will cut the open season more than 50 percent, a move the federal regulators say should allow stocks to recover eventually.Recreational anglers have questioned the accuracy of federal fishery statistics, citing frequent catches of more than 50 gags a day while fishing for other species. But federal scientists say that though small to medium-sized gags are abundant, numbers of adult males, which convert from females at about age 10, are extremely low on the offshore reefs, endangering the spawning cycle if more fish are not allowed to reach full maturity. Be that as it may, the gag-rush will be on starting on July 1. One area that just about anyone with a boat can try is the shipping channel in Tampa Bay. Here, water drops from about 20 feet to the 42-foot deep cut, leaving miles of exposed rock along the edges – grouper country, because gags are never found far from rock. Trolling is the usual tactic in "the ditch." Well-known Tampa area angler Vance Tice developed many of the most successful methods for this routine; basically anglers put large jigs, 4 to 8 ounces and up to 8 inches long, down behind downriggers and weighted lead balls that hold them just a few feet off bottom. The secret to getting strikes, says Tice, is to put the lure at least 30 to 50 feet behind the ball. The lures are towed at just a bit more than walking speed, and kept always right along the ledge of the trench except in a few areas where a scatter of rocks from the dredges creates added habitat on the sides. The nice thing about this action is it requires no secret latitude/longitude numbers for success. That's not the case when anglers head offshore, however – there are thousands of square miles of unproductive sand out there and only limited areas where rockpiles, ledges and wrecks attract reef fish. Knowing exactly where these are located is essential. Fortunately, there are a number of commercial charts and booklets, available in most tackle shops that cater to offshore fishing, that can get you started. While the published numbers are often hard-fished, they reveal seams of rock that may run for miles, including many spots that are not regularly fished. Fishing the numbers is an acquired art. Not only do you have to find the spot – not difficult with a GPS – but then you have to put the stern of your boat over that location exactly, no easy matter when it's a hundred feet down and there's a strong current running and plenty of wind to accompany it. Persistence pays, however, and old salts can figure an "anchor course" that will place the boat just right every time. It's then a matter of lowering an assortment of frozen baitfish, or live pinfish, down to the reef and hanging on. A 20-pound gag can put even a big man on his knees for the first minute or so. The bag limit is two gags daily of 22 inches or more as part of a four grouper limit in the Gulf – not much when you consider you may be spending $200 or more on fuel to run out to grouper country and back. But, fortunately, where there are grouper, there are often red snapper, mangrove snapper, grunts, amberjacks and more, so dredging up a nice bag of fish is usually not a problem. And, of course, there's that promise in the future of more fish, bigger fish and longer open seasons if the stocks rebuild according to federal scientists. For more on grouper regulations, visit www.myfwc.com.