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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Grouper in the Gulf

Captain Frank Bourgeois of Spring Hill is one of the few guides in Florida who does it all.

The charter skipper not only chases grouper, red snapper and king mackerel offshore, he also rounds up redfish, trout and snook on the inside flats, and largemouth bass in the lakes of west central Florida.

“I started out as a bass guide a long time ago and I still enjoy that, but most of the year I’m fishing saltwater because that’s what most of my clients want,” Bourgeois said.

I joined Bourgeois and friend Stan Hickson of Hernando Beach for an outing a few weeks back to sample the grouper action in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Gulf gag grouper season began July 1. Both gags and red grouper are common out of Hernando Beach, though gags tend to be predominant as you move farther north, with reds more so farther south.

We made our trip shortly before the current red tide hit the offshore waters here, and though we could see hints of it ­— with a few dead fish here and there — most of the rocks Bourgeois fished were “live,” with big shows of bait and plenty of reef fish large and small.

“I generally start on a spot with cut squid, because that will tell me if there’s a good population of grunts down there,” Bourgeois said. “Where there are lots of grunts, there are usually plenty of keeper grouper. And when you pull up a few of the grunts, that seems to turn on the rest of the fish. You put down a bigger bait and you catch the grouper.”

To Bourgeois, grouper-sized baits are 6-inch frozen sardines, or live pinfish about 4 inches long.

He fishes these on 4/0 to 6/0 circle hooks. The circle hooks are required as a conservation measure when fishing for any reef species because they’re less likely to be swallowed deeply. He typically uses 50-pound-test monofilament on an assortment of conventional reels from Shimano and Penn. Weights are 4- to 6-ounce egg sinkers located above a couple feet of 80-pound-test mono leader.

“Some guys like braid because they can feel the bite better, but I found that if braid even touches the coral once the fish is hooked, it cuts,” he said. “Mono has a bit of give to it and that lets you catch some fish you’d lose otherwise.”

The delivery is straightforward.

“You drop the rig until it hits bottom, then come up a crank or two so you can feel the weight of that sinker,” Bourgeois said. “Then, you wait — you don’t move it. The scent will spread out and the fish will come to it.”

When a fish bites on a circle hook, using the usual setting motion with the rod usually results in a lost fish.

Instead, Bourgeois advised, put the handle of the rod under your right armpit, support the rod with your left hand and crank like mad with your right. As the line comes tight, the circle hook digs into the fish’s jaw and you’re in business.

“Once you have the fish hooked, you don’t stop cranking,” Bourgeois said. “You’ve got to get him up that first 10 or 15 feet or he’ll go in the rock and you’ll lose him.”

Like many reef anglers, Bourgeois believes that if you break a fish off in the rocks, the disturbance can shut down the bite from remaining fish on that spot. Released fish, on the other hand, usually don’t seem to cause an issue.

Our trip went to 54 feet, more than 40 miles offshore, and in a matter of three hours of actual fishing time we put two limits aboard, mostly reds of 24 to 26 inches and also a few larger gags. We also released several dozen undersized grouper, mostly reds, and countless grunts.

Shortly after this trip, the red tide outbreak decimated the area we fished, killing thousands of reef fish over broad areas between Pasco and Hernando counties. Bourgeois said that though it’s a tragedy so many fish go to waste from this natural phenomenon, he has plenty more locations that were not affected.

Captain Frank Bourgeois can be reached at (352) 650-4426 or www.alwaysfishing.com.

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