Time to gear up for gag grouper
When the gag grouper season opens July 1, it will send a considerable fleet of boats seaward from every port between Marco Island and Panama City Beach as anglers who have been barred from harvesting the popular table species can again bring a few home to dinner.
And it appears this should be another exceptional year thanks to many seasons of restrictive harvests; anglers both inshore and offshore have been catching lots of keeper size gags, over the 22-inch minimum, by "accident" as they fish for other species.
In general, though, you can't depend on luck to catch gags. It's best to pick up a list of "community holes" or well-known outcroppings where you can start your search; charts, books and CD's are available at most tackle shops that cater to bottom fishermen. Or get a crew of buddies together and charter a well-known grouper skipper, or hop aboard a party boat like those out of Hubbard's Marina at Treasure Island.
The nice thing about gags these days is that there are lots of them well up inside Tampa Bay, mostly on the edges of the ship channels - it doesn't take a big offshore boat to reach these fish. They're also abundant on offshore rockpiles anywhere from a mile off the beach to 100 miles out.
And from Anclote Key northward, the rocky outcroppings in shallow water, sometimes less than 5 feet, also hold plenty of them - it's one of the few places in the world where you can catch grouper on topwater plugs, though trolled diving lures and spoons catch more, as does live bait.
Once you get in the right zipcode, it's then a matter of watching the bottom machine carefully until you see a likely drop, or even better a cloud of bait or bottom fish extending in a "Christmas tree" well up off the bottom.
The procedure is to motor upcurrent of the suspected hotspot and lower the anchor from the bow, allowing the boat to drop back as line is paid out, thus hanging the stern of the boat close to the ledge or reef.
Many expert skippers prefer to position the boat about 20 feet upcurrent of the structure and then use cut bait to lure the fish out to their hooks; they say this gives them a better opportunity to haul big fish up without them escaping into the cover than if they were to put the boat directly over the structure.
Most of the time, gags seem to prefer live baits, including live pinfish or horse threadfins, to cut bait. They can also be caught readily on large jigs - add a chunk of fresh-cut mullet to a 4- to 6-ounce head with an 8-inch shad tail and bounce it in front of them.
Anglers in Tampa Bay catch lots of them by trolling big spoons, jigs and plugs behind downriggers, working right down the edge of "the Ditch", the main ship channel, where bottom drops from 20 to over 40 feet, revealing lots of rocky ledges for the fish.
Tackle is typically very stout, 60-pound-test line or heavier with 80- to 100-pound-test leaders, egg sinkers of 4 to 8 ounces, and triple-strong hooks of 6/0 and up. Circle hooks are now required to harvest bottom fish; fishery regulators say the hooks make it less likely that undersized fish will swallow the hook and die after release. With so many undersized fish in the fishery at present (minimum size for gags is 22 inches, and for reds 20 inches) the majority of the catch must be released, so survival of these fish is essential for effective fishery management. A deflating device and a hook remover are also required gear when fishing for any reef species.
Many anglers add a nice sprinkling of mangrove and yellowtail snapper to their catch by hanging a chum bag off the transom above the reef. The rain of chopped fish coming from the bag soon lures the snapper up near the boat, where they can be caught on unweighted hooks and tiny bits of cut fish. They're not large, averaging 10 inches to a foot, but they are even more tasty than the much larger grouper you'll be hauling up from far below. (Some 4 to 5 pound mangroves often hang deep, too - they'll grab live sardines or a jumbo shrimp best.)
Anglers are allowed up to two gags daily, and/or up to four red grouper in a four-grouper aggregate bag limit for the Gulf. (For details on this somewhat confusing rule, visit www.myfwc.com.)
The season continues through Dec. 3.