May 1 marked the official opening of recreational grouper season along the Atlantic coast, which means hard-core bottom fishermen from North Carolina to Key West, Florida, will be gearing up and heading offshore to chase these tasty critters.
Gag, black, scamp and red groupers make up the majority of what are considered the “inshore” groupers and there’s a closed season for these species, which runs from January through April. Normally, it is at this point that I would go off on a rant about the National Marine Fisheries Service and the South Atlantic Marine Fisheries Council, but I’m going to save the soapbox antics for another time. I’m just be glad that we can go fishing!
The biggest key to grouper fishing is finding the right structure. Whether you locate a natural rock formation, ledge, reef, hard bottom or artificial structure, to find the grouper, you must find the structure.
All grouper like to have a home where they can hide if there is a threat such as sharks. When scared, a grouper will often swim into a hole, cave or any structure where they can wedge themselves into a crevice and flare their gills so they can’t be removed. It’s kinda like us boarding up our windows and closing up shop right before a big hurricane.
The beauty of these grouper holes is that once you find a good one, you can catch fish there for years. You probably shouldn’t go back every day for a month, but if it works, more power to you. I try not to fish a spot more than once every other week.
These fish are called grouper for a reason — they tend to group together — sometimes in fairly large numbers.
If you find a good school of fish, you could potentially manage the school like a herd of cattle, just hope that you’re the only one that knows where they are! Yet another reason why a good grouper spot is guarded like Fort Knox.
Once you know where the fish are hiding, it’s just a matter of rolling out there and slamming a limit and coming home, right?
Easy there Skippy, things aren’t that simple…
Before you head out, you need to fill the baitwell with some choice live baits. If you ask 10 different grouper fishermen what the best bait is, you’re likely to get 25 different answers. But 20 of the 25 answers will likely have one thing in common — “live” will be the first word.
Pinfish are a go-to bait because of their availability throughout the region and the fact that pinfish can be caught in advance and kept for days in a good livewell. Other good baits include sardines, scads, cigar minnows, spots, croakers, grunts, threadfins and pogies or menhaden. Some can be caught in advance, others need to be landed via a bait stop on the way out. Either way, bring plenty of frisky live bait and make sure they are on the large side.
There are two reasons to fish with the larger baits. The biggest reason is the over-abundance of the “overfished” (per fishery managers) American red snapper. On much of Florida’s east coast, red snapper out-number the grouper by 100- or even 200-to-1. These snapper are big (many between 12 and 25 pounds), extremely aggressive and will eat you out of bait and boat. They will swim right to the transom and wait like a Labrador retriever for you to throw something in the water.
The second reason I recommend using larger baits is that grouper are inherently lazy and like to eat the biggest, easiest meal they can find. A gag grouper will routinely eat a bait that is roughly 10 percent of its body weight. If you can’t get live baits, you can try dead baits, but your numbers will go down.
Sometimes grouper will fall victim to whole, dead fish such as Spanish sardines or cigar minnows. The problem with these are the red snapper and the thousands of sea bass, grunts and triggerfish that will peck the dead stuff off the hook. Sometimes a nice chunk of bonito or mackerel will also do the trick.
The next step is presenting the bait to the fish. If the water is shallow enough and there is not too much current, I prefer to anchor. In this case, a trickle of current (less than 1 knot) is ideal. This way, the boat can be positioned up-current of the structure. Ideally, you can entice the grouper to feed away from the structure, so you can stop the fish from going back in the hole after he’s hooked.
Let that fish get back into its home, and be prepared for your buddies to start yelling “gone!” or “fail!” as you tie on a new rig. Don’t worry, you’re not only the goat on the boat. It happens to everyone.
If there’s too much current to anchor, you will be relegated to drift fishing. In this case, try to drop ahead of the spot to land the baits in the strike zone. If one person drives the boat, it is possible to stem the tide by clutching the boat in and out of gear, thus staying in the strike zone much longer than if the boat is in a dead drift.
For the most part, you will need to hook the baits through the nose, unless there is little or no current. In a zero current situation, I like to hook the bait in the area just above the anal fin. It takes a little longer to reach the bottom, but can be a deadly tactic.
Have a great season and post up some photos of your catch in the forums. We want to hear about how you did.