Capt. Mark Howard, left, with Jeff Barnes, Cal Gray and Buddy Bentley all of Winter Haven, with their catch of six grouper caught trolling inside the Tampa Bay shipping channel. The group also caught many redfish, ladyfish, flounder and speckled trout in the waters around Anna Maria.
Harrison King shows off a 22-pound permit fish caught while offshore with Capt. Warren Girle.
Island fishers in a grouper state of mind
Well, it’s that time of year again. Cooler water temps have made it comfortable for gag grouper to inhabit our near-shore structures both in the bays and off the beaches.
During this period, keeper gag grouper are accessible for every level of fisher. Whether you’re dropping pinfish off the Sunshine Skyway Bridge fishing piers or trolling along the shipping channel, it’s likely you could take a nice gag home for dinner.
Fishing tactics include using live or frozen bait, trolling lipped plugs, and vertical jigging. If you’re not familiar with these techniques, stop by one of the local tackle shops for advice. There you’ll find folks happy to show you the proper gear and explain how to use it — and they might even tip you to a couple of spots to try out.
These fish fight hard, so stout gear is recommended. Remember you can keep two per day and the minimum size is 22 inches total length.
Stone crab stuffed gag grouper for Thanksgiving? Sounds good to me. Tight lines and happy Thanksgiving.
Capt. Rick Gross of Fishy Business Charters says fishing on the beach and out to 9 miles has been producing a mixed catch. He’s catching gag grouper up to 15 pounds on near-shore rock piles, reefs and ledges. He’s also catching Key West grunts, mangrove snapper, black sea bass and flounder in the same areas. Also, he recommends when on your way out to your grouper spot, look for bait schools that have been attracting Spanish mackerel. Throw small white jigs or silver spoons toward the edges of the school and use a fast retrieve for best success.
Capt. Mike Greig says the bite on nearshore structures has been producing limits of gag grouper for his charters. He’s also seeing lots of Spanish mackerel chasing glass minnows just off the beach and inshore reefs. Backwater catches have included trout in Sarasota Bay. “Fish the edges on low water,” he said. “Redfish are being caught as well in the same areas but they are scattered.”
Capt. Warren Girle reports lots of grouper, both red and gags, are being caught in 40 feet of water. Most of the red grouper have been shorties, but he’s been getting some keeper gags. Along with the grouper, he’s bringing in some nice-size mangrove snapper. Girle also said that while fishing with Harrison King, an Anna Maria local, they boated a 22-pound permit. Warren said this was the “highlight of the week. It’s surprising to catch a permit of this size, this late in the year.”
“Inshore fishing has been producing redfish, trout, and bluefish in Sarasota Bay,” Girle said. “Try along Long Bar for redfish and bluefish using an Exude Dart or RT Slug in golden bream color. For some great trout action, fish top-water plugs at sunrise in 3 to 5 feet of water over grass flats.”
Jonny Keyes at Island Discount Tackle says fishing off the beaches has been productive. Look for bait schools cruising up and down the beach to find Spanish mackerel, ladyfish and jack crevalle. Keyes suggests throwing white jigs, speck rigs, and gotcha plugs for good results. Keyes said he’s been hearing about a lot of flounder being caught both on near-shore reefs and off the beaches and piers. Berkley Gulp shrimp on a quarter-ounce jig-head is a good bet. Black drum are being caught in the canals around Key Royale and Bimini Bay. Look for sheepshead in the same areas. Try using sand fleas and or fiddler crabs. Offshore encounters include amberjack, bonita and cobia. For the amberjack, start about 10-12 miles out. Threadfin herring and white bait are good bait for these high activity fish. “They want to chase something,” Keyes says.
Capt. Sam Kimball of Legend Charters has been fishing anywhere from 10-20 miles out. He’s been targeting “natural bottom” such as ledges and Swiss cheese bottoms. He said white bait is starting to become scarce so he’s using pinfish and squid as bait. Catches have included gag and red grouper up to 16 pounds as well as plenty of Key West grunts and porgies. Kimball also said he’s noticed an improvement in the offshore fishing due to the dropping water temperatures.
Bob Kilb at the Rod & Reel Pier says the fishing was a little tough last week. Fishers on the pier have been catching a few Spanish mackerel as well as black drum, sheepshead and flounder. Fiddler crabs have been the bait of choice for sheepies. If you want to try for black drum and flounder, try live shrimp fished on the bottom around and under the pier.
Capt. Mark Howard of SumoTime Fishing Charters reports, “The winter pattern is coming on strong with each passing cold front and shorter days.” The key to successful fishing, Howard said, is to adapt to the changing conditions and to change your tactics. Shiners are getting harder to net. They are leaving the flats and will become scarce with each passing cold front. Time to make the switch to live shrimp, pinfish, cut bait and artificial baits.
Cut ladyfish rigged with a split shot next to the mangroves or in the potholes, Howard said, will produce some nice redfish. Sheepshead have invaded the flats and will only get thicker in the bay as winter progresses. Live shrimp, fiddler crabs and sand fleas will capture these convict-striped fish.
Also, Howard said, “The inshore grouper bite is at its peak. A lively pinfish or frozen sardine dropped to the hard bottom, on artificial reefs or along the ship channel edges will entice these excellent eating fish to chew. Trolling for grouper is also a viable option for catching dinner.”
Looking forward, Howard said, the tides will be extremely low in the mornings, causing the fish on the flats to stack up in the potholes and provide the opportunity to wade fish and literally have “fish-in-a-barrel” action.
Capt. Larry McGuire of Show Me the Fish Charters wants to give thanks for a great fall fishing season. He loves to substitute a fat gag grouper or tasty American red snapper for a turkey at his Thanksgiving dinner.
McGuire reported his charters are catching limits of gag and red grouper and, on the weekends, limits of American red snapper. Along with grouper, his charters are catching mangrove, yellowtail and lane snappers, big cobia, sharks, flounder and a few kingfish.
McGuire reports, “There is great gag grouper action in depths starting at 40 feet. The larger red grouper and red snapper are at depths of 130 feet. Live pinfish have been the best bait, but it’s always good to start out with frozen sardines to get the party started.
Dave Sork at the Anna Maria City Pier says the Spanish mackerel bite has been sporadic. “If the bait is here, the Spanish mackerel will be, too,” he said.
Silver spoons and white crappie jigs have proven to be the best offering for these high activity fish. Along with the mackerel, there have been bluefish, ladyfish and jack crevalle mixed in. There are still bonnethead and Atlantic sharpnose sharks around, which offer a great fight for light tackle sportfishing. Sork also added, “Evenings seem to be producing a better bite.”
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