Gag grouper season closed but plenty of fish to target
Offshore fishing minus the gag grouper bite — west of Anna Maria Island — remains good.
With a seasonal closure that began Nov. 16, gag grouper are now off the menu for offshore fishers. Catch-and-release action of gags remains good, although most fishers are targeting other species for the dinner table.
Red grouper are still showing good numbers around nearshore structure in 40-60 feet of water. Most of the red grouper you’ll encounter in these waters will be juvenile, so you’ll want to go out to at least 80-100 feet to get keeper-size fish. Use the same baits you would for gags, only add frozen squid to the mix.
Mangrove snapper are another species to target now. For mangroves, you can start in about 60 feet of water and work your way out deeper if needed. Live shiners are probably the best bait for these feisty snapper, although they’ll also eat an assortment of frozen baits. Using a chum block is also effective when targeting snapper. Once you have fish feeding in the chum slick, drift your baits behind the boat to get on the bite.
Another option is to target amberjack. Again, water depths around 60-80 feet are a good place to start looking. Targeting wrecks and reefs to locate these migratory fish can be productive. A number of live baits will work to catch AJs. Live pinfish, threadfin herring, grunts and shiners will achieve the bite. You can use heavy spinning gear or conventional grouper tackle to whip these high-activity reef donkeys. If you’re into big fish that pull hard, amberjack will be right up your alley.
Dave Sork at the Anna Maria City Pier says the bait is beginning to thin out. With frequent cold fronts and dropping water temps, bait is hard to come by. Pier fishers still able to round up shiners are having reasonable catches of Spanish mackerel, and shiners are producing keeper-size flounder around and under the pier.
Pier fishers using artificials are catching Spanish mackerel, ladyfish, lizardfish and skip jacks. Silver spoons, Gotcha plugs and small white jigs are the three lures being used with good results.
Tom Cassetty at the Rod & Reel Pier is seeing good numbers of Spanish mackerel being caught in the early morning hours. Fishers using silver spoons or spec rigs are having good results on these high-activity fish. Live shiners on a long shank hook are also producing a bite. By using any of the baits mentioned, pier fishers are occasionally catching bonito in the 5-pound range.
Fishing around the edges and under the pier is proving prosperous for fishers targeting flounder, black drum and redfish. Most fishers are using live shrimp to catch this trio of species. By using a size-2 hook and 1/2- to 1-ounce egg sinker, you can get your shrimp in the strike zone. Use either a knocker rig or a fish-finder rig to set up your tackle.
Whiting are making a stop by the pier before they head around Bean Point. Small pieces of shrimp on a No. 4 hook weighted with a split shot will catch these small, feisty fish. If you can get enough, they make for a good fish fry, too.
Jonny Keyes at Island Discount Tackle says he’s hearing about good action occurring at both piers on the north end of the Island. Spanish mackerel are providing consistent action in the early morning and evening hours. Gotcha plugs, white crappie jigs and silver spoons are the weapons of choice to get these toothy fish to bite.
Flounder are being caught at the piers and Bean Point beach. Live shrimp or shiners are a great bait choice. If you choose artificials, try a Berkley Gulp shrimp on a 1/4-ounce jig head.
Moving offshore, mangrove snapper and red grouper have become the targeted species now that gag grouper season is closed. Both live and frozen baits are working for either species. When fishing for mangroves, Keyes suggests anchoring over the structure and setting out a chum bag to bring the fish to the boat. Once the fish start to rise from the bottom, free-line frozen sardines in the chum slick to get in the action.
Capt. Mark Howard of SumoTime fishing charters says redfish, speckled trout, snook, flounder, ladyfish, grouper and mackerel have been landed on his recent charters. Clarisse Roy of Canada landed a nice cobia on shiners after the fish followed the chummers to the back of the boat. Roy and husband Martin also landed some nice flounder to get their limit from Tampa Bay.
Howard says the shiners are still hanging around the flats and piers in enough numbers to fill a live well. He suggests using tropical fish food or Capt. Vann’s fish chum to bunch the shiners up behind the boat and make netting them easier and faster.
“Unfortunately the shiner game will be coming to an end as the cold fronts come with more frequency.” Howard suggests switching to live shrimp and cut bait to keep the action hot.
Howard reports good luck targeting redfish using a fresh chunk of ladyfish or pinfish on a 2/0 hook with a split shot tossed under a deep-water dock. “Sheepshead will be in the same areas as the redfish, but will not eat the cut bait,” Howard says. He suggests using fiddler crabs or fresh shrimp to get the convict fish to chew. “Look for the sheepshead bite to get stronger as the fall fishing pattern gives way to winter,” Howard adds.
Looking forward, Howard notes the tides will be extremely low in the mornings with a nice mid-morning high. He suggests taking advantage of the visibility to find natural highways thru the flats and deep potholes, where the fish travel and stage.
Capt. Warren Girle is fishing the grass flats of eastern Sarasota Bay targeting redfish using live shiners. “There are still a good amount of reds in the bay,” says Girle, “although they’ve been scattered the past few days.”
Girle suggests fishing the lower tides to find the reds bunched up in pothole and ditches. This makes it easier to hook up because there will be a lot of fish in one area.
Moving offshore, Girle is catching mangrove snapper on the nearshore artificial reefs. Most of the snapper are in the 17-inch range with a few bigger ones coming to the boat. Also on the artificial reefs, Girle is catching Spanish mackerel, bonito and red grouper.
Capt. Mark Johnston of Just Reel charter fishing is targeting redfish around rocks and docks with good results. Johnston is using live select-shrimp and pitching them around the pilings of residential docks in upper Sarasota Bay and around Cortez. “We’re catching 20-30 reds a day,” says Johnston, “but a lot of them are under the minimum size.”
Also around the docks, Johnston is catching sheepshead and flounder using a No. 1 hook tied to a few feet of 30-pound fluorocarbon for leader. By adding a split-shot about 10 inches above the hook, Johnston’s baits are able to reach the sandy bottom under docks where fish are feeding.
To finish out the day, Johnston is catching snook on mangrove edges adjacent to grass flats. Both live shrimp and live shiners are producing the bite.
Jeff Medley at the south bait shop on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge Fishing Piers says, “There’s an awful lot of species around the pier for this time of year.”
Migratory species such as Spanish mackerel and king mackerel are dominating the bite in the early mornings. Pier fishers using silver spoons and Gotcha plugs are catching limits of macks, mostly in the 20-inch range. For the kings, pier fishers are using floating lipped plugs, such as Yo-Zuri and Bomber lures. To target kings with these lures, let your lure drift away from the bridge in the current until you reach the desired distance, then begin your retrieve, repeating until you hook up.
Flounder are making a strong presence under the pier. Try using live shrimp or shiners for bait. Depending on the current, you want to use a reasonable-size egg sinker to get your bait to the bottom, dragging it along the edges of the pier in the sand. There are some snags under the pier, so be prepared to re-rig occasionally.
Sheepshead are inhabiting the pier, too. “We’re seeing a few sheepshead on every piling,” says Medley. With that in mind, think of how many pilings are under the pier and the potential that represents. Pier fishers using live fiddler crabs or sand fleas are getting the bite. Average range in size for the striped-fish is 2-3 pounds.
Believe or not, Medley says they’re still seeing and catching tarpon around the pier. “We’re seeing 80-90 pounders rolling in the bait schools during the early morning hours,” says Medley.
Pier fishers targeting the silver torpedoes are free-lining live pinfish or ladyfish to get the bite. Most hookups are resulting in a few jumps and then a break-off. Trying to muscle fish of this size from the deck requires extremely heavy gear and a little bit of luck. Typically the fish will run your line into a piling and cut you off. If you do manage to land one, take extra care to release it safely.
For those who like catching silver trout, now is the time to head to the south pier. Pier fishers using small pieces of shrimp on a jig head are catching good numbers of these tasty fish. Remember, there’s no size or bag limit on silver trout, so use discretion on how many you keep. The meat on these fish is best eaten fresh or within a few days of being caught.
Last but not least, Medley reports fishers are having some difficulty landing their catch due to a vast number of goliath grouper lurking beneath the decking. These oversized grouper are opportunistic feeders. They lay in wait under the pier until they see a fish struggling in the current — the fish you’re reeling in. Once the goliath grouper has a target, it swims up and inhales, leaving you helpless against its enormous strength. Needless to say, the goliath gets your fish and you wind up with a broken lure. Remember to reel your fish up quickly, or you too might end up feeding the goliaths.
Capt. Sam Kimball of Legend charters is targeting red grouper and amberjack. “We’re catching limits of red grouper staring at about 80 feet of water,” says Kimball.
Live pinfish or live shiners are getting the bite. Also around these water depths, Kimball is catching good numbers of jolt head porgies and Key West grunts. You can catch either of these species on live or dead shiners, but frozen squid will do the job, too.
Migratory species such as king and Spanish mackerel are abundant offshore around 60-80 feet of water. Kimball likes to throw live shiners on a 4/0 long shank hook tied to 50-pound fluorocarbon leader to target these species. “Don’t be surprised to catch some bonito, too,” adds Kimball.
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