The wait for anglers is over: gag grouper season opens
By Capt. Danny Stasny
Gag grouper season officially opened July 1. Now is the time to stock up on your bottom accessories — lead, hooks, heavy leader, swivels etc. — to target these bottom dwellers.
Not only are gag grouper among the best fish to eat, but they put up one hulluva fight. Although the value of catching and releasing these fish gets mixed reviews, I’ve seen more than one angler get muscled over by a big gag.
Popular baits include live pinfish, shiners, threadfins and grunts, as well as an assortment of frozen baits such as sardines, threadfins and squid. Remember, gags have to have a 22-inch total length before they go in the box and you can keep only two per person. Good luck and happy hunting, or should I say eating.
Capt. Rick Gross of Fishy Business Charters is fishing the lush grass flats of southern Tampa Bay and the surrounding smaller bays in search of catch-and-release snook and spotted seatrout. To target these species, Gross first puts out his castnet for the desired bait — live shiners. By anchoring and chumming, Gross waits until the little shiners are schooled behind the boat before he strikes. Once baited, Gross and his clients are ready to fish.
During morning incoming tides, Gross is leading his anglers to excellent catch-and-release snook action. Free-lining shiners behind the boat is resulting in snook up to 38 inches. Most catches are 24-28 inches, but you never know when that big female is going to inhale your hook.
After snook fishing, Gross is moving to deeper grass flats in search of trout. Again, Gross is free-lining shiners behind the boat and, in some instances, he’s adding a popping cork to aid with casting the bait and to cause a slight disturbance on the water’s surface. By using these methods, Gross is putting his anglers on spotted seatrout up to 26 inches.
Capt. Warren Girle is fishing offshore with good results. By bottom fishing with live shiners or pinfish for bait, Girle is reeling up keeper red grouper. He says reds up to 24 inches are common, although bigger fish are mixed in.
While targeting red grouper, Girle is catching mangrove snapper in the 15-inch range. He’s scaling down his leader size to 20-30 pound fluorocarbon, depending on how well the fish are biting. Again, live shiners or pinfish are the bait of choice.
Finally, Girle is targeting tarpon along the beaches and passes of Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key. Girle says 99 percent of the bite is on crabs, although he’s also catching fish on threadfin herring. He says to expect to encounter 100-pound silver kings.
Dave Sork at the Anna Maria City Pier is seeing Spanish mackerel being caught during the early morning and late evening tides. Pier fishers using white crappie jigs are getting the bite. While targeting macks, expect to catch ladyfish, jack crevalle and lizardfish.
Mangrove snapper are making a showing at the pier. Most are small, but keeper-size fish are down there, too. You just have to be persistent. For bait, Sork says to try small live shrimp or shiners.
Jim Malfese at the Rod & Reel Pier also is seeing the arrival of mangrove snapper. The tasty little fish are taking up residence under the deck and around the pier pilings, just waiting for you to drop a small live shrimp in front of them. Expect to catch snapper 8-12 inches, if you rig right. Stealth is key, so use the lightest fluorocarbon leader you think you can get away with. A small live bait hook will help, too.
While targeting snapper with live shrimp, there’s a good chance you may hook up with some black drum, flounder or sheepshead. All three of these species are ranging 10-18 inches in length.
Catch-and-release shark fishing at the R&R is topping the chart for pier fishers. Chunk baits like fresh-cut mackerel, bonito or jack crevalle are producing the bite. Expect to encounter lemon sharks, black tips and bonnetheads.
Johnny Mattay at Island Discount Tackle says catch-and-release snook action is heating up along the beaches of Anna Maria Island. If you’re into sight casting to big snook, now is the time to do it. Mattay is using live shiners or whiting as bait when casting to cruising snook. “Some of these fish are in the 40-inch range, too,” says Mattay. He suggests using 30-pound fluorocarbon leader due to the water clarity. “I prefer to use something stronger,” says Mattay, “but when the water is real clear, you have to scale down your leader size or you just won’t get a bite.”
Also along the beaches, Mattay is encountering Spanish mackerel, jack crevalle and even some keeper-size flounder. For the migratory fish, Mattay is using spoons, jigs or Gotcha plugs. For the flounder, a live shrimp or shiner will do the trick.
Moving offshore, Mattay is fishing with his grandpa, Bill Grayson, around hard bottom and ledges for red grouper, mangrove snapper and kingfish. Bottom fishing with live pinfish or shiners is resulting in red grouper up to 27 inches, as well as mangrove snapper in the 18-inch range. Free-lining shiners behind the boat is resulting in kingfish and, for a pleasant surprise, chicken dolphin. Kings in the 20-pound range are the norm and, as for the dolphin, Mattay is catching fish in the 28-inch range. Mattay suggests keeping a lookout for blackfin tuna and bonito, too.
Finally, Mattay is shark fishing just off the beaches of Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key, where the bite is occurring at night. For bait, Mattay is using fresh-cut bonito, mackerel or barracuda. By paddling his hooked bait out past the sandbar in a kayak, Mattay is targeting the area where the bigger sharks are hunting. Expect to encounter blacktip, bull and hammerhead sharks in the range of 4-8 feet.
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