It’s about time — gag grouper season reopens
Who doesn’t like a good grouper sandwich?
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, “Can we keep that?” after one of my clients reels up a nice, keeper-size gag grouper.
Up until July 1, the answer has been, “No. Sorry, they’re out of season.”
After a sigh of disappointment and maybe a few sharp words, my clients solemnly would watch as I released the fish to swim again to the reef and fight another day.
But not now. It’s time to go get that grouper and put it in the cooler.
Gag grouper season officially opened July 1 and will remain open through Dec. 3.
To target these tackle-busters, you need stout gear. I like to use a 4/0 or 6/0 Penn Senator reel combined with an 8-foot Star Delux rod. For line on the reels, I generally start with 50-pound mono and work my way up. For terminal tackle, I like to rig with a sliding egg sinker that sets up above a swivel. Below the swivel, I’ll use 50-pound fluorocarbon for leader, attached to a stout circle hook.
When it comes to choosing natural baits for gag grouper, there are a variety of options. Live baits, such as shiners, threadfin herring, pinfish and grunts will produce a bite. Dead baits will catch gags, too, and I suggest having on hand some frozen threadfins, sardines and squid.
The next step is getting some good “numbers.” By numbers, I’m referring to GPS coordinates that mark a wreck, reef or ledge that’s holding gags. If you don’t have these, you can always buy a nautical chart of the local waters, which will have many spots for you to try. Just remember, those numbers are no secret to a wide audience of anglers.
OK, now that you’ve rigged your tackle, gathered your bait and have GPS numbers to find your spot, you’re ready to fish.
With this in mind, remember gag grouper have to be at least 22 inches in length with the tail pinched and your bag limit is two per person per day.
Also, if you’re fishing deep water, don’t forget to carry a venting tool to deflate undersized fish before releasing them.
Back inshore, Jim Malfese at the Rod & Reel Pier says Spanish mackerel are aggressively feeding on schools of “hatch bait.” These schools of small shiners are being chopped into bits by the mackerel’s razor-sharp teeth. Small white or chartreuse jigs will work and retrieve quickly around the edges of the bait schools, which should produce a bite.
Mangrove snapper are gradually congregating around the pier, and Malfese suggests live shrimp either free-lined or weighted with a small split shot to catch them. Most of these tasty fish being caught are 10-12 inches, although bigger fish are available for those pier fishers with a little luck.
Capt. Aaron Lowman at Island Discount Tackle is casting baits to schooling tarpon with some regularity, and his hookups are occurring on the morning tides around Bean Point and Egmont Key.
For bait, Lowman is using live shiners or threadfin herring. Silver bombers exceeding 150 pounds are being caught, although most are in the 100-pound range.
Lowman also is fishing the nearshore artificial reefs for mangrove snapper, using live shiners for bait. His clients are reeling up 16-inch snapper, with a few bigger specimens mixed in.
On the flats of Anna Maria Sound, he’s putting his clients on good numbers of catch-and-release snook. Free-lined shiners are resulting in fish mostly 20-26 inches, but chances of hooking a big one are good.
Finally, by fishing deep grass flats, Lowman is finding slot-size spotted seatrout for his clients’ coolers. These fish are reacting to free-lined shiners and shiners under a popping cork.
Capt. Rick Gross of Fishy Business Charters is still chasing and catching tarpon on a daily basis. Threadfin herring, crabs and shiners are producing bites for his clients. Schools of fish are being found in the passes around Bean Point and Egmont Key during the morning tides. During the afternoons, the fish are dispersing to the sandbars around Passage Key and Bean Point. Average size is 100-150 pounds.
When not targeting tarpon, Gross is migrating to some of the artificial reefs and ledges. The targeted fish is mangrove snapper, although a variety of other species are biting, including Key West grunts, flounder, trigger fish, Spanish mackerel and schooley kingfish. Live shiners and shrimp are the bait of choice.
Finally, if you’re looking for backwater action, Gross is targeting catch-and-release snook on the flats of Terra Ceia Bay. Along with snook, Gross is finding limits of take-home spotted seatrout and redfish. Live shiners free-lined or fished under a popping cork are producing the bite.
Capt. Warren Girle continues to work along the beaches of Anna Maria Island as well as in the passes of Bean Point and Egmont Key for tarpon hookups.
Girle is free-lining live crabs to produce a bite. When not pitching crabs, Girle likes to use threadfin herring or large shiners for bait. Multiple hookups of fish 100-150 pounds are occurring during morning and afternoon trips.
Moving inshore, Girle is targeting redfish around small mangrove islands during high tides. He’s leading his clients to slot-size and over-slot size fish. Live shiners or fresh-cut chunks of ladyfish are Girle’s “go-to” baits for the reds.
Lastly, Girle is catching spotted seatrout and catch-and-release snook on the flats of Sarasota Bay, and free-lined shiners are producing the bite.
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