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November 07, 2013

Now’s the Time to Fish Florida’s Gulf Coast Grouper in Shallow Water

Grouper on a fly or lure in 5 feet of water? Try this overlooked and exciting fall fishery!

Serious grouper-fishing enthusiasts watch their depth sounders for the right habitat and structure where they’ll drop baits using heavy lead sinkers or troll big-lipped deep-diving plugs.

So how is Capt. William Toney catching grouper without using a sounder, deep-divers or even sinkers?

Toney targets them in 3 to 10 feet of water in his home fishing grounds around Homosassa on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The secret of course is know when and where.

When Gulf water temperatures dip in late fall, gag grouper move up onto the flats in good numbers. Sight-casting to grouper? You bet. “They’ll nail a topwater plug or a fly (with a 12-weight, minimum), and even jerk baits rigged for trout,” Toney says.

Odds of sight-casting success increase with some shrimp chum —the grouper responding less to the bits of shrimp than to the smaller fishes’ frenzy.

“This also  helps draw them away from their rock or hole, so you have a better chance of landing them before they can take you into structure,” says Toney.

Few anglers who fish here ever realize just how many grouper spend time during fall and spring living in the clear shallows. That’s because they tend to hide in/around rocks or well down inside the holes which often lead into the many freshwater springs that bubble up in the porous Gulf floor here.

Toney’s always looking for such spots since they can be gold mines.

He cites a fall morning when he spotted some redfish. When he stealthily worked his way closer, they turned out to be grouper — which promptly disappeared “down a hole the size of basketball,” the guide says. “If I hadn’t happened to see that, I never would have noticed that spot.” Now it’s one of 150 or so waypoints in Toney’s GPS, all in less than 10 feet of water where grouper gather.

“I guard these spots with my life!” he says, and avoids excessive exploitation. His anglers release many grouper, which may be sublegal in size or out of season, but also larger ones for conservation reasons (though he acknowledges that there’s nothing wrong with keeping a few legal fish for dinner).

Toney says the best grouper fishing inshore will be on a rising tide (but not around the full moon, since then there may be too much tidal current).

He cautions against fishing too light, preferring 30-pound braid but occasionally just 20-pound. Lighter than that and the odd big boy will hand you your posterior parts on a plate, says Toney.

He admits that it’s hard to beat a live pinfish, but when the grouper bite is on, the fun quotient is highest when casting and retrieving plugs such as Bomber Long A’s and Rapala F14s. (Gold, gold/silver and mullet rank high among favored colors.) Shallow-water grouper also find soft plastics hard to pass up. Toney’s fave is a D.O.A. 6-inch shrimp in a natural color. “It’s a big bait, and you can let it sink right by a grouper’s nose and then twitch it.”

While there are always “shorts” around, grouper in this fishery often run 8 pounds or so —  which is a good fish for a few feet of water — and Toney’s caught them as large as 20 pounds.

While finding gags in the shallow rock piles and hidden springs that dot this coastline isn’t always easy, for those who know where to look, it can be a remarkable way to target grouper.

For more information on fishing Florida, go to Visit Florida.