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October 26, 2001

Great Gobs of Grouper

No gag - A southwest Florida favorite regroups.

Little more than a year ago, anglers could barely boat a legal-size grouper along Florida's southwest coast. Their laments went something like this: "Man, we caught a hundred grouper and could've caught more, but there wasn't a one of them that was bigger than 19 inches." Or: "You can't buy a keeper grouper in these waters." And the ultimate dissing (non-profane version): "Grouper fishing? It stinks. Period."
What a difference a year makes. "We had one of the best winters on record," says Dean T. Hicks, an avid offshore angler and former tackle-shop owner who lives in Bonita Beach. Capt. J.R. Rossetti of Naples considers last winter the best season for gag and red grouper he's seen in a long time. Capt. Buddy Tomei, a former commercial fisherman who now runs the Naples-based Pico sport-fisher, certifies the resurgence. "It's comeback time," he avers, and he's got good supporting evidence. "When I hear of fish being caught, I'll go out and dive the spot," he says. "Usually, I will see more fish there.
And if the area gets fished out, I see new keeper-size grouper back within a week to replace the ones taken by anglers. That wasn't always the case." Good grouper ground generally lies from one to 50 miles offshore on wrecks, artificial reefs and hard-bottom hangouts.
The Comeback Kind
What's at the root of the grouper resurgence? Explanations vary. "Everything is cyclic in nature, and these good catches apparently reflect strong year classes coming up through the ranks," says Lew Bullock, a fisheries biologist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Marine Research Laboratory in St. Petersburg. Bullock looks back five or six years, when today's legal-size grouper were spawned. "It is tempting to think that Hurricane Andrew stirred up nutrients that fed prey items for all these hungry grouper," he offers. "Or, perhaps the numbers of predatory fish on these juvenile grouper somehow diminished due to storm displacement. We've had instances of hurricanes redistributing gag grouper to the point that anglers were catching them off the piers and beaches, something virtually unheard of during normal conditions."
It simply could be the weather or water temperature, offers Capt. Curt Thomas of Naples. Or changes in size and bag limits that federal and state agencies phased in, increasing the minimum-length limit from 18 inches and cutting the bag limit from 10 to five. The tighter limits provided some much-needed relief for slow-growing grouper.
"Moving commercial fish traps farther offshore is helping the comeback," offers Tomei, who believes the fishing could get even better. "The bycatch of undersized fish made me sick. If we get rid of traps completely, we'll see a big comeback."
Indeed, this could even be a false resurgence. "Grouper stocks may be so diminished by natural events like red tides or overfishing that the surviving individuals do not have much competition for food," Bullock says. "So they may be growing very rapidly and reaching maturity at a younger age than normal."
Sport fishermen also may be responsible for some of their own good luck with grouper. Hicks credits the improvement, at least partly, to more acceptance of different although not necessarily new grouper-fishing methods. "Anglers have long overlooked techniques like trolling," he says. "This method works best in 17 feet of water or less. If you use the right lures - ones designed to dive - you can troll without downriggers." He likes to troll a purple and a red-and-white CD18 Rapala Magnum at about 5 mph, causing them to dive 8 to 12 feet deep. That's close enough to the bottom to tempt big gags and reds to momentarily leave the safety of their rocky hideouts and take a whack at a lure.
"The great thing about this type of fishing is that you do it close to shore," Hicks adds. "Less than a mile offshore, between Wiggins Pass and the Naples pier, there is extensive limestone-rock bottom that holds fish. It's a perfect place to try trolling, especially on days when there is a strong east wind kicking the water up farther out in the Gulf." Hicks also trolls in deeper water, but that requires switching to deeper-diving baits, going to a downrigger or using planers. "In 20 feet or more of water, I'll use the same colors but go to a Mann's Stretch 25+ or a Stretch 30+."
Rossetti, on the other hand, speculates that his fishing improved because the growing number of anglers venturing offshore in search of snapper and grouper forced him to change his grouper-hunting tactics. "It's well known that the farther offshore you go, the better the chances are of catching keepers," the Naples charter captain says. "I usually go 40 miles out because inside of that the boats seem to be all over the place."
Keep It Simple
No matter where anglers look for gags and reds, fishing for them doesn't have to be fancy. Thomas keeps it basic aboard his offshore boat, the Stalker, a 40-foot Jersey Dawn sport-fisher. "I use 50- or 80-pound-test line with 3 to 6 ounces of lead and a 5/0 straight-shank hook. That's all, no leader." Many of his clients are meat anglers, and he wants them to get fish to the boat: "With this heavy tackle, if we hook a fish, we get that fish."
On the Deanna Marie, Hicks carries typical bottom-fishing offshore tackle. "I start with a quality reel, like a Penn International 12 or Fin-Nor LD-12 with good gears and a lever drag," he says. He spools up with 40-pound line and attaches about 18 inches of 60-pound four-color camo leader material to the end, connecting the two lines with a number-7 black barrel swivel. Hicks employs a sliding sinker and uses roughly 1 ounce for every 10 feet of water depth and a 6/0 wide-gap hook.
Rossetti prefers a longer, 3- to 5-foot leader and hooks ranging from 5/0 to 8/0, while Tomei adjusts his tackle according to his customers' experience. "If they're good anglers, I'll use 3 to 4 feet of 40-pound-test leader material, but if they're less experienced, then I lengthen it to 6 feet and go with 80-pound-test leader." The beefier leader offers uninitiated grouper anglers more abrasion resistance, which helps when they violate the grouper grabber's cardinal law: To get the fish to the boat, turn the fish's head away from the bottom - and do it in the first five seconds.
Obeying that law largely determines whether anglers get the fish to the surface or leave it on the bottom. A slow reaction lets many a grouper win the battle. "That one was a keeper for sure" are the falsely consoling words too often heard after this all-too-common mistake.
Rossetti tries to coach anglers on the Kay-De II, a custom-built 42-foot Fitz sport-fisher. "When the fish hits, I tell them to raise the rod as high as they can - at least up to their shoulders - then drop the rod tip down as fast as they can while reeling up the slack," he says. "If they can do this two or three times as soon as they feel the hit, the fish should be 10 to 12 feet off the bottom, and they'll get it to the boat." The error many anglers make, Rossetti adds, results from a natural tendency to "just hold the pole up in a stalemate with the fish. With groupers, the fish usually wins."
The Gulf of Mexico off southwest Florida's coast resembles an underwater desert of flat, featureless sand bottom, but it holds a scattering of grouper oases. Grouper usually hang out in two types of places. Some of these refuges are big, but many are small. The big patches of hard bottom show up as distinct zigzag lines on fish finders and make perfect places for drifts on all but the roughest and windiest days. Anglers without GPS coordinates should look for the "hrd" markings on charts. Although these can make good grouper grounds, fishermen find even better spots on pinpoints of relief associated with ledges, small patches of hard bottom and the infamous "private reefs" secretly placed by charter captains and dedicated recreational anglers. Though the relief along these patches of hard bottom seldom exceeds 2 or 3 feet, the clandestine reefs look like mountains when compared to sandy bottom on a fish finder and attract some good-size fish even when no more than 5 or 10 feet in diameter.
Good Grouper Grub
The grouper's tastes run from gourmand to gourmet. Cut squid and Spanish sardines, the Vienna sausages of the fish-bait world, work just as well as top-shelf entrees like live pinfish and squirrel-fish. Thomas, in his keep-to-the-basics approach, sticks with cut bait because it works so well for him. Tomei prefers live bait and uses a variety of species, most of which he catches over hard-bottom areas with light spinning tackle. "In the fall and winter, I tend to have better luck using pinfish and squirrel-fish, while in the spring thread herring and greenies seem to work better," he says.
Hicks always carries cut bait on board and keeps at least one line adorned with a piece of squid or sardine. "I like to mix it up with baits," he says. "If I have four lines in the water, I'll have four different baits down, if possible."
Gags and reds will fall for trolled artificials, and jigging at anchor or adrift over a hard bottom will also work. "If you want to fish for grouper with spinning tackle," says Hicks, "then try a jig." He uses a hand-tied 1 1/2-ounce yellow jig with a hint of pink: "If a fish is nearby and it decides to hit the lure, there is an explosion of activity. I use this rig for less-experienced anglers since they are more likely to have had past experience with a spinner than a boat rig." He uses a Fin-Nor Ahab 16 spooled with 20-pound line and mounted on a stiff rod.
Some Gulf grouper anglers entice groupers with chum. "Often the chum will get the grouper to leave their rocky hiding places and come up for a bite," Tomei explains. It's also one of the most effective ways to stir up some mangrove snapper action, which adds tasty variety to the fish box. But chumming can also bring uninvited guests. Grouper anglers usually want to put some meat in the fish box, and they tend to regard anything other than a gag or red grouper or a snapper as a real distraction. When I fished aboard the Deanna Marie, other species of fish constantly pestered Hicks and his wife, Terry, my daughter Emily, her friend Mark Williams and me while we waited for the keepers to bite. Sharks swarmed all around, and although they put up a good fight, we lost a lot of tackle from breakoffs as our lines rubbed against their sandpaper skin. Once I watched Hicks toss out a chum tube - a piece of PVC pipe with holes drilled in it - and tie it off a few feet below the surface. We fished for a while. When the action didn't pick up, Hicks decided to check the tube, only to pull up a frayed end of rope. The tube was gone. "I think a shark got it," he said.
Although grouper anglers sometimes land sharks, they run almost no chance of bringing up big jewfish - living anchors of the sea. With a permanently closed season on the grouper family's jumbo species, most anglers don't want to bother with them, even though, according to Hicks, "there's a ton of jewfish around." Though he occasionally hooks these large fish while fishing for gags and reds, he seldom gets to see them. "When the rod really bends, and the fish just swims away like it doesn't even know or care that it's hooked," he says, "you know it's a jewfish and there's no hope of getting it to the boat."
These fish carry a reputation - deserved or not - for chasing away or eating their competition, including legal reds and gags. (In a limited study, Bullock found that jewfish stomachs contained crabs and slow-moving fish but no mangrove snapper or grouper.)
Hicks, like many anglers, wonders if state and federal regulators will ever open the jewfish season again. Not likely, says Bullock: "Fishery managers want to see the juveniles that were alive at the time of the ban grow to maturity and contribute to spawning before they make any changes." While that's years away, another problem may prevent the season from ever opening even if the population continues to grow. According to Bullock, jewfish "contain more mercury than most of the fish we have examined. It would be dangerous for children or pregnant women to eat them if their contamination with mercury is as widespread as it appears."
In any event, their smaller grouper cousins should offer plenty of action. Last winter's resurgence has been confirmed by above-average success with gags and reds through the summer and fall. "I don't see any reason why grouper fishing won't continue to be this good into the future," Hicks says. This is one comeback that may last.
Kris Thoemke, regional editor of Sport Fishing's Florida Edition, lives in southwest Florida and has fished the region for more than 20 years. A marine biologist, he is author of Fishing Florida (Falcon Press) and hosts "Florida Outdoors," a weekly talk show on WINK-AM 1200 and WNOG 1270-AM in southwest Florida.