Fish regulators will close the gag grouper season early this year in federal waters, leaving anglers scrambling to get in one last trip or two during any favorable weather windows. In South Atlantic federal waters, the gag grouper season closes on Oct. 23. For Gulf anglers, the gag season ends Oct. 19 in federal waters. The state of Florida will mirror federal regulations, closing state waters to gag grouper fishing on the same days in October.
“It’s been a good year for gag grouper,” says Capt. Jarrod Tuttle, of Driftwood Charters in Daytona Beach, Florida. “Fishing also gets better when its colder, as the grouper move in a bit closer. There are going to be some angry anglers about the early closure.”
In years past, recreational anglers blazed offshore, chasing oversized gag grouper late into the year. In the southeast, the winter months were prime time for bottom fishing, all the way up to December.
“This will be the first time that the recreational season has closed early for Gag in the South Atlantic,” says Kim Iverson, public information officer for the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. “This year’s closures for both the recreational and commercial sectors are due to the reduction catch limits. There’s also the annual spawning season closure for shallow water grouper in South Atlantic federal waters January 1 through April 30.”
The Gulf federal recreational gag season in the recent past, including 2021 and 2022, started on June 1 and was open until the end of the year, points out Dan Luers, with NOAA Fisheries. But gag grouper are currently undergoing overfishing in Atlantic and Gulf waters, according to NOAA, leading to tightened management plans and interim measures.
“I will 100 percent lose charters over the early closure,” says Capt. Ryan Harrington, of No Bananas Sportfishing in Tampa Bay, Florida. “Already, I’ve had about a dozen people cancel. Who knows how many more would have booked if the season was open until Dec 31.”
Harrington mentioned he’s noticing good numbers of gag grouper, especially inshore.
“I fish for them year-round as bycatch,” he said. “I have seen as many this year as I have any other year. I’ve actually seen more of the small juvenile females on the flats than previously. I’m catching 6 to 12 gags on artificials every charter while targeting seatrout.”
Gag Grouper Rebuilding Plans
The Gulf gag grouper rebuilding plan is part of Amendment 56 to the Fishery Management Plan, developed by the Gulf Council. The Southeast Fishery Science Center calculated that 2023’s Gulf catch limit must not surpass 661,901 pounds to be consistent with Amendment 56’s timeline. (Amendment 56 has not officially been implemented yet, but NOAA Fisheries is required to implement the amendment by January 26, 2024.)
In the Atlantic, Amendment 53 to the Snapper Grouper Fishery Management Plan incorporates gag grouper’s rebuilding guidelines, running from 2023 to 2032. For 2023, the total annual catch limit is equal to the acceptable biological catch of 175,632 pounds gutted weight.