What's hot: The weather has kept boats in port most days, but when we get into the gulf the bottom fishing is spectacular. Red and gag grouper have been active in clearer water, which means venturing to the 50- to 60-foot depths. Catch-and-release is the norm because of the grouper closure, which went into effect Feb. 1 and continues through March 31. There are many other species to target. White grunts, triggerfish, porgies and mangrove snapper all provide excellent table fare.
Tactics: The fish we are able to keep are all smaller and have correspondingly smaller mouths. This requires downsizing tackle, though can be caught on the 5/0 or larger hooks that are used for grouper. A 1/0 or 2/0 circle hook is best, used either alone or on a two-hook rig in which the sinker is placed below the hooks. Use 20-pound class spinning or conventional outfits, the same used for kingfish, to make it easier to feel the strike.
Tip: Mangrove snapper are abundant on most ledges and artificial reefs, but they are difficult to catch when using typical grouper terminal tackle. Chumming with small pieces of Spanish sardines and switching to "knocker rigs" or small jig heads with the same sized pieces of sardine is the key to outwitting these bait stealers. A knocker rig consists of a sliding sinker on the fluorocarbon leader that is allowed to "knock" against the hook.
Dave Zalewski charters the Lucky Too out of Madeira Beach. Call (727) 397-8815.