What's hot: The trips that the weather allowed us to take the past week provided an almost non-stop litany of assorted bottom fish that included catch-and-release red and gag grouper of all sizes, white grunts, triggerfish, puffers, scamp, porgies, mangrove snapper and even a few yellowtail snapper. Red and lane snapper were not added to the list because we ventured offshore only to 50-foot depths.
Tactics: Now that grouper season is closed, we are targeting the smaller-mouthed reef fish that were formerly a bycatch of grouper fishing. Two hooked "snapper rigs" that can be purchased or made up are our terminal tackle of choice. They are fished with a 3- to 4-ounce sinker on the bottom as opposed to the standard grouper rig, with the sinker ahead of the leader and hook. Circle hooks are mandated and 1/0 and 2/0 sizes work very well when baited with 2-inch strips of squid. It is difficult to catch a smaller fish on a large hook, but catching a large fish when using small hooks has become routine.
Tip: After 10 to 15 minutes of activity, bait a standard grouper rig with a whole Spanish sardine or live pinfish and drop it to the bottom. We have caught keeper-sized gag grouper (if they were in season) on almost every spot that we have fished recently. It appears that they are drawn into the area by the activity and become frustrated by the smaller, quicker reef fish grabbing the baits. When presented with that larger bait they pounce on it immediately.
Dave Zalewski charters the Lucky Too out of Madeira Beach and can be reached at Luckytoo2@aol.com or (727) 397-8815.