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Captain's Corner

Fall grouper heed casting call

Grouper like this one caught by Capt. Mark Magnuson will hit shallow diving plugs cast across limestone outcroppings.

DAVID A. BROWN | Special to the Times

Grouper like this one caught by Capt. Mark Magnuson will hit shallow diving plugs cast across limestone outcroppings.

It's not unusual for anglers to find lures lost by others. Occasionally, you might even run across one of your own wayward baits.

That's usually an inshore thing.

When Capt. Mark Magnuson spotted a red-and-white object floating some 5 miles offshore, what were the chances of him recognizing that plug?

Pretty good, actually. That's because Magnuson had lost that shallow running plug to a grouper that had blasted the bait and promptly lodged himself in the limestone outcropping some 6 feet from the surface.

As is often the case, Magnuson had broken off the lure, moved on to fish another spot then returned to the spot of his loss. Grouper will often shake dangling lures from their mouths and the hardware floats topside.

When and where

With fall bringing grouper closer to shore, one of the most exciting ways to catch these fish is plug casting around the limestone outcroppings common to the North Suncoast. October sees gag grouper swarming to these rocky reefs in 10-15 feet.

The waters from Hernando Beach to Chassohowitzka and northward into Citrus County hold numerous rock piles ranging in size from sofas to minivans. With plenty of hidey holes and undercut edges, these structures offer comfy abodes for grouper to hide, while abundant baitfish keep them well fed.

Those who've previously fished the rocks keep GPS coordinates for productive sites. Newcomers are wise to look for crab trap buoys, as crabbers place their traps near the same hard bottom that grouper like.

Also look for dark shadows amid the light green of shallow water. Trolling your diving lures is a good way to cover water and locate fish. Once you pick up a strike, mark the spot on your GPS, anchor within casting range and probe the structure.

Tools of the trade

Grouper will occasionally rise to hit a topwater lure, but the most effective offering for the shallow rock scenario is a diving plug — something with a short lip designed to run about 3 to 5 feet below the surface.

When retrieved quickly, these lures wiggle and flash in a tantalizing display that rings the grouper's dinner bell. Appearance is important, but grouper respond aggressively to the lure's vibrations, which imitate fleeing forage.

Grouper will test every inch of your tackle, so serious anglers often replace their lures' standard hooks with extra strong ones.

Presentation and response

Casting directly to a rock pile limits your presentation because the lure won't reach its effective depth immediately. Throw past the structure and reel like crazy to get your lure deep and simulate fleeing prey.

As for the strike, well, imagine you are an NFL receiver who just caught a pass on a crossing route. Expect a bone-jarring hit and if you remember one thing, here it is: hold on to that rod. No kidding, grouper have been known to confiscate gear from the ill-prepared.

Make it through the initial shock and your only concern is keeping your fish out of the rocky crevice he will invariably seek.

The right gear helps, but so does proper form. A high overhead rod posture comes naturally to most, but you'll turn a fish faster with a firm sidearm pressure. Stand sideways toward the rocks, hold your rod tip low and pivot at your waist to impart maximum pressure.

Grouper are strong fighters, but if you can keep the fish from reaching the rocks, he'll soon tire.

Stay safe

Handle your caught grouper with caution. These fish have short, but very sharp teeth that will shred your fingers, so lip gripping is out.

The gill plates make a handy alternative, but beware the hidden hazards. A grouper has several rows of jagged gill rakers just under the gill covers. These sharp spikes will punish intrusive fingers.

Your safest bet is to slip your fingers just under the edge of the gill plate, slide them along the inner surface and grip the outside with your thumb.

The other concern will be the one you added — the lure. Grouper plugs have two or three sets of trebles and that many barbs shaking around create a severe hazard, so get a firm grip, hold fast and use a long handle hook remover or needlenose pliers to safely remove the lure.

Fall grouper heed casting call 10/23/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 23, 2009 3:59pm]
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