Wednesday, June 20, 2018

For grouper, you don't have to get in too deep

Rick Spratt is a liar. He had to be, I thought to myself. "We are catching some big grouper pretty close to shore," he said. "They are in shallow water, not more than 5 feet, and they are hungry." Spratt, raised in Citrus County, must have thought this city boy from St. Petersburg had never been bottom fishing before. "Come on," I said, incredulously, "5 feet of water? You've got to be kidding." Spratt broke into a big country grin. "I'll show you," he said.

We had planned to catch trout and redfish, but when Spratt pulled up at the dock at MacRae's of Homosassa, the fishing guide decided to let me in on a little local secret.

Most anglers, this writer included, think of grouper as a deepwater species. I've had my share of grouper trips in the past 25 years, but never in water where I can see the pinfish darting through the sea grass.

Like most apex predators, grouper prefer structure from which to ambush their prey. So you usually find them lurking around wrecks, artificial reefs and rock ledges, with edges sharp enough to slice heavy monofilament fishing line as if it were kite string.

But catching grouper on the scallop beds, where the trout and reds are known to roam, sounded like wishful thinking to me.

This stretch of coast, however, is full of surprises. The natural limestone bottom is full of cracks, fissures and vents that lead to the freshwater aquifer.

The Nature Coast is known for its underwater caves, which can be accessed by trained scuba divers both on land and at sea.

"Don't tell anybody about this spot," Spratt cautioned as he dropped anchor about 5 miles from shore. "The grouper are usually here, and I want to keep it that way."

Gag grouper are notorious tackle busters. They will grab a bait then head for the safety of the nearest rock, hole or ledge, often leaving a slow-reacting angler with nothing but a curled piece of frayed line.

This particular species of grouper, Mycteroperca microlepis, is known to move into shallow water when the weather turns cold, but the water temperature was still in the 80s, a sure sign that fall had yet to really arrive.

This fish, common to 25 pounds and a favorite of anglers and spearfishermen, is often confused with a true denizen of the deep, the black grouper, which is common to 40 pounds but sometimes exceeds 100.

Grouper, like many of the state's commercial and recreational saltwater species, spend at least some portion of their lives in nearshore waters. Undeveloped coastal areas, such as those found around the mouth of the Homosassa River, are important to the future of the state's fisheries.

But Spratt insisted we were not fishing for babies. "There are big fish in here," he said as he handed me a baited rod. "They are all keepers."

The dead sardine hit the water about 20 feet from the boat. I reeled up the line to take out the slack and waited. Then the line went taught.

"Reel, reel, reel!" Spratt yelled. "You've got a big one!"

The fight lasted about 15 seconds, then the line went limp.

"Broke me off," I said. "That was a big fish."

Spratt examined the end of my line. The 50-pound test was no match for the beast below.

"I think we'll go a little bigger," Spratt said, handing me an outfit rigged with 100-pound test line.

This time, I would be ready, I said to myself. There'd be no hesitation. As soon as I felt the slightest tap, I'd set the hook and turn the grouper's head. Ten feet of line and the battle would be over.

"That's a keeper!" Spratt yelled as I hauled the fish out of the hole. "Keep reeling."

The second time was a charm. The grouper, just shy of 30 inches and weighing 12 pounds, was caught in 5 feet of water.

"You weren't lying now were you?" I asked Spratt.

"Nope," he said. "But don't tell anybody. This is our little secret."

Rick Spratt can be reached via Facebook or call him at (352) 302-1606.


Captainís Corner: Itís a good time to focus on snook

Snook have been a main focus on my most recent trips. This time of year, snook inhabit the beaches, gathering in the ditches and swashes along shore. Jetties or rock structures are also a favorite habitat for snook to lurk, looking to ambush bait fis...
Published: 06/18/18
Updated: 06/19/18

Captainís Corner: Tips on targeting American Red Snapper

American Red Snapper (ARS) season opened a few days ago and some types of bottom are holding bigger schools of ARS then other bottom types. The hard bottom areas that most fishermen prefer are holding large schools of ARS, but the fish have yet to m...
Published: 06/18/18

Captainís Corner: Trout bite at its best

The trout bite has been the best Iíve seen all year. Fish up to 26 inches have been common recently. Fish are sitting on the flatsí deeper edges, where the water is deeper and cooler, and moves a little more swiftly. Live sardines and hard plastic ba...
Published: 06/16/18
Updated: 06/17/18

Captainís Corner: Fishing this month is all about diversity

This is the month of diverse opportunity. The choice of species is unlimited, as long as you have the bait. You can target snook and tarpon in the morning, then fish for Spanish mackerel, bluefish, snapper, sharks and cobia in the afternoon. The tarp...
Published: 06/15/18

Captainís Corner: When itís tarpon time, itís also shark time

Tarpon get most of the attention when talking about exciting fly action for large fish in our area. Baitfish are more prolific, and large tarpon follow their forage and populate most of our local waters. Following them are fish that consider tarpon t...
Published: 06/12/18
Updated: 06/14/18

Captainís Corner: This is your best time for tarpon fishing

Now is the best time to target tarpon. Silver kings are cruising the beaches on their yearly migration up and down the stateís west coast. This weekís strong new moon tides and the strong full moon tides in two weeks provide some of the best action f...
Published: 06/12/18
Updated: 06/13/18

Captainís Corner: Turn attention to gag grouper and red snapper

Attention has turned to gag grouper and red snapper for many offshore fishermen. Red snapper can be best targeted in waters 105 feet and deeper, with some available in water as shallow as 60 feet. Although the snapper will be found on high profile st...
Published: 06/11/18
Updated: 06/12/18

Captainís Corner: Pompano popping up at passes, along beach

Over the past few weeks, pompano have started to appear around the passes and along the beach. These tasty members of the jack family are one of the most difficult fish to find and keep track of. Just when you think youíve figured out a reliable time...
Published: 06/10/18
Updated: 06/11/18

Captainís Corner: Many fish now in their deep summer areas

Many fish have moved into their deep summer areas. This has been the pattern the past week. Snook are in their spawning areas waiting for the tide and moon to align. Iíve been leaving them alone and opting for the more steady action trout have been p...
Published: 06/08/18
Updated: 06/10/18

Captainís Corner: Pompano in the spotlight

Pompano are arriving at the locations where they will be found for the next six months. The most underutilized species in Tampa Bay, pompano are not only among the best to have for dinner, they fight great. Targeting pompano is pretty easy. You have ...
Published: 06/05/18
Updated: 06/07/18