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.