Check your terminal tackle and put new line on those reels. The wait is over: Gag grouper season opens Monday in the Gulf of Mexico.
Offshore anglers have spent the months in port waiting for the chance to catch these prized bottom fish, once the mainstay for Florida's west coast charter boat fleets.
The season closed Oct. 31 and the species has been off limits (except in one four-county region in northwest Florida) since, causing headaches not only for anglers but tackle manufacturers and bait shops as well.
"We have probably seen more than 500 of our accounts go out of business this year alone," said Bobby Aylesworth, whose St. Petersburg-based bait company sells squid and sardines throughout the Southeast. "These long closures have hurt everybody across the board, from boat dealers to mom-and-pop bait shops."
Largo's Eric Bachnik, whose family has been making MirrOlures for decades, said he has seen a noticeable drop-off in his offshore business.
"People have just stopped going out," he said. "There has to be a better way to manage this fishery."
Gag grouper will remain open in most gulf waters (except state waters off Franklin, Wakulla, Jefferson and Taylor counties) through Dec. 3. The season in that four-county region opened April 1 and closes Sunday. The minimum size limit is still 22 inches and the bag limit is two fish per day.
Joe Georgia of Seminole's Dogfish Tackle said he has seen a boost in sales during the past week as offshore anglers rush to replenish their tackle boxes.
Here's Georgia's list of "must-have" items for this year's grouper season:
Venting Tool: It is the law to carry one. Vent the fish properly, behind the pectoral fin closer to the belly, until all the air is out.
Dehooking Devices: These are also required by law, and when used properly, they can be a fisherman's best friend. Dehooking devices allow you to retrieve the hook from your catch without touching the fish's body.
4/0 Conventional Combo: A 4/0-sized reel paired with a quality, heavy-action rod should be your gear of choice. Spool the reel with 50- to 60-pound monofilament line and you'll bring them up from 100 feet or more.
Circle Hooks: Who says the government never had a good idea? Required in both state (shoreline to 9 miles out in the gulf) and federal waters (beyond 9 miles in the gulf) when bottom fishing, these contraptions reduce the chance of gut-hooking a fish. Most major hook companies make circle hooks, but a local favorite is the Gamakatsu 209417 7/0 4x.
Swivels: Many anglers using heavy tackle use too light of a swivel. When the diameter of the line is bigger than the swivel, under pressure, the swivel will act like a razor blade and cut the line. So go big to land the big one.
Spro bucktail jigs: Live bait isn't always the answer. Sometimes an artificial lure will trigger a bite when everything else fails. A 4-ounce bucktail jig bounced off the bottom can be a fish grabber.
Shimano Butterfly Jigs: Grouper don't just hug the bottom waiting for a pinfish or sardine to swim by. You'll often find these traditional bottom feeders 10 to 30 feet off the bottom. Butterfly jigs have good vertical action and a proven reputation for grouper and snapper.
Fluorocarbon Leaders: The competition will be fierce offshore, but you can get the edge on your mono-loving angler comrades by using fluorocarbon leaders. These leaders, in 60- to 80-pound test are virtually invisible in the water and they are highly abrasion resistant.
Slip Egg Lead: Using a slip lead as opposed to a swivel lead will let you feel the bite before losing your bait. A slip lead lets the line slide freely, but you can still feel the slightest bite.