Something underneath Paul Winkle's dock had been terrorizing him all week. "First it devoured an 8-inch mullet," the 50-year-old marketing specialist said of the mysterious creature lurking near his seawall. "Then it ate four hand-sized pinfish." Winkle, a veteran angler, suspected the beast was a gag grouper that had followed the schools of bait inshore as the waters of the Gulf of Mexico cooled with the approach of fall. "Every year it is the same thing," Winkle said. "Come late October, the gag grouper start to move into the shallow water."
Winkle, who fishes off his dock most mornings and every night, was hoping to catch a big snook. "This time of year you can see them swimming around the dock lights," he said.
But the bait, be it mullet or pinfish, instinctively avoided the predators of open water and sought shelter under the dock.
"There was nothing I could do," he said. "Every time the bait got under the dock — Wham! It broke me off."
Small gag grouper are a familiar sight on the grass flats along the west coast of Florida.
A deep-water species more commonly associated with offshore wrecks and ledges, gag grouper spend the early stages of their life cycle in estuaries such as Tampa Bay before moving offshore to spawn.
Every year when the water temperature dips below 80 degrees, huge schools of baitfish migrate inshore, attracting everything from cobia to king mackerel.
Anglers used to seeing 12- to 16-inch grouper suddenly begin seeing 22- to 26-inch grouper in water as shallow as 6 feet. These legal-sized fish tend to congregate around structure such as residential docks, artificial reefs and along deep drop-offs such as the Egmont shipping channel.
For decades, anglers have trolled hard-bodied plugs on planers along the edge of the channel, which drops to a depth of 40 feet in most places.
Ten-pounders are not uncommon, and 12- to 15-pound grouper are caught from time to time by experienced fishermen.
On the Nature Coast, where the shallow shelf extends farther into the gulf than it does in Pinellas County, anglers look forward to November so they can fish the rock piles in water as shallow as 10 feet.
"You can catch them pretty much at will," said Seth Leto, who operates Pristine Florida Fishing guide service. "From now through the end of December, the gag grouper fishing in shallow water is just phenomenal."
Leto, who works the area from Tarpon Springs to Hudson, likes to anchor on a spot and chum with a mixture of live and dead bait.
"I try to get them going with the whitebait, then once they are feeding, I'll throw down pinfish, grunts, even mullet," Leto said. "The bigger the bait, the bigger the fish you will catch."
Leto's customers love inshore grouper trips because they only have to run a fraction of the distance they run to catch grouper during the summer.
"We catch big gags pretty consistently," he added.
After a week of close calls, Winkle had finally had enough.
"I got rid of the spinning rod and went and got my big rod rigged with 50-pound test," he said.
The frustrated fisherman tied on pinfish No. 5 and dangled it off the edge of the dock. The gag grouper that had been terrorizing him all week grabbed the bait and dragged it into the rocks.
"But this time I wasn't going to let it get loose," Winkle said. "So I gave it some line, and I sat back and relaxed."
Ten minutes later, Winkle's rod tip began to wiggle.
"I waited until it swam out from underneath the dock and then I hauled it in," he said. "The fish measured 28¾ inches and weighed 11.2 pounds."
A few nights later, Winkle returned to the dock after dusk to try to catch one of the snook swimming around his dock lights.
"The same thing happened again. … There must be another one down there," he said. "But I tell you, I'm going to catch that one, too."