ST. PETERSBURG — After more than 20 years on the outdoors beat, you'd think I could get my fishing regulations straight.
But when somebody asks me about grouper season, I have to stop, scratch my head and say, "I have to look that up."
That's not because I'm particularly forgetful, it's just that the rules are so confusing.
Take gag grouper, for example. Before 2011, there was a Feb. 1 through March 31 closed season in the Gulf of Mexico.
Starting in 2011, however, the season was open from Sept. 16 through Nov. 15 in federal waters, which begin 9 miles offshore, but closed Feb. 1 through March 31, June 1 through Sept. 15 and Nov. 16 through Dec. 31 in state waters.
But in 2012, federal waters opened July 1 through Oct. 31. The state season was the same, except for Franklin, Wakulla, Jefferson and Taylor counties, which were open April 1 through June 30.
What about 2013?
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will meet Wednesday and Thursday in Orlando to discuss gag grouper as well as other species of interest to anglers.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the agency that manages fisheries in federal waters, recently decided to open gag grouper season July 1 but close it when the annual catch target has been met which, by best estimates, will take 133-155 days.
This means that gag grouper fishing will probably shut down sometime in November. But this rule must be approved by the Secretary of Commerce before it goes into effect. That decision should come this spring.
In the meantime, the FWC is expected to follow the Gulf Council's lead in most state waters next week in Orlando but stick to a separate, three-month season in the Big Bend region.
Sound simple? It's not.
Remember, these rules apply only to gag grouper. The rest of the shallow-water grouper are governed under a different set of rules.
Red grouper, black grouper (often confused with gag grouper), scamp, yellowfin grouper and yellowmouth grouper used to be closed from Feb. 1 through March 31 shoreward of the 20 fathom break. But the Gulf Council recently voted to eliminate that closed season. That means that offshore anglers can soon fish for grouper (except gag) anytime they want as long as they don't fish in water deeper than 120 feet, where the old, two-month closure will remain.
However, that change also must be approved by the Secretary of Commerce, and that could happen in May.
So while state and federal officials work all this out, remember that grouper season closed Feb. 1 in state and federal waters. That means if you catch a grouper — gag, black, red, yellowmouth, yellowfin; scamp; red hind and rock hind — you have to release it. The season will reopen April 1.
Until then, grouper fishing is strictly catch and release. Studies have shown that using a dehooking device increases a fish's chance of survival, regardless of species. That's why federal and state officials require anglers on any vessel in the Gulf of Mexico to carry and use dehooking devices.
What is a dehooking device? Any tool designed to remove a hook embedded in a fish. Acceptable tools include blunt-nosed pliers, alligator pliers and dehooking forceps. A device that grabs the line, slides down and gets the hook out quickly is preferred because it minimizes damage to the fish.
If the fish has swallowed the hook, it's sometimes better to cut the line as close to the hook as possible. A nonstainless steel hook, which is required, rusts out in just a few days.
A venting tool is also required. When a grouper is brought up from the depths, the gas in the swim bladder can expand and cause injury. In general, fish caught in 50 feet of water or deeper may need to be vented.
A fish needs to be vented (see flseagrant.org for help) if it is floating or has trouble swimming down to the bottom. A sure sign is when the fish's stomach is distended from its mouth.