Sunday, February 18, 2018
Outdoors

Grunts: As good to eat as they are easy to catch

MADEIRA BEACH — White grunts could be the most under appreciated fish in the Gulf of Mexico.

People love to catch grouper and snapper, but these bottom dwellers rival both species as table fare and can be caught by just about any angler, regardless of skill level.

"That's how I built my reputation," joked Dave Zalewski, one of the longest running charter boat captains on the west coast of Florida. "That's why they call me Captain Grunt."

In an industry that has seen hundreds of fishing guides come and go in recent decades, Zalewski has passed the test of time, in part, because of an open mind.

"A lot of people ignore these fish," he said. "But they are great eating and a lot of fun to catch. After all, isn't that what fishing is all about? Having fun?"

Zalewski motored his sportfisherman, Lucky Too, out of the Madeira Beach Marina one recent morning and headed offshore in search of white grunts, the species of choice for an upcoming tournament sponsored by the Old Salt Fishing Club.

"I take a lot of families out fishing," Zalewski said. "I think it is about time somebody came up with a tournament that the average family can participate in."

Zalewski likes to downplay his angling skill. But the 69-year-old guide has caught just about everything that swims in the Gulf of Mexico. He loves his job, and when the catching is done, he likes to strap on a scuba tank and check out his "gardens," the natural patches of exposed limestone that fish such as grouper, snapper and, of course, white grunts call home.

These benthic predators, relatives of the pigfish and tomtate, can be found on offshore hard bottom in up to 115 feet deep. They are most abundant in water 80 feet or less, or about an hour's ride for most fishing boats.

But Zalewski likes to make the most of his fishing day, so a couple of miles from shore, he cut his speed and tossed out a couple of silver spoons trolled behind planers.

"We'll just see what we catch," he told the three young anglers aboard.

It didn't take more than a few minutes before the port rod bent under the weight of a fat Spanish mackerel. More followed suit. Then their big cousins, the king mackerel, arrived. After an hour or so of catching "schoolie" sized kings, the kids started complaining about the soreness in their arms.

"Now we'll go catch some grunts," he said. "I think it will only take us one stop to get dinner."

The great thing about fishing for grunts is they eat just about anything. All you need is a box of frozen squid and circle hooks, and the fish will practically catch themselves.

Grunts get their name from the sound that is amplified by their air bladder when they grind their teeth. The average white grunt, sometimes mistakenly called gray snapper (which in local waters is called the mangrove snapper), usually weighs 1 to 1 1/2 pounds and measures 12 to 15 inches, but larger specimens are not unheard of. In fact, the largest grunt on record weighed 6 pounds, 8 ounces and was caught off Brunswick, Ga., in 1989. But here on the Gulf Coast, an 18-incher is considered a prized catch.

The only downside to fishing for white grunts these days is that they tend to hang around with red and gag grouper. Grouper season is closed, so all grouper caught must be properly vented and released, which some might consider a hassle. Our party, however, considered it fun since we also had Oscar "Butch" Ayala aboard.

Ayala, a research associate with the Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg, gathers data on a variety of bottom fish. On our half-day outing we caught a half-dozen grouper that had been previously caught and tagged by other anglers.

If an angler catches a tagged fish and sends the information to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, he or she gets a free T-shirt. We not only recaptured several tagged fish but we caught and tagged some of our own, which made our young anglers eager to come back and look for "their" fish another day.

"I think we have enough for dinner, and some for Grandma and Grandpa, too," Zalewski said. "I think we should call it a day."

As we motored in, the kids sound asleep on the deck, Zalewski said: "Isn't that something when you have to fight your way through kingfish to go catch grunts. Isn't this a great place to live?"

Comments

Captainís Corner: Bait a challenge, but effort will pay off

Bait has made its way into the bay and is on nearly every marker. The problem: Bait is moving and showing up at different times daily. The time spent to get bait will pay off. Fish have been blasting pilchards. Snook and large trout have been communi...
Published: 02/16/18
Updated: 02/17/18

Captainís Corner: Springtime fishing patterns moving in

The first half of February has been hit or miss for inshore fishing. The consistent cold fronts and warmups seem to have the fish confused. The week ahead should be pretty good. The best bite has been midmorning into the afternoon. With temperatures ...
Published: 02/14/18
Updated: 02/15/18

Captainís Corner: Get an early start when chasing redfish

Redfish schools have started to invade the flats around Pinellas Point. On low tide in the morning, I look for a school on an outer sandbar. These fish are staged on the edge waiting for the tide to come in. Once the water level rises, the fish will ...
Published: 02/13/18

Captainís Corner: Baitfish in the shallows improves fly fishing

Seeing large groups of pelicans diving and catching baitfish in warmer, shallow water is a sure sign spring conditions are approaching. The appearance of quality baitfish will spark a feeding frenzy that should steadily improve flats fishing for fly ...
Published: 02/14/18
Updated: 02/16/18

Captainís Corner: Action picking up as temperature rises

The wind finally stopped blowing so hard that we couldnít go offshore. Water temperatures were still in the low 50s offshore at the beginning of the week, and this affected fish behavior. Because the water was calm, we ventured out to the 80- to 90-f...
Published: 02/11/18
Updated: 02/12/18

Captainís Corner: Topwater plugs a great option as warming trend continues

Warm weather for the past week has led to an increase in feeding activity for inshore fish species. Speckled trout have been venturing out of deep holes and channels and back into shallow water to feed. This has presented a great opportunity to fish ...
Published: 02/10/18
Updated: 02/11/18

Captainís Corner: Sardines make a great bait

Bait has made its way into the bay and the fish have been eating sardines with violent strikes. Look deep for bait, most of it has been in 20-plus feet of water. A little knowledge of how to read a bottom machine will help you secure the prized sardi...
Published: 02/08/18
Updated: 02/10/18

Captainís Corner: Fishing conditions have started to improve

The waters are still a bit cooler than the kind a bunch of fish like to aggressively chew in. Fishing conditions, however, have slowly but surely begun to improve. On a recon mission Tuesday, I visited both Sunshine Skyway bridge fishing piers and th...
Published: 02/08/18
Captainís Corner: Snook among species starting to flourish as water warms

Captainís Corner: Snook among species starting to flourish as water warms

This has been a cold year thus far as fronts have blasted the Tampa Bay area. Now things are beginning to warm up, and the transition from winter to spring begins. Every warm day takes us one step closer to some awesome fishing. As water temperatures...
Published: 02/06/18
Updated: 02/09/18

Captainís Corner: Great time to target redfish, trout

Redfish action has increased all over the region, while big wintertime trout is also a great option, if you know where to go. It is a prime time to catch both species on lures. Patterns have been somewhat inconsistent for redfish but exactly what you...
Published: 02/04/18
Updated: 02/07/18