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?"