For years Nature Coast anglers have been aware of one of the great secrets in Florida fishing: the remarkable influx of gag grouper into this area's shallow coastal shelf during the fall.
In the rest of the state grouper fishing is an exclusively deep-water affair, requiring long runs offshore and the associated high fuel bills.
There is some shift from deep to "less deep" along other parts of the Gulf Coast, but nowhere else do the fish come into less than 16 feet of water in such numbers. For the locals, targeting gags in 10 feet of water is just another normal day of fishing, but it is truly something special.
Right now water temperatures are just right, and for the next month or so this spectacular fishery should be firing on all cylinders. Add to that the fact that substantial reductions in bag limits and increased grouper fishing closures are looming, and it means it's prime time to get out and enjoy what this fishery has to offer.
Where to look
Grouper prefer hard, rocky bottom with nooks and crannies because they seldom hang around far from a hole that they can dart into at the first sign of trouble. As any veteran grouper digger will tell you, as soon as you hook one, they run as hard as they can for cover. Some of the bigger fish choose to remain "holed up" even when there is no sign of trouble.
These hideouts do not need to be very big. It is amazing to see how many gags will disappear into a seemingly tiny crack in the bottom.
On a dive trip several years ago off Hudson, I saw a keeper-sized grouper slip into a little hollow spot in rock. We were freediving so we had only a minute or so on the bottom at a time between breaths.
As I dove back to check out the hole, a big hogfish came out of it and I shot him. I motioned for a friend to look for the grouper. She peered in through the small opening, saw the fish and took a shot at him. When she was able to retrieve her spear and the line attached to it, she had three keeper gags on the shaft.
Since the offshore bottom from Homosassa to Tarpon Springs has miles of hard bottom and "rock bars," as the old sponge divers call them, grouper love it. They are called grouper for a reason and, left alone for a while, they will group together on a particular rock or structure.
Unfortunately in this age of simple GPS navigation, most of the big rocks have become relatively well known and are fished so frequently that bigger gags stay away from them. The longer a spot has been left alone the better it is. For this reason flat patches of rock with small cracks and holes are often the best areas to find the big fish.
Innovative Nature Coast anglers have devised amazing methods for catching gags in shallow water. One of these is casting plugs on bait-casting tackle. By drifting or slowly moving the boat with a trolling motor through areas of low relief hard bottom, anglers throwing plugs can ply large areas of potential gag habitat.
Shallow running plugs have a perfect swimming action for this type of fishing, and bone-jarring strikes are the norm. Most plugging is done in less than 10 feet of water.
Out a little deeper, anchoring next to the rocks and casting live baits, such as pinfish or large-scaled sardines, on heavy spinning tackle with light sinkers can work great.
Unlike deep water fishing where lines are dropped vertically, casting allows you to offer your baits without scaring the fish just 14 feet from the surface. It can be challenging to pull them away from the rocks this way — but that's the fun part.
Grouper rules to change
According to Steve Branstetter of the National Marine Fisheries Service, a permanent rule change for the daily bag limit of gag grouper, included within amendment 30B, has been submitted to the Secretary of Commerce for final approval but is currently pending.
In the meantime, the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council requested, and was granted, an interim rule that reduces the bag limit on gag grouper to two per person, excluding captains and crew on for-hire vessels, beginning Jan. 1. This means the days of being able to keep five gags per person will end, probably permanently, in less than two months.
The 30-day seasonal recreational closure on gag grouper harvest has also been increased to 60 days, from Feb. 1 through March 31 effective in 2009. The extended closure will apply only to gag grouper; red grouper will remain closed for only 30 days from Feb. 15 through March 15.
The size limits for gags will remain 22 inches.