Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Great American Grunt Hunt: Catchy name, better fish

The name is not very appealing: Grunt. • One of the most common fish in the Gulf of Mexico is saddled with one of the worst names, right up there with dogfish or pigfish. • But to dismiss the grunt as a sportfish or an eating fish is a mistake. The white grunt, which averages between 1 and 2 pounds and 12-15 inches, is found in water as deep as 115 feet but mostly hangs out in 80 feet of water or less.

Like the more popular (and bigger) grouper and snapper, grunts can be found feeding over bottom structure like rocks or wrecks. They are active year round and are usually a reliable catch even on bad days.

"I always say that I fish for grunt and every once in awhile I'll catch a grouper," longtime fishing captain Dave Zalewski said. "They are a lot of fun to catch and you don't have to go very far to catch them. All you need is some structure. And they are excellent to eat. A lot of people don't know that."

Zalewski will be one of an expected 300 anglers at this weekend's Great American Grunt Hunt, a tournament cooked up six years ago in Madeira Beach. At Thursday's captain's meeting, Zalewski will give a seminar about how to catch grunt and how to filet them.

So why a tournament for a fish that doesn't get very big and is fairly easy to catch?

"We wanted to start a tournament that anybody could participate in," said Brian Crabtree, Madeira Beach Marina supervisor and a founder of the tournament. "Anybody from your 80-year-old grandfather to your 8-year-old kid can fish in this tournament."

The white grunt is actually a colorful fish. It gets its name from the sound it makes while grinding its teeth. And it's not very picky about what it eats. Dead squid? Check. Live shrimp? Check. A piece of grunt filet? Check. Piece of a hot dog? Maybe.

The tournament offers a $500 prize for largest grunt. That will likely be in the 18-inch range. There is also a $750 payout for three biggest aggregate fish.

And recently added to the tournament is a hogfish category. That's another unfortunately named fish that is actually delicious. Hogfish are bottom dwellers that feed on mollusks and crustaceans. It is mostly associated with spearfishing because they are hard to catch on hook and line.

They can only be caught on hook and line in this tournament. They average between 5 and 10 pounds.

But the star of the tournament is the grunt. After all the fish are caught, there will be a fish fry at the marina. Might be a good chance to see what the fuss is about. And if it's worth taking the boat out for a grunt excursion.

"You can fish for grunts year round," Crabtree said. "It is the most plentiful reef fish we have around here."


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