If Paul Revere had been a Florida fisherman, fall might find him shouting something like this: "The grouper are coming, the grouper are coming!"
With or without such announcements, fall finds a gag grouper making a shoreward push from the deep waters in which they spent their summers. Reefs and rocks inside 60 feet — much shallower the farther north you go — will be the main targets.
Cooler temperature was the main offshore attraction and with the first of the fall cold fronts rolling our way, the migration should be under way.
With an aggressive nature and a powerful fight, the gag grouper may be one of the gulf's most underrated sport fish. However, as an ego balance, this fish gets plenty of love for its superior table fare.
The good thing about gag grouper is that they will eat just about anything. Crabs, lobsters, octopus — if they can catch it, they'll eat it.
Tops on the list of live baits is the pinfish — a tough, durable bait that you can catch in a cast net, or with cuts of squid fished on small hooks over grass flats. Shiny and highly visible, pinfish emit strong panic vibrations that send grouper over the edge.
Other inshore baits such as scaled sardines ("whitebait") and threadfin herring ("greenbacks") also tempt gags, as will grunts, blue runners and spots ("sailor's choice").
Don't fret if live baits elude you — the dead stuff works just fine. Even with a well full of livies, savvy grouper diggers won't go offshore without at least a couple boxes of frozen sardines and squid.
When gags are fired up, they'll pounce on live baits right off the bat. In most cases, you'll need to get the spot going. Frozen chum blocks help, but drop down a couple of stinky dead baits and the scent will kick start the action.
Keeper grouper regularly fall for dead sardines — whole or chunked — and pieces of squid.
Trolling large diving plugs like the Mann's Stretch 25, Rebel Jawbreaker or Yo-Zuri Hydro Minnow across rocks and reefs in 15-30 feet will also bring hungry gags charging forth with bad intentions. Grouper will feel the plug's vibration long before it crosses overhead. When the fish make visual contact, it's lights-out for that piece of plastic.
Standard grouper gear starts with a stout, 7-foot boat rod strapped with a 4/0 conventional reel carrying 50- to 80-pound line and 80- to 100-pound fluorocarbon leader. (Downsizing leaders may be necessary when also fishing for snapper.)
Four- to 6-ounce lead weights will suffice for fall grouper. Hook size varies with bait choice, but 5/0-7/0 is a good grouper range.
Federal regulations require nonstainless steel circle hooks for grouper and other reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Offset circle hooks are allowed in federal waters (past 9 nautical miles), but shallow water grouper anglers must use in-line circle hooks in state waters.
Many grouper diggers use fish-finder rigs, with their weights positioned on their main line, above the leader swivel. For another option, the knocker rig places the weight on the leader, where it slides ("knocks") against the hook.
Now, the one thing grouper neophytes must realize is that tackle donation is an assumption. Experienced anglers with the right touch can minimize their losses, but even those with a track record regularly lose hooks, weights and leaders.
A hooked grouper will quickly bolt for his fortress and if he's quicker than his would-be captor, he'll wedge himself into a tight hole and flare out his gills to lock himself into the spot.
Knowing this, anglers are wise to have several premade leader and hook rigs ready to minimize downtime when you have to break off a well-wedged opponent.
Legal gag grouper must measure at least 22 inches in the gulf. Daily limit is two per person and gags count toward the daily grouper aggregate of four.
Remember, federal regulations also require hook removal devices and venting tools for anglers targeting reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico. You'll rarely need the latter in fall's shallow fishery, but it's illegal to fish for grouper without one.