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The "Grounds' offer prime bottom fish

With cold water temperatures, the deeper you go the better the grouper fishing.

Some anglers have reported scattered grouper as shallow as 35 feet, and there is fair action in the 65-foot range. However, if you have the weather and vessel, now is the best time to try the Florida Middlegrounds.

The "Grounds" consist of huge ledges, peaks and odd rock formations covering more than 100 square miles. The depths vary from 95 to 135-plus feet. Many of the larger ledges are more than a mile and have drop-offs of 30-plus feet.

North Suncoast ports are closer to the Middlegrounds than any other part of the state. The prime bottom begins 65-70 miles west and runs farther to the north and west.

There is no mistaking it when you arrive.

A glance at the depth recorder will show tall ledges and vast areas of hard bottom right away. Due to the abundance of prime bottom-fish habitat, it may take a few stops before you find the one the fish are on.

Sometimes, they are holding on the tallest peaks. Other times, the fish are stacked on shorter reef bottom. Once you find them, the activity can be incredible. Gag and red grouper are the most prolific, with catches as large as 20 pounds common and 30-50-pound gags a possibility at any time.

True black grouper inhabit the area but can be difficult to land on rod and reel due to their size and fighting strength. A commercial spear angler recently returned to Pasco County with four huge fish, the largest 94 pounds.

A variety of snapper species _ mangrove, red, mutton and vermilions _ is common. And huge cuberas, some more than 100 pounds, also are taken.

These mangrove snapper are much larger than those typically encountered closer to shore, with 5-pounders the average and 7-10 fish caught on most trips. They usually bite best at night when the grouper essentially shut down.

Scaling your tackle to 30-pound test with long fluorocarbon leaders will help fool the big "mangos."

Light-wire circle hooks are preferable since they almost always catch the corner of the mouth and make removal less dangerous. They're not called snapper for nothing. They will bite a finger (and not let go) any chance they get.

When it comes to grouper gear, bigger is better. Most of the veterans opt for 80-pound line on reels with 6-8 ounces of weight, 100-pound test leader and a 9/0 hook.

When the bite is on, they will take about anything live or dead. But the largest fish usually fall for the biggest bait. Whole mullet, large live porgies and sea bass are great choices for a trophy grouper.

If the spot you set on does not produce good fish within 15 minutes, pick up and move. There are too many fantastic places to bother trying to wait out a few fish in the wrong area.

On the right location, the bite should begin soon after the baits hit bottom. This is followed by a strong rally for 15-20 minutes, sometimes longer, then it tapers as the fish begin to figure out what's going on.

Being safe is critical that far offshore, particularly when the water is cold. Some basic items to bring include an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, a VHF radio and satellite phone. The weather can change quickly, and anglers should be prepared to deal with any situation.

_ Ed Walker charters out of Tarpon Springs. Call (727) 944-3474 or e-mail infolighttacklecharters.com.

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