One of the more commonly asked questions about grouper fishing is: "How do I find productive spots?"
The bottom of the Gulf west of the Nature Coast primarily is empty sand. Though pelagic species move back and forth in the upper water column, benthic fish such as grouper and snapper prefer some cover. This could be a wreck, large limestone ledge or small aberration such as a hole or patch of flat, rocky bottom. While bottom fish move during seasonal changes and in rough sea conditions, they usually congregate near select structures for long periods or until somebody catches them. Therefore, the best grouper spots are those fished the least. Avoid areas where many boats are anchored and fishing. The longer a spot is left alone, the more fish likely will have gathered.
With advancements in positioning electronics, anyone can return to even the smallest rock reliably and accurately. This has placed heavy pressure on many of the larger rock piles and known ledges within 20 miles of the coast. Most of the tall ledges and structures easily discernable on a depth recorder already have been discovered by someone. Not that you may not get lucky and stumble onto something seldom fished, but most of the big scores come from harder to notice rocks.
If you find hook marks or leaders in the mouths of fish, it may be time to move on. The same goes for catching a disproportionate number of undersized fish. If there are a lot of gags coming up and none are more than 22 inches long, someone probably has taken the legal fish. While you may be able to grind out a keeper or two, you're not doing your black book any good beating up a tired location. A truly fresh grouper spot should have 25-50 percent keepers or better.
The discovery of these finds is part of the excitement. Last winter, some friends and I devoted a day to searching an area we never had fished about 18 miles off Tarpon Springs. We plotted the few numbers in a spot acquired from charts and a computer program. We spent several hours running from one to another, but all we found was flat, empty sand.
At 2 p.m., with no fish in the box, the crew was getting restless. Finally, the bottom machine indicated a subtle drop in depth in an otherwise flat bottom with a show of what appeared to be baitfish suspended over the middle. Had it just looked like bait or only been a dip in the sand, I wouldn't have stopped, but the combination warranted further investigation. We swung back around and found that the depression had a hint of hard bottom at its center. We tossed a marker jug, lowered the baits and drifted by. All five rods doubled over almost simultaneously with heavy fish. Soon, there were five keeper gags. This was it, the mother lode. We anchored and landed more than 25 keepers, saving back 15.
Being able to read the depth recorder when the boat is running is critical. If the machine doesn't read well, adjust the angle of the transducer or remount it in a new location. The time spent running should be used to scan the bottom. Don't be deterred from dropping a bait on a "what the heck" area. Sometimes it will pay off, making all the duds worthwhile.
Ed Walker charters out of Tarpon Springs. Call (727) 944-3474 or e-mail infolighttacklecharters.com.