Gag grouper are providing plenty of noteworthy news.
THE GOOD NEWS: When the winds and cold temperatures from Thanksgiving week subsided, anglers found the best grouper bite in years just off the coast.
Not only have the grouper rebounded, they have taken over many of the nearshore rocks. Fishermen from Yankeetown to Tarpon Springs are rejoicing at the remarkable return of one of the areas favorite species.
Not only are there large numbers of fish, the average size has been impressive. Many boats recently landed gags from 15 to 20 pounds.
"We went out to 28 feet of water, and the bite was on," Capt. Troy Sapp said. "I had several spots I wanted to check out, but we caught our limit on the first one, and we didn't keep anything under 25 inches. Our largest weighed close to 20 pounds. It was as good as I have seen the grouper fishing in at least three years."
G.R. Tarr and Wayne Butts found the same situation, but experienced it from a different perspective.
The two freedivers traveled to the 50-foot depths and found clean water with swarms of grouper milling around the ledges.
Foul weather has been a big factor lately, with high seas and heavy winds keeping most boats in port. If you are lucky enough to be able to get out on the calm days between cold fronts, expect to find plenty of hungry grouper waiting for you.
Since the inshore grass flats have chilled down, pinfish and most other potential live baits have become scarce.
To find them, try running offshore a few miles and fishing with a baited sabiki rig over patchy hard bottom. This usually produces quality bait such as grass porgies, grunts and squirrel fish. You may get lucky and discover a new grouper spot. If you catch a gag grouper of any size while fishing for bait, send down a dead sardine on a heavy rod to check for the big ones. I found one of my most productive low profile spots while fishing for bait several years ago.
THE BAD NEWS: The National Marine Fisheries Service has declared gag grouper as "undergoing overfishing" and ordered that fishing for gag, red and black grouper be closed in federal waters from Feb. 15 to March 15 for recreational fishermen. Commercial grouper fishing is already closed during that time.
Lowering the recreational daily bag limit will likely happen in the next year.
A recent assessment indicated that, although landings have increased during the past few years, too many fish are dying. Charter operators and recreational fishing groups are crying foul that the data used in the assessment, most notably the mortality figures attributed to recreational catch and release, referred to as "dead discards" in the scientific sector. According to one study cited in the assessment, which was based in North Carolina, an average of 50 percent of released gag grouper do not survive and 100 percent of those dropped in water deeper than 50 meters perish. In the previous gag assessment, lower recreational mortality estimates were accepted.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has indicated that state waters (within 9 miles of shore) will remain open for grouper fishing this winter and the need for a state recreational closure concurrent with the federal one will be evaluated for the 2008 season.
Ed Walker charters out of Tarpon Springs. Call (727) 944-3474 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.