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To bag a gag

4/14/2010

Now that grouper season has opened in the Gulf of Mexico (as of April 1), anglers will be directing much of their attention to a bottom bully with a reputation for violence. One of the sea's most aggressive fish, gag grouper bring the crazy on every strike and if you win this matchup, your reward will be a set of tasty filets.

Rocks, ledges and reefs inside the 60-foot mark will see increased grouper activity throughout the Gulf coast, while the Bayport-Crystal River region sees the gags piling onto limestone outcroppings in 10-20 feet.

Captain Billy Nobles of Tampa fished the start of the season last week and found grouper on hard bottom in the 40-foot range. Following standard grouper procedure, Nobles and his party first used dead baits to add some stimulating scent to the neighborhood and then worked some live baits into their presentation.

"We started them out on the standard bread-and-butter (sardines and squid) to get the bottom smelling right," Nobles said, "then we would fire down a live scaled sardine or pinfish and hold on! In the 50-60 foot range it seemed that we caught more red grouper and even some nice flounder on dead bait. We caught a few gags on livies, but mostly reds."

When the gags are on, they'll readily whack live baits, but it's best to start a new spot with the dead stuff to test the mood. The scent of dead baits acts like bottom chum to congregate the smaller reef rats and stimulate bigger fish. Once the hefties are fired up, live baits will meet with instant aggression.

A lot of grouper diggers like traditional slip sinker rigs with the weight sitting above the leader swivel, but the knocker rig is worth a try. With a slip sinker sliding along the leader and "knocking" against the hook when it falls, this rig offers instant strike detection, as the fish's pull is not delayed by a sinker sitting several feet from the bait. Knock rigs also minimize leader twist by eliminating bait spin.

Hanging a frozen chum block and snipping small chunks of sardines over your spot will help jump start the action. Also ripping the tails off your sardines releases more scent and further prevents spinning. Hook whole dead baits through the eye sockets for a firm connection. If small fish or snapper interfere with your dead bait efforts, use chunks of sardine to keep from getting picked clean.

It's a drag

If you'd rather skip the muss and fuss of natural baits, rig up a few diving plugs and head for the nearest reef or rock pile.

In the Homosassa area, Capt. Don Chancey targets rocks in 30-plus feet of water by trolling Mann's Stretch 25s and 30s in blue, green, red/white and firetiger patterns. To a grouper, these lures resemble the mullet, trout, ladyfish and other forage species on which they dine.

Granted, at slow speed and close range, most grouper can distinguish real from fake. However, trolling at 5-6 mph allows only a split second to decide if they want to eat. A hungry grouper will blast forth and crush any potential meal that crosses his radar.

Chancey fishes his plugs on 7-foot, heavy-action boat rods with 4/0 class conventional reels carrying 50-pound braided line and about four feet of 60-pound fluorocarbon leader. Braid helps the plugs dive quickly so you don't have to deploy so much line. Frequent glances at his rod tips help Chancey ensure that they're bouncing as the plugs bump limestone.

Further north, Crystal River's Capt. Dan Clymer drags the same type of plugs, but he's usually hitting rocks in 12-20 feet. Another difference is that Clymer has his anglers hold the rods, rather than leave them in a rod holder until the strike.

Manually holding rods, he said, allows an angler to jerk the rod and rip the bait through the water column as it passes over a rocky reef. This enhances the bait's appeal by sending it into a sudden darting frenzy that resembles a frightened baitfish dashing across a reef.

Similarly, trolling plugs or dragging heavy bucktail jigs with rubber tails behind planers will nab gags hiding along the rocky walls of main channels like Boca Grande, Egmont and the Cross Florida Barge Canal near Yankeetown.

Editor's note: David A. Brown has a B.A. in journalism from the University of South Florida and you can see his work in Florida Sportsman, FLWOutdoors.com, Cabela's Outfitter Journal, TIDE, In-Fisherman, Louisiana Sportsman, The St. Petersburg Times and Saltwater Angler. He also ghost-wrote and published "Fish Smart — Catch More!" for Tampa's cable TV host Capt. Bill Miller (www.billmiller.com) and a couple more publishing projects will be docking soon. He operates a professional writing/marketing agency, Tight Line Communications.