December has been about the Gag Grouper! The quest for catching Gag Grouper in Tampa Bay has become increasingly popular over the last several years and although the season last for 6 months, the cooler months end to be the best. I am fortunate to guide in an area where a wide variety of options are available – relatively close. There are several artificial reefs, ledges, rock piles, and wrecks within a 10-mile radius of my dock. Depending on the tide, depth, and water clarity we will use a few different methods to target inshore grouper specifically.
One of my favorites is trolling lures and although it can get very complicated these days, the concept is quite simple.First, you will want to be prepared with a handful of variations in trolling depth and color. For me, 22-25 Ft is the sweet spot (strike zone) and most of my plugs are rated to dive 15-30 Ft. I prefer a natural selection on color with the exception of solid pink and “fire tiger”. The X-Rap Magnum from Rapala has been our go-to choice for a number of years and I always carry a host of colors to mix it up when the bite is slow. The tide will play a huge role in your trolling game and how your plugs will run. The less tide you have to work with, the better. This will give your lures a chance to run true and enable you to navigate on course, keeping the baits in the target depth and in the strike zone. The stronger the tide, the more difficult it will be controlling the boat and the baits. As far as trolling speed, 4.0 mph seems to be the number and will fluctuate + or – 1.0 mph depending on the tide and wind. Your best indicator for speed is your rod tip. You are looking for a steady and consistent face-paced “wobble” letting you know that the bait us running smooth. Anything erratic looking is not correct and you may need to make adjustments. Knowing the depth your baits are actually running is paramount to keeping them in the target strike zone. Often times anglers make the mistake of thinking that just because the package says 30 Ft that the lure will automatically dive to that depth when you toss it out. You will not be very successful trolling a lure at 15 ft in 40 ft of water for grouper. Its more a symphony of boat speed, line distance and choice, and tackle selection. The best way to figure it all out is find a good stretch of sandy bottom and bounce them in the sand to get a handle on where you need to be on everything. A lot of times once I get setup and going, I like to bump the bottom and reel up 2 or 3 cranks on the reel. This way I know I am working a few feet off the bottom with my baits.
If you’re old school or just like battling them from the depths on bait – you’re in luck too! Over the last few weeks, the water has really cooled off and the shallow water grouper bite has gotten red hot. You better come ready to fight though. We have been targeting these fish in 15-20 Ft and they don’t give you a lot of time to play around. The new 7 Ft Brute Force from Bull Bay Rods paired with a Penn Slammer II 6500 has been the weapon of choice. [60lb Spiderwire Invisibraid | 60lb Leader] It may seem like over kill but trust me you’ll thank me later. Although any frozen or live fin fish will work – Live Pinfish steal the show. Best is to free line the baits over or toward the structure and hold on. Tide will certainly play a factor as well but if you must add weight, keep it to a minimum. The best played scenario is when the fish has time to see the bait descending and eats in the water column rather than on the bottom. This will maximize your ability to get the coming to the surface before they get you in the rocks.
Until next month, tight lines and following seas!
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