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Grouper are probably the most sought after fish in the Gulf of Mexico and as a fishing guide, it is the one I am most asked to find.
For the beginner it seems to be the hardest fish for its size to bring to the boat, unlike fishing for large top water fish where reel drags, line capacity, boat maneuvering and more time, all play a big part in landing a fish.
Grouper digging is a one on one fight with the drag locked down and lasts about five minutes for a KO one way or the other. The first ten feet are the hardest and coordination along with speed will make up the difference for strength in order to bring a fish to the boat. Grouper will take most all baits, live, dead and artificial. They can be fished by anchoring, drifting and trolling. They feed mostly on the bottom but have been known to take a top water bait. I find that drifting makes them easier to get off the bottom but anchoring on a good spot with the right people will produce a lot more fish.
Rigging for deep water grouper has been standard for a long time. It consists of a black Penn 6/0 Senator for the low gear ratio with a locked down drag, spooled with 80 pound mono and what we call a broom stick for a rod, double rapped to the first guide for gunnel bouncing. Terminal tackle consists of 200 to 300 pound mono leader, 6/0 or 8/0 tuna hook and up to 16 ounces of lead with at least 300 pound test swivels.
This is my favorite rig for deep water 100 to 200 feet:
I prefer live bait. If I don't have enough live bait with me, I use a small rod and fish for them on the spot.
CAUTION: Do not use a back harness with 80 pound line while free standing. You would not be the first to be pulled over board.
GROUPER DIGGING IN SHALLOW WATER
Grouper can be found in the shallow grass flats of the bay out to the deepest reefs in the gulf. A good rule of thumb is that the deeper the water the bigger the grouper. This will keep a lot of boats fishing between 25 and 50 miles offshore but it is a long run for most people. The most fished and prolific area is from 12 to 20 miles offshore in about 60 to 80 feet of water. This area will produce mostly red grouper along with some nice black (gag) grouper.
This article deals with shallow water grouper digging at 25 to 50 foot depths 1 to 12 miles off the coast of Sarasota where black (gag) grouper are the prevalent grouper. The blacks average 6 to 12 pounds and come and go all year long but seem to be best in Spring and Fall. They hang out on all the reefs, breaks and structure they can find and some are better than others. They hide deep in the structure which makes them hard to pull out with light tackle. Since most of the fishing done in this area is on light tackle, most are lost.
To seriously fish for grouper in the shallow water, I recommend nothing less than a Penn 4/0 with 50 pound line and 150 to 200 pound mono leader with a 5/0 tuna hook. Grouper will eat all baits and most artificial lures, but I prefer fresh caught large pinfish which I catch before we start out. I seldom use over 2 oz. of lead when at anchor but you may need more on a drift.
Shallow water grouper stay deep in the structure. They dart out to take your bait and are on their way back when you first feel them. You cannot give them any line at this time and when you land them, you will notice all the scratch marks on their sides from trying to get back in their hole.
Here are a few tricks that will help you put a few more fish in the box.
1. Fish with a heavy line and locked down drag.
2. Use heavy leader that won't cut easily on sharp structure.
3. Use a large swivel, 3/0 or larger to help stop the fish from pulling your lighter line into the structure.
4. Use a strong tuna hook that won't straighten out if the 200 pound leader snags at the large swivel on the way into the structure.
5. Don't drop your bait down into the structure, but make the fish come out as far as you can. Start high and work your way closer until you find that magic place where he will grab your bait and you can stop him before he hangs you up.
6. Use fresh caught live bait whenever you can.
7. I use pinch on sinkers most of the time, but if you use egg sinkers make sure you use two swivels and place the lead between them on the heavy leader so that the lead will not drag your light line over the structure.
Most of the grouper from the shallow water around Sarasota will average six to twelve pounds but will feel like a twenty pounder in deep water due to the shorter line and less stretch. You will also find these fish to be the best eating size.
Hot Grouper spots!
Like any place else, most of our area anglers are eager to share when, where and how they caught fish, but grouper is the exception! When fishing in saltwater, it is possible to catch a nice grouper any place in the Bay or Gulf.
Don’t expect anglers to give you their hot spots! Hot spots are what we call grouper stacked-up on the bottom. They also could be in, under or around a structure. In other words, it is a lot of keeper size grouper in a very small area.
An experienced grouper digger will take a few nice fish, put the spot, if new, in his GPS and move on to/or find another hot spot. This takes a lot of discipline because it can take a lot of time, work and luck to find these spots. This way, the spot may be good for a month or more. If he hammered the fish, it could be over in a day or so. The fish would just move to avoid all the outside activity. Due to the popularity of grouper, if he went public or shared the GPS location, he could expect to find the spot covered with dive boats and/or inexperienced grouper fishermen the next day. That could be the end of that hot spot. Some Grouper diggers will stop fishing or move out of the area if they see another boat coming towards them. Don’t stop and ask. :)