On January 1, the Florida Keys grouper fishery will close (through April), making it illegal to keep any grouper caught in the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico. That leaves less than two weeks to fill the coolers with these hard-fighting and delicious tasting species. Below are a few tips on targeting grouper in Florida Bay, Hawk Channel, and on the reef. Hopefully you’ll have time to get out and try some of these methods before the closure takes effect.
Grouper are not a free roaming fish. They like to hang out within structures where they can hide and ambush unsuspecting baitfish swimming by. Therefore, it’s imperative when targeting grouper to find good structure, whether natural or manmade, where there’s a likelihood grouper have taken up residence.
Unfortunately, finding structure is not as easy in Florida Bay as it is in the Atlantic. Unless you have a few wrecks or proven numbers already typed in your GPS, it can be a challenge locating the fish. One thing you can do however is search for large sand spots in the middle of the grass. This is generally a good indicator that there is some kind of structure on the bottom. Anchor up, get a good chum slick flowing, and drop a few baits back to see if anyone is home.
The two main types of grouper we catch in Florida Bay are gag grouper and red grouper. For targeting these fish fresh bait is key. I prefer using live bait whenever possible, mainly pilchards, ballyhoo, pinfish, and shrimp, but fresh cut bait will also work well and will almost always out produce any frozen store bought bait.
For tackle, I generally use 15 to 20-pound mainline, tied to a stretch of 30 or 40-pound fluorocarbon leader. Because these shallow water grouper are strong fighters you don’t want to go much lighter than that. You need to be able to turn the fish quickly before they can get you back into the structure and break you
The channel humps of Hawk Channel can be one of the most productive places to target grouper, especially during the winter months. The cooler water seems to draw the fish in shallower and turn them more aggressive. Shortly after last winter’s frigid weather spell, the grouper fishing was off-the-charts on the channel humps. Hopefully this recent cold front will fire them up as well and we can take advantage of the bite while the fishery is still open.
Black, red, and gag groupers can all be caught on the channel humps. Live pinfish and pilchards often produce the best results, and it’s not uncommon to land big fish up to 25 pounds. I suggest beefing up your tackle in case you do hook up with a large grouper. Use 30-pound mainline fished on a stout rod with a stretch of 50-pound fluorocarbon leader. You can catch them on lighter tackle, but it can be quite a challenge, especially for beginner anglers.
Another thing to be aware of is the Nassau grouper. Nassaus can be confused with reds if you’re not careful, and you must release any Nassau grouper you catch. To distinguish the two, remember that the Nassau grouper will have dark brown vertical stripes on the body over a light brown background. Nassaus also have a notched dorsal fin while the red grouper’s is smooth.
There are a variety of ways to target grouper on the reef. If anchoring, a good quality bottom machine is an invaluable tool. Look for structure with ledges and fluctuations where a grouper can hide. Live baits tend to work best when fishing the reef, and as a general rule, the bigger the bait, the larger the grouper you might catch. Feel free to drop a legal-sized yellowtail snapper, blue runner, large grunt, or any other large live bait you may have swimming around in the well. Also remember to adjust your tackle to match the size of the bait you’re using. If you’re after big blacks, you should use a minimum of 60-pound leader.
Another productive method for targeting grouper on the reef is trolling. Work deep diving lures in 30 to 60 feet of water and you’ll have a good shot at landing quality fish.
Minimum Size Limit Blacks & Gags (24 inches); Reds (20 inches)
Bag Limit Blacks & Gags (up to 1 Gag or Black within the 3 grouper aggregate); Reds (up to 3 within the 3 grouper aggregate)
Closed Season January-April
Your Best Bet for the Week Ahead: Grouper Fishing!
Florida Bay is an excellent place to target gag grouper.