• Published:September 24, 2018
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Few seafood specialties hold a candle to a perfectly prepared grouper sandwich.

You'll find this fried, grilled or blackened favorite on just about every coastal restaurant menu, but for do-it-yourselfers, the Gulf of Mexico offers tremendous opportunity to bag your own fresh fillets.
A wealth of bottom fishing opportunity awaits those who follow a well-conceived game plan. Gag grouper, red grouper and scamp top the usual mix, but adding Carberita (true black grouper) and Kitty Mitchells is no stretch when prospecting in the 200-plus-foot range.




Running out of St. Petersburg, Florida, Capt. Kevin Farner is one of the Gulf Coast’s most accomplished bottom fishermen. His simple, yet effective game plan follows three main strategy points.
"Across the board, everything will eat a pinfish, but we'll also use squirrelfish and pigfish (grass grunt). Keep switching it up and try different things."
-- Capt. Kevin Farner

KNOW THE NEIGHBORHOOD

From nearshore reefs and rubble stacks to offshore ledges and rock piles, the grouper game goes down along stretches of hard bottom. As Farner explains, the combination of shelter from larger predators and a veritable food court of feeding opportunities provides gags, scamp and most other grouper species the ideal habitat.

Red grouper, Farner notes, tend to like a different scene. This species prefers the softer areas where a piece of hard bottom rolls into muddy bottom or the potholes known as “Swiss cheese.”

“Red grouper are usually following bait schools,” Farner said, so they are less likely to stay put than gags and scamps.

That being said, it’s not unheard of to bag gags, reds and scamp on the same piece of hard bottom. A complex site with good hard relief and softer roll-offs certainly expands the potential, but Farner has enjoyed banner days by closely watching his bottom machine and working those anomalies that most overlook.

APPROACH AND PRESENTATION

How Farner approaches a stretch of hard bottom largely depends on what he’s targeting. When looking for loosely-relating red grouper, a motor drift allows him to cover more area and hopefully run into the roaming fish. For the other grouper species, a more focused effort is executed.

“Traditionally, when you’re gag grouper or scamp fishing you need to be anchored and stay on the same spot,” Farner said. “You want your baits going to the same spot and getting all those fish fired up.”

Good thing is the same baits will tempt all of your Gulf groupers, but there is a logical progression. Start with dead bait, with tails cut off for maximum scent and to keep the baits from spinning on your line. You’ll get the area buzzing with activity as the reef rats swarm to the scent and progressively larger predators take notice. Once the bite gets going, introducing live baits will yield bigger bites.

“Across the board, everything will eat a pinfish, but we’ll also use squirrelfish and pigfish (grass grunt),” Farner said. “Keep switching it up and try different things.”

Another variable is how you hook the live bait. Through the lips, bottom to top, is most common, as this makes the bait descend smoothly. Hooking livies below the anal fin, however, makes them struggle to swim upward and that kind of activity will likely attract serious attention.

You can also catch grouper on jigs. Farner notes that scamps are particularly fond of slender speed jigs like the Shimano Butterfly Jig. Zipped up and down in the water column close to the hard bottom site gives the appearance of struggling baitfish and that gets the jig crushed.

Another jig option Farner uses is a white bucktail tipped with a dead sardine. Streamlining the hook/weight profile and adding the lifelike appearance of a skirt that contracts and flares in the current can be a deal closer.

TACKLE UP

With the exception of his short, technique-specific jigging rods, Farner likes a 7.5-foot conventional outfit, which is easier on the back than stumpy broom stick tackle. A 4/0 to 6/0 reel spooled with 60- to 80-pound main line (braid or mono) and a 60- to 125-pound fluorocarbon leader will get the job done.

For leader length, Farner stresses an effective balance between stealth and sensitivity and prefers to use a leader of about 4 feet. If the leader is too short it puts the bait uncomfortably close to the weight and that can spook fish. If the leader is too long you may not be able to feel the bite quickly enough for an effective response. When the bite’s tough, particularly in higher clarity, Farner would rather risk the limitations of longer leaders for the chance to tempt spooky fish.

“If nothing’s happening and you know there are fish down there, say you’re using 80-pound leaders and 8/0 to 10/0 hooks, go down to 60-pound leader and a smaller hook for a lighter presentation,” Farner said. “That’s why those jigs tend to work so well, you’re fishing it on spinning gear so the line and leader is lighter and there’s not a big weight and a big hook.”

To minimize the intrusion, Farner uses the smallest weight that’ll get his bait to the bottom, but he knows that current dictates this decision. He uses an 8/0 Mustad Demon Perfect Circle as his main hook. Remember, Gulf reef fishing regulations require non-stainless steel circle hooks, which minimize deep hooking and rust out when you break off a fish.

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