With the largest living reef in its backyard, the Florida Keys has some of the best grouper habitat and fishing in the world. Even with the moderate angling pressure the Keys receives, the success of Keys “bottom bangers” continues to keep coolers heavy and back muscles strained to their limits.
I recall as a younger, less experienced Captain on mate duties, setting up a nice TIBURON 4/0 reel from Penn and putting it on a stout Penn rod to match and filling it with new 30 pound mono and taking it to the Marquesas for a weekend of grouper fishing. Well known, big name Captain, Brad Simonds who has ran charters in the Keys since the early 80’s said to me when he spied my new grouper outfit,” You’re going to get blown up on that outfit, that might work for small grouper or a mutton or three, but if you want to catch the King of the Bottom around here, that outfit is not going to cut it”. I murmured under my breath something about a “big barbeque” and went on about loading the boat and faster than it took to load the boat we were idling over the first bottom marks of the day. After a bit of looking around, we set anchor and waited for things to settle some, hung a chum bag and started chunking up some pilchard baits that had obvious issues with live well claustrophobia.
I took my shiny new outfit and free-lined a big pinfish into the deep blue until I felt the 6.oz weight hit bottom, then slowly reeled up a few turns of line to suspend the weight off of the bottom and felt a sharp take and then a heavy pull underneath the boat. Leaning into the outfit while winding fast and hard I had the big bottom dweller hooked. Well, had being the proper word here, for a few seconds anyway. I suspect a nice grouper had taken the bait and ran into a ledge or hole of some sort because as fast as the hookup came, the snag that followed it was equally as fast.
Break off, re tie, repeat. Not once, twice, but three times a lady? Each time I dropped, the exact same thing happened and by now my frustration level was approaching boiling point. Brad then took out a 50W bent butt that had 80 pound test on it and stuck it in the rod holder chair of the boat and hooked a pinfish to it and lowered away and sat in the chair now intent on what the tip of the pole was doing. As soon as he hit bottom he reeled up several turns then sort of hovered and once he felt the hit he wound that 50W like he was in a fast wind race and was well behind. The pole tipped snapped into the top of the water from where its initial position in the chair was and after a very intense 3 minute struggle, he had it slowly coming up in wide circles with an occasional half hearted dig every 20 feet of depth or so.
Peering down into the clear water I saw the familiar tan and brownish color of a nice 30 pound black grouper with its distended stomach protruding from its mouth and showing its poodle like canines. With a quick lift of the gaff, I had it in the cooler for a closer look. He had another hook in his jaw with a short section of leader and also had a few scrape marks on his gills that were fresh. Perhaps he was one of the ones that rocked me initially on my first drops? Lesson learned here and remembered as well.
The gear that I use most consistently for Keys grouper fishing is the quality heavy spinning reels loaded with braided super line in the 50 pound test range. Any of the new super lines will work just fine as long as you remember to change the line at least twice a year. Leaving old line on the spool after many battles and through the dry periods of non- use invites trouble. Also, be sure the line gets spooled on tightly on the initial spooling as this line will eat into itself and jam wrap under a heavy pressured run of a bottom banger. I like to use a small bimini at the end of the super line and then run an improved no name knot of fluorocarbon carbon line in 50 pound test and I make this leader at least 60 feet long. Now, before your eyes pop out of their sockets, I use this as a shock leader because there is not stretch in the super lines and I feel that some stretch keeps more hooks in place that the no stretch method of a direct tie to the hook or just a leader only. And, this joining of the line tells me when the grouper is close when you are working deep water. And having that amount of leader line there speeds the retying that inevitably goes with this type of snag filled fishing. Many times the water is over 150 feet deep where I fish for groupers and knowing that the line shock knot is at say 60 feet it gives me a reference to where the fish is at during the fight. Once I get that super/super line connection on the reel, I will tighten the drag up some and continue to pressure the fish to the boat without fearing a pulled hooked under the boat. The stretch in the fluorocarbon helps keep the hooks from pulling in my experience. I fish a lighter drag on the super line until the flurocarbon gets on the reel as just the lighter drag allows for some give during the banging.
Any good quality rod will work in this type of fishing but I prefer to use the non roller guide version because that super line decreases diameter under pressure and tolerances near the roller guides can and often do land the line in there and once that happens there is a weak spot in the line and or the fish breaks you off, if it happens during the fight. I prefer the simple guides that are made for super line duty and they have worked fine for me to date. The spinning rods made by Kistler Rod Company in Texas do a mighty fine job at this sort of thing and perhaps looking into the selection will help you choose the right outfit as far as a heavy action stand up spinner goes. Keep the rods to the medium heavy to heavy class as this is brutal up and down physical fishing that requires you to lift and sweep these bruisers away from the structure they hover, hunt, and hide in and on. Softer rods give here and will allow a fish to turn its head and burrow away from you making it possible to get into cover where you can wait them out if they do hang you up, but that usually ends in a parted line. Once the fish cannot see bottom any longer he becomes slightly disorientated and has no real target to run to and his runs are less determined once he looses eye contact with the bottom or the wreck he has as a home. The faster you can move him topside the better your chances are at landing him.
Groupers have tremendous pulling power on the initial hook set and many times you have to let them make that first few runs. To a degree of course. I try to test the outfit to the breaking point each time and simply guess wrong on many occasions as to what it can endure, especially on the monsters that lurk below. Ask anyone who has landed a 50 pound plus black on spinning tackle and they will tell you this is not the type of fishing Grandpa should be doing. It is pure hell on your outfit AND you.
Keep your tip lowered on the initial hook up and reel hard and fast to sweep the fish upwards away from the snag filled bottom they live in. Do not let up on the pressure and reel hard if the fish is coming in your direction. Ease up only when they dig and dive for cover and once the fish gets into the top column of water the least amount of pressure will still pull the fish topside. I prefer to net them when live baiting and the gaff when using larger lures with multiple hooks in them for obvious reasons. Always try to hit them under the chin area or directly below the pectoral fins to save them delicious white flaky filets they sport. Most times the fish is spent and will allow for a well-placed gaff shot near the boat. Obviously the net keeps the meat intact and also allows for any release on smaller fishes without doing them any harm.
Remember to keep fingers clear of that super fine diameter line under pressure as it puts a steak knife to shame on wet skin and also your drag setting should be at its maximum level and adjusted BEFORE you drop the bait down. Once the grouper hits the bait the time to adjust the drag has long gone. Have a friend help set it to the near breaking point on the boat or at the dock. This simple tip has accounted for many lovely dinners that might still be swimming out there to this day.
Tactics and Tips
Grouper are highly territorial and when fishing for them be sure that you give your first drop the most attention as once that grouper hole “guardian” is gone, the others recognize it immediately and move in. Miss the guardian and he shies away from the hook and now chases the other ones interested away from your baits. So once the guardian is hauled up the others will follow in short order. Also, mark the spot when you can with a floater jug to be sure that you anchor in the same section each time. The floater will tell you the current speed and attaching a small ribbon to the handle of the plastic jug will give you the drift direction. Retrieve it once you arte ready to fish so it does not tangle in any hooked fish coming to the boat.
Good grouper spots are always good spots and after taking several fish off it, move on to allow the spot to recoup other occupants. Other groupers will move in and set up shop, be sure that you rest spots at least 3 to 5 days after fishing them. Smart spot management will ensure success each time you fish there. Many times I will simply drift the spot and take one or two fish then move on, as an anchored boat draws unwelcomed GPS number stealers by boat and now by triangulation means as well. Use stealth and fluorocarbon leaders and your average size fish will become larger as the groupers are very leader shy in clear water and where there is pressure. They get large because they avoid the obvious Barney Goog fishermen and their amateurish rigs. Be alert once you drop into the spot as most hits happen right away, as groupers are highly aware of everything that happens in their turf. Be ready for the hit and don’t get caught messing with the drag or reaching for something while grouper banging. Many nice new outfits do not get “blown up” Instead they get deep sixed and pulled out of the anglers hands….