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Volume 1, Issue 11, May 2011: Tampa Bay Gags - The Hottest Grouper Bite In Town

Welcome to the May, 2011 issue of FRESH FROM THE SALT. This month's story is also featured in the Angler XTRAS section of the May 2011 Saltwater Angler Magazine, pg. 20. Since gag grouper fishing opened once again in state waters (within 9 miles), the bite is, as usual, superb. I was sure to hit my favorite inshore wrecks, structure and pilings on opening day, April 1st, and have caught my limit on most trips. So, it's the same old story - the fish are there and in good numbers. You may catch a whole bunch of shorts on any given day, but, that is surely a good sign that there are plenty of juvenile fish out there growing up in residential haunts where they'll stay for lifetime. Truly, many of these fish are inshore fish for life, staying put within the bay and not traveling to super deep offshore water during the hot summer months. Our bay is so deep in the shipping channels, around the Skyway Bridge and off of Egmont Key, there really isn't any need for these fish to migrate to cooler water. With the deep bay water also comes a year-round supply of bait. You never know what you're going to see inside the belly of a Tampa Bay gag from season to season, but, it's amazing the variety of baitfish that they'll dinner. From threadfins, scaled sardines and pinfish to grunts, sand perch and even lizard fish, these fish will eat just about anything they can fit in their mouths. Even the short fish will devour some of our biggest offerings.

So it is with anger and dissappointment that we now face a new state closure on gag grouper. FWC Commissioners followed the fed's lead and have now approved rules that will close state waters of the Gulf of Mexico, (excluding Monroe Co.), to the recreational harvest of gag grouper from June 1, 2011 through December 31, 2011. An exception will be a fall harvest season from September 16th through November 15th, 2011. Oh well. I guess then it's back to the flats with 20 boats sitting on the same little school of redfish for hours, swearing back and forth at each other about appropriate boat to boat distances, target areas and noise levels. I've come to love my private, quiet, deep water drops in the bay where I'm usually confident that I'll be putting fat grouper in the box and later on thick steaks on the grill. My mom tells me that Publix sells some of the best tilapia filets around, attempting to lift my spirits. Oh mama, I tell her, that's truly funny - you really missed your calling, I say. She doesn't get it. I visit her in Tallahassee with some vacuum-sealed grouper filets from a recent trip. She gets it now!

Hey y'all, whatever you're out there to do... dig up grouper, pound schools of reds, find that 40" snook, jump a tarpon (now's the time!), this spring-into-summer transition period is red hot. Let's do this!

Joshua W. Broer (pondfisher)

Tampa Bay Gags - The Best Grouper Bite In Town

I remember a time when I devoted about 95% of my time to fishing the flats. A full day of fishing for me meant blacking out my livewell with whitebait at sunrise, then motoring fast to far away mangrove haunts and honey holes until I found a mess of fish. That would be the obvious thing to do in a flats boat, you know, a boat that one typically uses to fish shallow water. Fishing the flats for me, however, is happening less and less now that I've learned the best grouper bite in town. Depending on what boat ramp you choose, this unique fishery is only five to ten minutes away. How's that for saving at the pump?

I do still love the thrill of wrestling a slob of a snook out from the mangroves. And finding a pile of redfish that you can sit on for an hour of bull-dogging, rod-bending action never gets dull. But I think it's time to admit that my heart lies in deep-water fishing, whether it's 40 miles out in clear blue water over a wreck, rock pile or ledge, or, in this case, fishing semi-deep water right here in Tampa Bay. My target species is gag grouper. Despite what both national and state regulation agencies claim about the gag population being in trouble and the subsequent inshore and federal water closures we've seen in the past few years, the gag grouper bite just never seems to quit.

There's no question about it, there are tons of gags in Tampa Bay. Trollers find them along the outside of shipping channels, year after year after year. Live bait diggers find them around the Skyway Bridge and rock piles scattered throughout the mouth of the bay. Folks fishing from the public piers routinely pull up keeper fish. The good news – there seems to be an endless population of juvenile fish out there. On every trip, we catch at least 10-15 shorts mixed in with our two-per-angler keepers. These shorts are healthy and aggressive, devouring the same large baits that get crushed by the bigger, slot size fish. After the end of the state's now routine February through March closure, I hit my spots on opening day. I quickly ran out of bait!

I can't speak directly to the offshore bite, but, all my friends and guides who fish in 60-100 feet of water say the bite is strong, the fish are big and there are plenty of them…. sounds familiar to the red snapper debate. I've always been a firm advocate of biological research into the health of our fisheries and reasonable changes to our seasons and bag limits, but I really wonder what's going on here. Based on time on the water and experience, I can say with confidence that Tampa Bay is rich with gag grouper. That was the case years before the reduction in bag limit and the closure months and remains true today.

Many folks claim that the commercial sector for years took too many fish offshore and this prompted the strict federal regulations with the state following suit. I too don't believe the long-liners have a very strong argument when they're deploying miles of hooks and line throughout the Gulf's deeper waters. What we're talking about is the local offshore charter captain who makes a modest income from putting clients on just a few fish. Current federal regulations which close the season for half the year are simply unjust and hypocritical. The same is true of the regs in state waters, whether a guide or weekend warrior. Keep fighting the good fight, everyone.

One last thing in reference to our state water gags. In shallow water, it can be a tricky bite that can elude even the best anglers (sheepshead fishing comes to mind). Countless times I've watched a boat leave a spot without a single bite. Minutes later, on the same spot, my rod is doubled over. So, whereas it's almost always about location-location-location, with shallow water gags it's very much technique-technique-technique. Learn it and you'll be spoiled forever!

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