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Volume 3, Issue 4, October 2012: Last Call Gags - Tackling inshore grouper in the final month

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In the FRESH FROM THE SALT,  October 2012, Volume 3, Issue 4 feature story:  Last Call Gags - Tackling inshore grouper in the final month, we put the spotlight on fishing for gag grouper in Tampa Bay for the final month of the season. This Halloween, 10/31/12, will be the last day the National Marine Fisheries Council and the FWC will allow recreational anglers to harvest gags in both state and federal waters. And while this year’s open season (July - October) gave us some pretty hot air and water temps and a lethargic bite, October should show a significant improvement in the number of fish hitting the deck - and icebox. No doubt about it, having an open season for gag grouper during the hottest months of the year proved to be tough to find a steady inshore bite and pushed the offshore gang out even further. While we usually did meet our daily bag limit, it made for some extra-long days of soaking baits at spots that would normally produce all the fish we could keep by noon. With cooling October water temps, however, my guess is that the fish will begin to move around more and the bite will once again come on strong. So whether bridge and near-shore reef digging or inshore channel trolling in the bay, this is the last call for our beloved meat fish.

This story is featured in my monthly column, Angler Xtras, in the October 2012 issue of Saltwater Angler Magazine, pg. 18.

Joshua W. Broer (pondfisher)



Last Call Gags - Tackling inshore grouper in the final month
By Joshua W. Broer


Like all things Octoberish, this will be a great month to fish – both shallow and deep. For the grouper digging crowd, this particular October not only means the start of a good gag grouper bite, sadly, it means the end of it. Namely, the season officially closes on September 1st, 2012. Our last calendar day to fish for our beloved gags is Halloween. I don’t know about you, but I will be wearing my spookiest fishing outfit and trying my best to scare the fish into the boat!

Indeed, the National Marine Fisheries Council, followed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, allowed us only the hottest months of the year (July – October) to harvest gags in federal and state waters. It was a tough bite, with even the deepest areas of the Bay reaching the upper 80s. This caused the offshore fish to move even further out and deep and forced our resident Skyway Bridge and Tampa Bay channels fish into a lethargic state. No doubt, the summer heat slowed the gag bite significantly.

With good old-fashioned hard work though, we were able to reach our limit… sometimes. Bait was easy to come by, catching our favorites – large, frisky pinfish and grass grunts, followed by large whitebait and threadfins. But spot after spot of short fish and often no fish, and with the intense mid-day Florida sun beating down, I’m not sure we could call this fun. Thoughts of ice-cold drinks, AC-chilled living rooms and high-definition sporting events came easily to mind.

But just when you thought the day was a bust, that familiar thump would slam your rod tip down and you’d be hooked up. Getting the fish out of the structure was another story and getting cut off, let me tell you, conjured up some rough language. Knowing you finally had a big, slot-size fish, only to be broken off by some old metal, concrete and rebar, was a definite mood killer. This summer was cause for celebration any time a keeper gag hit the deck.

In addition to the bottom diggers club, the channel trollers had to work for their fish too. Anchored up, I’d see the same boats trolling their small, go-to areas around the bridge and on the edge of the channels for hours and hours with no hook-up. From time to time we’d see a fish dragged to their sterns but more often than not, a short. Talk about burning up a lot of fuel with no return. Forget it.

One thing this summer brought to our regular grouper digging haunts – if not many grouper – were the occasional visits from our non-spooky “brown bomber” friends, cobia. At least three or four times during the past few months we had solo fish or doubles come up to the boat doing what cobia do the best – acting curious. We landed a few of these great-fighting fish but never the big bomber that you hope to see. One thing’s for sure, if you’re anchored while you hook into even a medium size cobia, make sure to have an anchor-release system. Alas, like tarpon fishing, by the time you pull up the anchor, all your line and the fish too will be long gone.

So while the summer, inshore gag bite was not a total flop, it was what was to be expected, I think. Just like our favorite game fish of the flats – snook, redfish and trout - these grouper were chilling out, literally, in any cool spot they could find. Even the fish we did catch, I doubt they moved more than 10 feet to inhale our offerings. Without putting your bait on their nose, you were more or less in “dead man’s land”. Pinpoint bait presentation, we learned this season, has never been so important. In any case, hope to see you out there in your favorite Halloween diggin’ costume come 10/31, which will likely be the best bite of the season.

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