Grouper migrate more than most people think. In the winter months the grouper move up onto the shallow reefs to spawn, but during the summer months, they’re out on the deeper wrecks and reefs in anywhere from 120 to 200 feet of water or more, because the shallow water is too warm or has too many temperature fluctuations for their general comfort. You’ll find grouper on those shallow reefs and wrecks and around the bridges, but most of them are juvenile fish that haven’t assimilated into the mature population.
Grouper fishing in my area is condition driven, and what I mean by that is that if you don’t have a condition that favors being able to keep your baits in the feeding zone, then they’re very difficult to target. Since most of the grouper fishing is out in deep water, you want to be able to drift over the strike zone, and if the current is running too fast or the wind is blowing the blowing the boat away from the structure, you’re not going to be successful.
The ideal condition for grouper fishing in the Keys this time of the year is light to no current, or a current and wind that are going against each other. You want to find conditions that allow you to stay directly above the fish that you’re targeting so you can use less weight to get the bait to the bottom and keep the slack out of the line. If the current is really moving, you’ll pass by the structure so quickly that you can’t really effectively keep your baits in front of the fish or you’ll have so much bow in the line that you can’t feel the bite or come tight and drive the hook in.
Any time you’re grouper fishing you’re going to do better with live baits like a grunt, threadfin or pinfish. Live ballyhoo even work if you can catch them. The days when you could deep jigs grouper using a white chicken feather jig with a glow worm on it are over. You’ll catch a few fish using jigging spoons like a Williamson Vortex or Speed Jig, but they work best on the days where there’s almost no current. You can also use dead baits like a grunt plug or bonito side, but for the most past, a live twitching bait is going to draw the fish and get them to bite.
I like to fish live baits on 50 to 80-pound tackle with an 80-pound monofilament leader and a 5/0 to 8/0 circle hook depending on the size of the bait. The amount of weight you use will also vary, depending on the current, but figure anywhere from six to 10 ounces of lead in ideal conditions.
Most grouper anglers prefer to use braided line because there’s no stretch to the line, so when you set the hook, it drives the point into the fish. Braided line also has a thinner diameter than monofilament, so it doesn’t have as much drag in the current, which keeps the bow out of the line and allows you to use less weight. If you have to use a lot of weight to get the bait down to the bottom, then you’re already at a disadvantage since that means there’s enough current that there’s some bow in the line.
A lot of times the fish will be on the ledge in anywhere from 140 to 160 feet of water. That ledge is fairly long, so if you get the right drift, you can drift the entire length of the ledge for several hundred yards at a time. The majority of grouper you’ll catch will be black grouper, with the occasional gag grouper thrown in.
Grouper don’t peck at the bait like a snapper will, they engulf it. They suck the bait in and then move off, so when you get bit there will be a definitive “thump,” and then the line will move as the fish takes off. When you come tight, the fish is going to try to get back into the rocks and break you off, so you immediately have to pull hard on the fish to move it towards the surface. Once the fish gets away from the structure, the fight is manageable, and you’ll be able to crank it to the surface in no time.
When grouper come up from deep water the change in pressure will expand their air bladders and make them float and often look bug-eyed. That’s normal. If the fish is too small, you have to vent the air bladder before returning it to the water, or it won’t be able to swim back down to the reef. Take the time to measure your catch, and if it’s too small, vent it and make sure it survives, because they’re such a fish growing fish, it’ll be legal length in no time.Captain Tips