Wintertime Shallow Water Grouper Fishing
December is here, this is a month known for changing weather conditions and opportunities for anglers fishing in the Upper Keys and Key Largo. The arrival of the cold weather means that grouper (mostly gags) begin to show up around the shallow water wrecks, ledges, reefs, and creek mouths on the bayside and oceanside. They do so in order to spawn during the full moons of the winter months. December is also the last month you can take grouper; the season closes January 1st and reopens May 1st. This closure is in place to protect the spawning grouper so that future generations will be able to enjoy fishing for grouper.
Now I do not spend all my time with charters targeting shallow water grouper this month but it is a nice option to have. Especially during those days with overcast conditions and high winds that make sight fishing nearly impossible. Like I have said before, in the Upper Keys no matter which direction the wind is coming from there is always somewhere you can go to fish even on the nastiest of days. Most of these grouper average around 16-28 inches but they are not the only things out there. When fishing for grouper it is quite common to catch mackerel, bluefish, snapper, sharks, hogfish, sheepshead, and lots of different types of jacks. This means lots of variety for anglers of all ages and fishing abilities.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to have the appropriate tackle when attempting to catch grouper. Braided line to me is a must, I will have several Quantum rods on hand with braided line but my catchin sticks have 50-65lb braided lines with 60-100lb fluorocarbon leaders depending on the structure I am fishing. Sometimes I will anchor on a spot and drop baits or throw lures while at other times I will troll plugs around creeks, reefs, and wrecks. It all depends on the weather conditions and areas I am fishing. Live bait works best but it is not always a requirement, dead baits and artificial lures work as well, it all depends on the conditions and time you have on the water. Some of my favorite artificial lures for grouper are DOA mullet, Shimano waxwings, and Rapala lipped trolling plugs.
Fighting a grouper is literally like being in a fight; if you are not ready for it you are gonna get your butt kicked! My preferred technique when anchored is to have my client at the back of the boat with a fighting belt already on and the drag locked down. I tell them to drop the bait and wait until they feel a thump. Once the fish eats the bait I instruct them not to attempt to fight the fish but instead to walk to the bow, if they can. You have maybe five seconds to get that fish off the structure before they realize what is going on and make a run for cover. Sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t, either way it is a lot of fun. When trolling plugs I tell my clients not to touch the rod until we have pulled the fish away from the reef or wreck we are fishing. When at a safe distance we will reduce speed, pick up the rod, and fight the fish to the boat.
Grouper are incredible fish that are eating machines. On one trip last December I had a group of six book me for a full day trip. Since my vessel can only accommodate three customers at a time, it was decided that I would take out the kids in the morning and the parents in the afternoon. I took the kids to a local wreck and had a blast with them catching snappers, mackerel, bluefish and small groupers. Every so often one of them would hook into a bigger grouper that would kick their butts and break them off in the wreck. This happened four times. Once our time was up, we headed back to the dock to drop off the kids and pick up the parents. On the way out, I asked one of the dads if he would like to catch the fish that the kids couldn’t. He just gave me a look with an off smile and said sure. I took them back to the same wreck and instructed them on how to get this done. After five minutes we were hooked up. My angler walked to the bow and within minutes we had a 26-inch gag grouper in the boat. The neat thing was that this grouper had four of my hooks in its mouth from that morning! I thanked my clients for recovering my tackle and put the grouper in the cooler.
For those of you who know me, know that to me, fishing is more than just a game, it is a way of life. So fish hard and fish often!
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