Florida 2012 Part III: Reef Gangsters

With Tampa’s finicky weather acting up recently, I was worried that my last scheduled fishing trip would be put at peril. Unlike the convienient Skyway piers where one could fish day or night, rain or shine, I wanted to take a ¾ day party boat trip out from the Clearwater harbor in order to target some of the many grouper species that inhabit the offshore reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. Long valued as an aggressive and hard fighting species of gamefish, I had tussled with a few smaller grouper species in Asia, and loved their bulldog like tenacity during a fight and powerful, sometimes unstoppable runs, not to mention the array of dazzling colors and striking patterns that they came in.

Luckily for me and my fishing conventions, grouper season was not yet open in Tampa this year, as the season for all shallow water species of grouper was closed from Feb 1st to March 31st in order to protect the spawning season of these slow growing and territorial (read: easily overfished) species. Thus, all groupers would be C&R only for the entire boat.

After a long stormy night of torrential rain and lightning, I awoke to a breezy morning sky, crisp and clear from the rain. Arriving at Clearwater port about 30 minutes early, I found very light crowds, with only about 15 people signed up to go out. Heeding the advice from KenT’s report from the area, I rented a small bucket with aerator from the bait store nearby and began the task of jigging up some bait for the day. Dropping a sabiki baited with a small strip of squid around the corners of the boat and harbor, it wasn’t long before I had a little more than a dozen spiky little pinfish swimming around my bucket lively and ready to entice a grouper to sink it’s teeth into.

Before long, we were headed offshore in search of a fight! With such a light load, and arriving early, I was able to get my gf and I a coveted spot on the stern of the boat. I did not have a travel spinning rod for my gf that was capable of handling the fight that a grouper would be sure to bring, so I borrowed a boat road and attached the 6000 spinning reel I had brought with PE5 line. For myself, I would be fishing my Toro 60 for the grouper, and using a BG35 for livelining bait for the kingfish that I already knew were around.

The skies were blue, the winds had died down. Although the current and swell were slightly up, the conditions were still extraordinarily pleasant. My gf enjoyed the springtime Florida sunshine for about an hour or so, before the boat slowed over it’s first GPS coordinate. I baited up one of my rods with a live pinfish, and helped my gf put on strips of squid onto a hi-lo with 1/0 hooks. Using 6 oz, we hit bottom in just a few seconds. As expected in Florida, the bites came fast and furious, and in seconds everyone had a fish on except me. The fish that came over the railing were called “white snappers” by the deckies, although they are more correctly known as White Grunt (Haemulon plumierii). Although somewhat plain when compared to other gaudy inhabitants of the tropics, they were a uniquely interesting looking fish. The larger ones had a grayish copper mottling of the flanks, and electric blue fine stripes running down it’s face. Rather interesting was the fluorescent orange lining of the inside of the fishes mouth and the razor sharp set of teeth that it possessed! Not knowing the grunt had such sharp teeth, I captured a rather horrified expression on my gf’s face when she attempted to lip a grunt for a picture haha. With no larger grouper or fish interested in my pinfish, I reeled it up and sent down a strip of squid like the rest of the boat in order to add a White Grunt to my species list. One after another, these white grunt were slid into the boat, true to it’s name, grunting like an unhappy pig.

Interestingly, not a single other species was encountered by anyone at this stop. It must have been just an enormous school of white grunt that we had stopped over and after most people had caught a few of these fish, the captain decided to try for more fertile waters. This was because, although grouper season was closed, the boat had a grouper competition going on, in which the largest grouper caught and released would be rewarded with free trip. At the stern, we would meet a few of such grouper hunters, fishing with huge conventional reels loaded with 80 lb line and steel leaders.

Soon we had moved onto another stop, and once again I dropped down a live pinfish in hopes of a grouper catch, while my gf continued playing with the white grunts on squid. This time, I felt a series of hard raps on my bait and then nothing. Disappointed that I might have missed my first grouper hit, I reeled up my hook expecting my pinfish baitfish to have been stolen off my hook, but instead finding it looking like the victim of a malicious attack. One of the regulars looked over at the tattered bait, and chuckled, saying “Triggerfish or puffer attack. Vicious little bastards.”

Eager for the new species, I switched back to my light squid bait setup, but my gf beat me by first hauling up a cute little balloon of a pufferfish. This would be a Southern Pufferfish (Sphoeroides nephelus) one of the handful of pufferfish that occur off the coast of Florida. It’s 4 teeth were fused into 2 dangerous looking beaks that aggressively snapped at everything around it. I quickly snapped a pic of it, and gently tossed it back into the ocean. Luckily, it had not been too traumatized by it’s brief terrestrial experience and had not puffed up, an act that can be very stressful and difficult to recover from for most puffer species.

Again, this stop proved to be plagued by the white grunts, and people were quickly hauling in fish after fish with essentially no other species as bycatch. As a break from the monotony of catching so many grunts (yes, we get spoiled quickly here in Florida haha), I was scanning the ocean around the boat just enjoying the beautiful day when all of a sudden, a long dark shadow cruised right alongside the boat, slowly ambling along. It was a good 4 ft long with stubby little pectoral fins, and an powerful elongated fusiform shape. As it slowly disappeared into the deep water, my face must have worn my puzzlement as the deckie glanced over and said, “Now, thats a kingfish. Big sucker, too.” What an awesome creature! The power that emenated from that fish as it cruised past me was easily apparent, and for a second, I actually began to worry whether I even wanted to hook into such a beastly fish. Only for a second though, because I quickly tossed out a freelined pinfish, this time with a nice length of wire leader. However, the stormy previous day must have pushed fish down the water column, because despite a plethora of baits being freelined and ballooned throughout the day behind the boat, only the captain’s expertly rigged and bridled bait was grabbed by a small king in the afternoon, but it came undone after a run that lasted only a few seconds.

Meanwhile, the boat continued moving spots, plying different reefs for groupers for it’s little competition. Eventually, we arrived on a reef where a few grouper were caught. Seconds after my pinfish was released to the bottom, it was slammed hard, and I was hooked up to a fish that charged away from me unrelentlessly. Only seconds later, “ping!” My 25 lb leader had met it’s end on the edge of a sharp rock. Shaking my head at my lack of foresight, I quickly tied on 40 lb leader, and sent another pinfish down. This time, the pinfish ambled around for a short while before it was slammed again. I set the hook and immediately started to wrestle a fish away from the rocks as quickly as possible. After a few minutes of almost stalemated battle, I saw a faint orangish gray shape appear beneath the boat. Popping up to the surface, I found myself looking into the angry bright orange open mouth of a Red Grouper (Epinephelus morio). As I had expected, a worthy opponent with stunning coloration!

After a quick photo, it was released and quickly darted back into the aquamarine ocean. This is what I came for! Another pinfish was sent back down, and after a few minutes wait, WHAM! Another hard hit! This time the grouper proved too strong to overcome, and it rocked itself within seconds. Luckily, I was able to muscle it back out of the rocks and despite it’s ferverent struggles against me, up to the surface. This time, I was faced with a fish stark in stony gray with wormy black markings. This was an aggressive looking Gag Grouper (Mycteroperca microlepis), with an absolutely beastly looking grill and equally nasty temperament. Despite it’s hard fight against me, it went beserk on deck and when it’s heavy thick tail slapped the boat deck, it resounded deeply.

Unfortunately, the aerator of the fellow anglers around me had quit unexpectedly during the trip, and thier supply of live bait had quickly dwindled away. With the only person having live bait, I was soon hooking up with groupers left and right. Despite my relatively heavy outfit, however, I would still say that nearly half of my hookups were met with losses from the power train groupers. They tested every knot, every connection, every hook to the maximum and bending metal was effortless for these monsters.

Wanting to share the fun, I tossed on a live pinfish onto my gf’s outfit, and she was hooked up within moments. Unfortunately, she lost almost every fish at first, not having enough strength to overcome such powerful fish. Luckily, she managed to hook into a pair of smaller groupers, and soon had also added a Red and Gag grouper to her own species list. With only a small bucket of bait to share between the two of us, we soon dwindled on bait, and we were eventually forced to switch back to cut squid which immediately yielded only grunts.

Luckily, the boat decided to switch locations again, and this last location would end up yielding wide open groupers, with almost every type of large bait being ungulfed by grouper for everyone on the boat. Soon everyone’s biceps and veins were bulging as they went one on one with these hefty reef gangsters. Eventually, the “jackpot” grouper was caught and released, being a relatively small 15 lb grouper caught on a 2 lb whole mackerel.

Before long, time was up and a boat full of exhausted but satisfied anglers were heading back to the Clearwater ports. With no bag or size limit on the White Grunt, they were mercilessly slaughtered, and my only hope is that none of them were wasted. However, as a highly regulated fishery, I have full faith that the Florida take limits were scientifically evaluated and established with the health of the fishery in mind.

With that last trip, it was time to leave Florida and return back to the West coast. Unlike my childhood experience with a stormy and fishless Florida, the state had re-established itself in my mind as one of the premier fisheries of the world. Despite a steady few days of action, there were still countless species of fish for me to catch and encounter in the state, and I can’t wait to return back to the sunshine state in search of more adventure and hopefully more fish!

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