- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
As I started to break out a rod as thick as a broom handle with a grapefruit-size reel, Pat Rankin yanked it out of my hand. Hey, what gives, I asked?
"We're not interested in towing a cruise ship," he drawled. "And besides, if you use the right techniques with lighter tackle, you'll still catch plenty of grouper and enjoy it a lot more."
Heck, I'd always operated on the notion that you need something strong enough to lift a pallet of sumo wrestlers when doing battle with any species of grouper. How else to yank those pesky critters from rocky crevices and wrecks?
A Light Touch
Rankin steered his 25-footer along a ridge just north of the Marquesas Keys, about 40 miles off Key West, Fla. Keeping his eyes fastened to the depth sounder, he marked several small mounds on the bottom in 18 feet of water and he circled up-current.
If an angler can keep a grouper from using its powerful tail to turn downward and run for cover, even giants reds can be tamed with light tackle.
"The trick is to get up-current of where you want to fish and have your lines as near-vertical as possible—not at a severe angle," advised Rankin. He then drops chum tubes (PVC containers with 1-inch holes drilled in the side) near the bottom, the purpose being to attract grouper but not with so much chum they get satiated.
Rankin handed me a spinning rod with 12-pound-test line that had about four feet of 30-pound mono as leader and a 4/0 hook. A squid was used for bait on my rod, while he used a similar rig and fished with a live pinfish.
In about 15 minutes, Rankin's rod bent like a rainbow and he set the hook hard. Pumping furiously to keep the fish from rocking up, he succeeded in bringing a plump 8-pound red grouper to the boat in just a few minutes.
"The trick is keep its head from turning toward the bottom so it can't use its tail to make a power run into the rock pile," said Rankin. "Pump and wind hard and don't allow any slack. If you do that, you'll land even big reds on light tackle."
Indeed, we fished a series of rock piles and caught numerous reds, all of which we released. Since the water was relatively shallow, the grouper didn't embolize upon bringing them to the surface and undoubtedly all survived.
I quickly discovered that small red grouper peck at the bait before taking, whereas a large fish sucks the whole thing in and takes off like no tomorrow. If you fail to be ready when that happens, you can say "sayonara" because the grouper will already be safely tucked away inside a cavernous home—and no amount of tugging will do any good at that stage.
Going Deep, Going Shallow
Fishing deeper water for red grouper makes it tougher to use light tackle because it's usually necessary to add enough weight to get the bait to bottom. However, 12- to 15-pound test can be used in 70 or 80 feet of water in most cases, providing you're not fishing a wreck or area with lots of obstructions. Too much current also makes it difficult, so just before or after a slack tide is best.
Look for hard-bottom areas with little structure nearby. Reds like to ambush their prey and be close to their home base. In deep water, it will be difficult to feel the bite, set the hook and then try fighting the fish in time to keep it away from its hidey-hole. Therefore, any nearby structure makes red grouper fishing on light tackle a very iffy proposition.
Live menhaden is a favorite bait off many Gulf regions such as Destin. Use an egg sinker than can slide on the line. Cut baits of squid and bonito also work well, although as with most species, red grouper prefer their meals wiggling and alive.
Off the east coast of Florida, March is a productive time to hunt for reds because the seas are usually bouncy from the windy conditions. Red grouper often come into the jetties when it's rough, seeking crabs and other goodies. Chunks of ballyhoo with a sweetener of a piece of squid will seldom be passed up if you get it near a red.
Tips & Techniques
Red grouper caught in in the shallows off Florida's southern tip average 5 to 7 pounds and serve up a fierce battle to the light-tackle angler.
Most red grouper anglers report better success as dusk approaches rather than dawn. Although you can catch reds in 100 to 200 feet of water, there are plenty available in 30 feet or less in early spring.
Chumming will be more effective than in deep water as well, since the chum doesn't disperse as quickly and is more concentrated where you want to fish. Just keep an eye on the depth sounder and check out any areas with small undulations in the middle of plateaus, then start chumming and set out your rods.
Although fishing near bottom is de rigueur for targeting red grouper, trolling cuts and channels between shallow areas can sometimes result in good catches. The only problem here is fending off barracuda, which also usually inhabit channels and are always more than pleased to steal your catch—usually with a half-bodied chomp that leaves just a bloody head.
You can really go light with 6- to 8-pound tackle and pursue red grouper in shallow holes in areas west of Nine Mile Bank and Florida Bay at Florida's southern tip. The holes are depressions in the surrounding flats, sometimes only three or four feet deep. Most of these fish will be in the 5- to 7-pound range and they offer lots of delightful fights. Simply pole along quietly until you're within casting range of a hole and toss your offering so the current sweeps it naturally into the hole.
Red grouper (Epinephelus morio) can sometimes be encountered up to 30 pounds or more—the world record is 42 pounds, 4 ounces in 1997 off St. Augustine, Florida—but the average size runs 10 to 15 pounds. Unfortunately, fishing traps have greatly reduced the numbers and average size of red grouper, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico. But the resource seems to be improving in areas where traps are banned or restricted.
Although red grouper aren't as delectable as other members of their species (particularly gag and black grouper), they still taste plenty good when the chef knows what he or she is doing.
You can continue to pursue red grouper as if hunting squirrels with a bazooka, but isn't it more sporting to eschew the heavy stuff and go with light tackle? I know that since I've done that, it's been a lot more fun targeting reds.