The gag grouper season opened July 1 in the Gulf of Mexico and continues until Dec. 3. By all accounts, it should be one of the best in recent years, with lots of legal-sized fish over 22 inches available.
Most anglers report that there are loads of “eating-size” gag grouper in the Gulf these days, but scientists are still concerned that there appear to be low numbers of the largest adult males that are responsible for most successful spawning. Like many fishes, gags change sex as they age, with the males evolving from mature females. Thus, unless a lot of females escape hooks and natural predators to an advanced age — about 11 years in this case — there are few males on the deep reefs at spawning time.
Gags can get huge. Bay area angler Billie Currie caught one that went 62 pounds, 6 ounces off St. Pete in 2003, a fish that still holds the 50-pound-test IGFA record for men. The all-tackle record scaled 80 pounds, 6 ounces, and was caught off Destin in 1993. These giant fish could be as much as 30 years old, according to NOAA scientists.
In midsummer, most gags are still in relatively deep water, 60 feet and more due to the warm water, but as the cold fronts begin to arrive they pull nearer shore. Mid-October to November should offer action at depths as shallow as 30 feet on the big rock flats from Anclote Key north to Crystal River, and many anglers will find the gags by towing a large diving plug like the Mann’s Plus 25 to reach down close to the structure.
Some fish also move on to rock piles in as little as 10 feet of water off Homosassa at this time of year and again in spring, and can be caught there by casting diving plugs and even big, noisy topwaters. Most use 80-pound braid to keep the fish out of the rocks in this situation.
Trolling the Tampa ship channel will remain a productive option, as well, and after several months of closed season it’s likely that this hard-fished venue will again be restocked with keepers for the first few weeks, at least. Most “ditch” experts like Vance Tice of Tampa pull large jigs, 4 to 8 ounces, dressed with plastic swimmer-tails 6 to 8 inches long, behind a downrigger ball just at the lip of the dredged channel. Tice puts the lure as much as 50 feet behind the ball — he says putting it closer often spooks the fish.
The classic method of catching gags, however, is to find a rockpile or ledge with sonar and GPS and drop down a live pinfish or grunt 4 to 5 inches long on heavy gear. Seasoned reef anglers have hundreds of these spots fixed in their GPS units and can return to them accurately time after time. Less expert anglers can buy lists of “community holes,” well-known outcroppings that are starting points for bottom fishing. While these commercialized numbers rarely hold many keepers, they are often part of much longer chains of rock that do, so provide a good general guide of where to start searching.
The largest gags are usually found at depths of 100 feet and more, with the edge of the continental shelf some 100 miles west of St. Pete Beach a prime area for the lunkers. Water here drops from 200 feet rapidly to more than a mile, but the gags are found on the shallow side of the edge.
Most anglers use 60-pound tackle or heavier with 80- to 100-pound test leaders, 6/0 to 8/0 extra strong hooks and 4 to 6 ounces of weight, depending on depth and current. Circle hooks are required for gags, as for all reef species these days.
While some reef fishes are nibblers, the gag makes it very clear when you get a bite; the strike of a 20-pounder will just about put you on your knees, and then it’s a pulling contest for the first 20 feet as you struggle to horse the fish away from his rocky lair.
For those without a safe offshore boat or the know-how to find the reefs, an easy and economical way to get at the gags when the season opens is a party boat. Captain Mark Hubbard at Treasure Island runs several of the best-known in the area; Visit www.hubbardsmarina.com. A half-day trip is around $50 per person, 12-hour trips farther offshore (and more likely to catch big gags) are about $125.