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Serving many purposes

Grunts can be used for more than just table fare. They can be used as bait to bring snapper and grouper to the surface.

Published August 26, 2006

It's a common scam. A tourist takes a party boat fishing trip, returns with a stringer of grunts and ends up giving them away to a smooth-talking fellow passenger who says the fish are hardly worth cleaning.

He'll feed them to his cats, or so he says.

Truth be told, the modest grunt offers fine table fare - not too far behind that of the snapper and grouper, for which it often substitutes. Common to the same reefs, ledges and wrecks that host the sexier bottom fish, grunts are often more eager to bite.

Anglers in the know can quickly ice a tasty fish dinner while waiting for the often reluctant grouper or snapper to bite. There's no minimum length for grunts, but anything less than 10 inches won't yield enough meat to justify the filet knife effort.

Regarded as the B-Team of bottom fish, grunts are also beneficial to bottom fishermen because their frantic activity at the first sign of food often arouses the interest of larger fish. Swarming grunts stimulate larger predators that move in to investigate the feeding potential.

Now, with everyone competing for chow on the reef, opportunistic dining is commonplace - meaning any grunt that forgets to look over its shoulder every few seconds runs the risk of becoming Mr. Grouper's main course.

That said, anglers who reel up a grunt that's too small to filet can often upgrade by putting their newfound bait into service. Hook the grunt behind the dorsal fin, deploy it on your heaviest rod and hang on.

If you stick the rod in a holder, don't go far. A descending grunt often gets the big thump well before reaching bottom, and a big fish will bury itself in the reef if you don't get its head turned topside in a hurry.

Other popular B-Teamers

Barracuda: The thieves of the reef, 'cudas draw the ire of offshore fishermen who reluctantly acknowledge that they'll bring about one out of every three fish to the boat intact. In a nutshell, barracuda know that a big shadow settling over their bottom structure means easy pickings as fish after fish suddenly start rising awkwardly through the water column.

No doubt, there's nothing more frustrating than hooking a sneaky snapper and fighting it within a few yards of the surface, only to have a set of scissors with fins slash your fish in half. That's what 'cudas do.

But anglers who deploy live baits on wire leaders while sitting on a reef often find that the entertainment of 'cudas' blistering runs and frantic leaps somewhat offsets the rudeness of their larcenous ways. Blue runners, Spanish sardines and cigar minnows are popular options for engaging these reef alternates.

Ladyfish: They strike fast, leap high and keep on leaping until they spit your hook or you subdue them at boatside. Sometimes called a "poor man's tarpon" for their miniaturized resemblance to the silver king, ladyfish are a common bycatch of speckled trout pursuits. On light spinning tackle, they're as much fun as any gamefish.

Amid the thrills, remember the cardinal rule of ladyfish: Keep your catch outside the boat. This species is unquestionably the most notorious deck soiling fish in the sea. Everything's fine as long as you keep them over water. But swing that skinny rascal across your nice, clean deck, and the ladyfish will unleash a brutal barrage of posterior artillery.

Jack Crevalle: Jokingly known as "inshore tuna" for their incredible strength and endurance, jacks are probably the most underrated fish in coastal waters. Notorious for stealing baits intended for snook, redfish and speckled trout, they strike with authority and run like their tails are on fire.

They're not the prettiest fish swimming, and you probably won't eat more than one bite of jack crevalle. But if you're looking for a fish that will hit just about any bait, fight with unbreakable will and do so just about every month of the year, then the jack crevalle is the fish for you.

Consider the value

Despite the abundance and low demand of B-Teamers, don't lose sight of the big picture. Each plays a valuable role in the ecosystem in which it roams. Just what that role may be isn't always clear to anglers, but rest assured that their existence is justified.

Ladyfish and grunts provide forage for larger predators such as snook, sharks, kingfish and grouper, while 'cudas and jacks contribute by helping maintain balanced levels of baitfish and other smaller species.

Intrusion by a one of these fish is unquestionably frustrating when you're hunting something with a more admirable reputation. However, just as any football team's backup squad helps keep the starters sharp and well-practiced, fish such as grunts, barracuda, ladyfish and jack crevalle contribute to the overall health of your favorite fishery.

That said, practicing catch and release on even these homely fish will help perpetuate the cycle.

[Last modified August 26, 2006, 06:29:41]

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