Offshore: Willing grouper trolling shallows

Published February 23, 2007

Trying to catch legal-sized grouper in water less than 40 feet is not an easy task. But if you do your homework and stay aware of the changing conditions you may be surprised at how many fish are in these depths.

Unlike deep-water grouper fishing, there are many ways to target these fish in the shallower depths. One of the best methods is trolling, as this technique helps locate an area holding fish. Some people prefer pulling plugs. Other effective lures are bucktails jigs or a large spoon trailing a No. 2 or 3 planer.

You will find the grouper in the large areas of hard bottom close to shore from Tarpon Springs to Sarasota. There are not as many large ledges or rock piles in these areas, so set the range on the bottom machine somewhere between 8 and 15 feet. Many of these fish havens will not be seen at all because they consist of only small cracks or potholes that have no features or changes in depth.

Another effective technique for catching these fish is slow-trolling live baits. It is almost the same method we use when trolling for king mackerel. Downriggers are used instead of planers and a reel loaded with 50-pound tackle in place of a high-speed reel with 20- or 25-pound test. Baits such as cigar minnows, small blue runners and Spanish sardines are preferred because they troll so well. This method works best in a specific area, meaning a small area with many different ledges and or fish-holding locations. The trolling speed should be less than 2 mph to make sure the baits look as natural as possible.

Rigging for this type of fishing is simple. I use about 8 to 10 feet of fluorocarbon leader connected to a 4/0 or 6/0 short-shank hook. Leave at least 30 feet between the bait and the downrigger clip. Set the downrigger so the ball is 5-10 feet off the bottom, and stay aware of sudden depth changes to keep it from snagging the bottom.

Another alternative and sometimes more productive method of targeting shallow-water grouper is the free-line approach. Watch the tides in your area. Fish on the days with four tides; the stronger the better. When a ledge, or rock pile is located, anchor uptide of the structure and free-line a half-frozen sardine behind the boat to the spot.

Just like conventional bottom fishing, live baits should be deployed when the fish start to chew. Always keep some tension on the line while letting the bait out, as most hits occur on the way down. Rigs should be at least 40-pound outfits, coupled to 50- to 60-pound fluorocarbon leader, and a 6/0 to 8/0 hook. Chumming with small pieces of sardines and squid will help get the bite going, but tossing a few live chummers now and then will keep these fish in a frenzy. The idea behind this type of fishing is stealth, so the cleaner the water is, the lighter the tackle should be.

Steve Papen charters out of Indian Shores and can be reached at (727) 642-3411 or www.fintastic inc.com.