All set to rock and troll

Published March 17, 2007

Grouper season is open again and Capt. Don Chancey anticipates a rocky start.

But that's a good thing. In fact, "rocky" is just what you want when hunting Nature Coast grouper. Random limestone outcroppings scattered across the gradually sloping bottom attract healthy populations of gag grouper.

With the Feb. 15-March 15 closure behind us, licensed anglers, or those fishing with licensed charter captains, can toss their keepers on ice instead of back into the water.

Running out of Homosassa, Chancey favors this pursuit, as evidenced by the "Grouper Hunter" logo on his fishing cap. As we move into the leading edge of the warm season, Chancey holds a rosy outlook for the local grouper scene.

"There should be plenty of fish out there and for the next couple of months it should be good," he said.

Fishing a 22-foot center console, Chancey runs just west out of the Homosassa River to spots in 20-40 feet. The entire depth range can produce, but the fish will follow a seasonal progression.

"They'll be moving out deeper as the water warms," Chancey said.

Armed with 7-foot, heavy-action boat rods and 4/0 class conventional reels, Chancey pulls big-lipped plugs over the rock piles. To a grouper, these lures resemble the mullet, trout and other forage species they dine on.

Granted, at slow speed and close range, most grouper can distinguish real from fake. But trolling at 5-6 mph means the fish have just a split second to decide if they want to eat. If a grouper is hungry enough, he'll blast forth and crush any potential meal that dots his radar.

The predators will detect a plug's vibrations well before spotting the meal. That's why Chancey deploys his plugs 50 yards or more upcurrent of the spot. Giving the fish time to salivate over an approaching target tends to heighten their aggression.

Also, he'll drag his lures past the outer edge of a rock. Gags often sit on the downcurrent outskirts to ambush whatever the tide tumbles their way.

Proper plug positioning plays an integral role in this game. Run the lures too high and grouper may not feel like running upstairs to eat. Run them too low and you risk snagging the bottom.

"Braided line makes the plugs dive a lot deeper quicker," Chancey said. "You don't have to run them so far back."

Chancey staggers his plugs at about 60-100 feet behind the boat. If you're new to this deal, experimenting with line length and boat speed will help determine a productive pattern you can replicate.

"In the deeper water you may want to let out a little more line (to reach the bottom)," he said. "But if you reel up your plug and it has a bunch of grass on it, then you're running too deep and you probably want to take up some line.

"It's just something you develop a feel for as you do it."

When a grouper strikes, the boat's forward motion usually pulls the fish away from the rocks and into open water. A freight train gag - something in the 20-pound range - can change that script in a hurry, so always assume a battle and put the heat on your fish until he surfaces.

Coastal rock piles see intense feeding competition, so keep moving forward after a hookup and you may score a double-header.

On clear days, you'll see the shadows of submerged rock piles. If you don't spot anything, just deploy a set of plugs, pick a heading and troll until you get a strike. Mark any active spots on your GPS and return with follow-up passes. Stagger each subsequent pass a few degrees in a constant direction to thoroughly cover the area.

Crab trap buoys are a good indication of potential grouper bottom. The crustaceans live around rocky structure, so a line of Styrofoam traps will point you to a likely trolling target.

Plug management

Big plugs can go from a grouper fisherman's best friend to his worst enemy in a matter of seconds. Dangling treble hooks grab shorts, shirts and sometimes skin. Even when properly hooked to a rod's guide frame, big grouper plugs can reach out and snag passersby.

Minimize this hazard with Velcro-sealed lure wraps. Available through most offshore tackle retailers, these handy accessories sandwich your lures against the rods to keep them out of trouble.

Big plugs can also cause problems at the point of capture. You sling a big grouper into the boat, snap your souvenir photos and reach to remove the hooks. Suddenly the fish thrashes and the lure's free end hooks your palm. The more you and the fish shake, the higher your emergency room bill rises.

Avoid painful mishaps by firmly gripping your grouper just inside its gill covers. Avoid the spiky gill rakers and squeeze the fleshy flap. Use needle-nose pliers or a long-handled hook plucker to free your plug.

With big fish, or if rough seas complicate the dehooking process, toss your fish right into the ice, clip the leader and retrieve your plug after the brute goes to sleep.

Remember, keeper gag grouper must measure at least 22 inches overall. If you fish deeper water, red grouper have a 20-inch minimum. Black grouper, distinguishable from gags by distinct chain patterns on their flanks, also have to be at least 22 inches. Daily bag limit is five grouper in aggregate, only one can be a red grouper.

For grouper charters, contact Chancey at (352) 303-9399.