By JAY MASTRY
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 2001
The widely accepted belief that grouper move to shallow water in the winter isn't always true. The sustained and extreme low water temperatures this winter have prevented many of these big bullies from roaming inshore.
Though many other bottom fish are plentiful and biting well in shallow depths, most successful grouper trips reported from here to Boca Grande have been in 90-150 feet.
My past two trips to 120 feet were worth the effort. We caught more than three dozen keepers up to 19 pounds. A few were reds; most were gags. Amberjack and banded rudderfish were bending rods when grouper weren't.
Live bait caught and caged the day before allowed us the early start necessary to fish the major solunar period we focused on. Calm water provided the opportunity to drift an area 42 miles southwest of Pass-A-Grille rather than anchoring and overfishing one spot.
Though I generally have considered dead bait effective for winter grouper digging, it wasn't where we were. Somewhat higher temperature at that depth made live bait more appealing -- the bigger the better. We caught a bunch on pinfish, but the largest grouper preferred the largest grunts. If you are planning an offshore trip, keep a close eye on the weather forecast. For safety, it's always wise to double up with another boat, especially for boaters with a single engine. Keep in mind that most cell phones don't have the range to work that far offshore and your VHF radio works only when your batteries do.
Though the wind may subside this weekend, it may be difficult to get offshore because of the swells caused by this week's west wind.
For those willing and able, anglers have been doing well aboard overnight trips to the middle grounds on the Florida Fisherman out of John's Pass. Anglers have caught limits of black, gag and red grouper. Fishing 100 miles offshore, they also loaded the fish boxes with yellowtail snapper, amberjack, mangrove snapper and a few kingfish.
Inshore fishing has been spotty, though we likely will see more activity. Gradually increasing water temperatures will help. Moving from this cycle of low tides in the mornings will enable trout to move back to the flats that have been mostly exposed.
Even sheepshead, which usually aren't considered temperature-conscious, haven't exactly been eating the bottom out of the boat. As their spawn approaches, look for sheepshead to fatten up around bridges, docks, rock piles and jetties leading to the Gulf of Mexico.
- Jay Mastry charters Jaybird out of St. Petersburg. Call (727) 321-2142.