A truer statement has never been spoken, and it is also true that what’s under the water will determine where the fish are. When you know how to catch grouper and snapper, you will know how to find them. When you can find them, they are easy to catch.
They like structure, such as a coral heads to hide in and ambush bait fish or other sea creatures. Then they rush back into the structure to wait for another meal to float by. That’s why many anglers get snagged right after they get a bite. If the angler isn’t quick enough, the grouper grabs the bait and rushes back into his structure. The angler isn’t really snagged, however, he has just experienced a typical grouper maneuver. If the angler just eases off the line for a few minutes the grouper will come swimming out and if you’re quick enough you have a 50/50 chance of landing this fish.
Now how did I learn about these grouper habits? My early years of grouper fishing took place in the Bahamas, where I first started sailing and cruising in different sailboats during the winter months. I sailed for many years in the Abaca chain of Islands. Fishing was a secondary but complimentary activity to sailing, both for food and sport. It was in Hope Town in Abaci, in the Bahamas, that I met a true island fisherman. Truman Major was my guide and teacher in the ways and habits of grouper and other game fish in the islands. He taught me not only how to fish but where to find them.
Thirty years ago fishing for grouper was a piece of cake in the Bahamas. Heading out toward the reef in anywhere from 60′ to 90′ of water, you could drop a good chunk of bait and wham you had a grouper or snapper in just moments.
As the years went by it became harder and harder to find fish, especially grouper. What happened? As more tourists visited the islands the local fishermen who supplied the restaurants and hotels began using fish traps to meet the increased demand for fish. Using fish traps in 60′ to 90′ feet of water they literally fished the local fish out and left very few to reproduce. It became very difficult to catch grouper unless you fished in 150′ to 250′ of water just off the edge of the reef. This area was a very narrow band as it dropped off to 600 feet almost immediately. Sport fishing for grouper became almost non-existent. It was only trolling for larger fish. In the deeper water that was available.
This prompted me to move my fishing boat and interest to the Florida Keys, and the Key West area in particular offered the best location because of its geographic location to the Atlantic and the Gulf waters.
1. TIDES – Moving water carries the food that fish eat, and ebbing and flooding tides’ move food to the fish. At a slack tide, no food is coming their way so they don’t eat. It is that simple, no food flowing by – no eating Period. Tide tables are useful tools for determining the most productive fishing times.
2. COLOR OF WATER – In Clear water, fish see the lines and hooks, so smaller diameter lines need to be used, and hooks must be hidden inside the bait. In milky water fish can’t see lines and hooks so line and hook size are not as critical. This applies to fishing at night as well.
3. STRUCTURE – Find some structure, wrecks, reefs, rock piles, debris, or breaks in the bottom depth. Look for something sticking up. Fish don’t live in the desert. Local charts or fishermen may be able to help you find these spots and a depth sounder is critical.
4. ELECTRONICS – Use your GPS to guide you to your selected location, then use your fish finder to find that structure, or anything that holds fish, even a hump in a flat area or a hole in the channel, anything but a flat bottom. Hills, mountains, wrecks rock piles all are great.
5. PLOTTERS – Start drift fishing, if you haven’t found the spot you want to anchor at. When you hook up to a fish, mark the spot on your plotter. After five or six passes over the area you’ll build a history of where they are, then anchor in the hottest spot. Be sure you anchor up-tide of this spot. Then start chumming.
6. ANCHORING – I like to use a Bruce anchor with about 10′ of chain. I secure the end of the chain to the bottom of the anchor. They provide a hole at the base of the flukes to shackle the chain to the anchor. I do not place the shackle at the end of the shank. Then lay the chain along the shank and wrap the chain at the end of the shank with 60 or 80 lb. test mono line. When you are ready to raise the anchor the mono line will break and the anchor will pull out by the flukes and not the shank. Don’t tie the mono with so many wraps that it won’t break when you pull with the strength of the boat. You won’t lose many anchors this way and probably won’t break up the coral either. Try to anchor in clear sandy area if you can see the bottom. Remember anchor up-tide of your honey spot or wreck or structure.
7. CHUM – Use a block of frozen chum, or a Chum Churn device. The Chum Churn can use up old bait or shrimp boat trash or any left over fish parts from your last trips. It also makes a noise that sometimes attracts the fish too. This should start a feeding frenzy. Snappers will quit your area as soon as the chum runs out so be sure to keep your chum block fresh… Don’t over chum, just keep enough going to keep the school interested. Bigger fish will come by later to lunch on the snappers if you can keep them there.
8. TACKLE – For grouper I like to use a stiff rod about 5’6″ to 6′ in length and my favorite is a Shakespeare Ugly Stick. My favorite reel is the EVEROL waterproof series. It is simple to operate and a real beauty as well. For line, I use Black widow or Red Devil line of 50 lb. test with the EVEROL reels. I prefer an Egg sinker of six to 8 oz. with a swivel tied on the end. Then add a 30 to a 40-lb. test leader of 6′ to 8′ with a large Mustad Demon Circle hook on the end of the leader. With this setup, if you get snagged, you’ll break the leader and save the swivel and sinker. The circle hook is a must for grouper fishing since you must release any short groupers. With a circle hook 95% of your catches will have the hook in the corner of their mouth rather then inside their belly. When my anglers catch 40 to 50 grouper in a morning, we don’t want to kill any except the few we take home for dinner. Using a circle hook also allows you to place the rod in a rod holder and the fish will hook themselves. This is why long liners use circle hooks. These were dated back to the POLYNESIAN days when fish bones were use as hooks. It’s most important not to jerk the line when you feel a bite. Just reel gently and as Mr. Grouper goes swimming away with the bait he will hook himself up in the corner of the mouth. Then reel like Heck and enjoy the fight.
Now while you’re waiting for that stiff Ugly Stick to go jumping up and down. Take your favorite Shakespeare spinning rod, the longer the better, with a Shakespeare spinning reel. This should be loaded with eight to 10 lb. test Red Devil Mono, (This is almost invisible in the water) and tie a no. 1 or no. 2 Mustad, long shank hook on the end of the line. You can add a split shot or two about 18″ up from the hook if needed.
Hook a piece of striped ballyhoo or squid sliced into 4″ stripes and just dangling from the hook (don’t double hook it). If you can get a frozen bag of small minnows, you can hook two of those on. Hook one through the eye and out the side of the belly, and the second one through the eye only. These will nearly hide the hook.
Throw a handful of the frozen minnows into your chum slick along with your line and bait. It is important to open the bail of the spinning reel and let the line freely drift back with the chum. This keeps your bait and hook stationary in the vicinity of the loose handful of minnows you tossed earlier.
When the line shoots off the reel like crazy just close, the bail and lift the rod he’ll hook himself as he swims off with the bait. Your yellow tail dinner is on the way if you can reel him in before Mr. Barracuda helps himself to a free lunch. Reel fast and lift him into the boat quickly or you may end up with just the head. That’s why I like a long spinning rod. WOW!!!
If the grouper rod starts jumping up and down put the spinning rod in a rod holder or pass it onto your buddy. Again don’t jerk the rod just start to reel like mad and enjoy the fight. If you have found a hot spot, your shoulders will be aching from reeling in grouper after grouper. If the hot and heavy action stops and the tide is still flowing, it’s time to move onto a new location. You have either caught all the grouper in this spot, or else the sharks or barracudas have moved in and everyone else has moved on. It’s time to repeat the above process of finding the fish again.
9. BIGGER FISH – While you are busy pulling up the grouper and reeling in the yellowtail, you might want to catch one of the bigger fish that will visit your fishing stop. Simply put out a ballyhoo double hooked with a trace of light wire leader, or a live bait on the end of a balloon and let it drift way back behind your chum. Using a 20 lb. test spinning rod and reel with the bail very loose you might catch that big one that is out there to pick off one of the snappers. The little guys are so busy with the chum. They are not watching out for Mr. Big Fish. A big Kingfish, Cobia, Tuna, or even Sailfish is looking for his lunch too.
10. TROLLING – Another method to catch grouper is deep trolling. This is done in 25′ to 50′ of water just off the reef or anywhere there is structure. I use this method when sea conditions are rough and we don’t want to anchor or drift. I call this the lazy mans way of fishing. Just troll two rods using the same Shakespeare Ugly Sticks and EVEROL reels that you use for bottom fishing. At the end of the line I use a 200 lb. test swivel snap and an 8′ long 80 lb. test leaders. At the end of this leader I tie on MANN’s +30 plug. No weight is needed in front of this lure.
Troll one bait 40′ behind the boat and the second one 80′ behind the boat. That way if Mr. Grouper doesn’t like the first one he will get a second chance. My favorite colors are Gold 80%, red & white, pink and chartreuse, green and blue, a hot yellow, white etc. these make up the other 20%. You need at least a dozen of this bait since you will lose some to big fish, rocks etc. Troll at five knots most of the time if the water gets shallower than 25′; slow down and the bait will rise up. MANN’S has a new +40 that I can’t wait to try out in 40′ to 50′ of water.
It is important to monitor the depth as you are trolling and adjust your speed to keep your bait out of the coral. Since I’m not usually a lazy fisherman, I use this method only when I’m on my way out to my favorite fishing spots. This gives me a chance to look for new structure that I might miss running fast. Also, on a rough day, it doesn’t beat up my anglers. Sometimes, when the weather changes and the ride is rough on the way home, I’ll pull out a little earlier and troll on the way back to the harbor. We always get BIG grouper this way; it seems the shorty grouper aren’t interested in these big baits. Big Bait means big fish. These MANN’S baits are sure winners for a lazy fisherman and that includes me sometime too.