Grabbing Keys Grouper

If anything defines fresh Florida seafood, it must be the famous grouper sandwich.

In truth, this species’ firm, mild filets work well in a variety of preparations, but first things first — you gotta catch ‘em before you can eat ‘em. In the Florida Keys, Capt. Jack Carlson finds fall offering an increasing level of grouper availability and he’s figured out a game plan for putting limits in the cooler.

Gag, red and black grouper are the common species in South Florida and once autumn brings cooling temperatures, Carlson looks for a shallow migration. This movement, he said, is likely motivated as much by feeding opportunities, as it is creature comfort.

“In the fall, these grouper will move off the deeper wrecks and come into the shallower areas, where you’ll find them on anything from rock formations to sea fans and coral heads in 20-25 feet,” Carlson said. “Water temperature is part of it, but also bait migrations. You get a lot of ballyhoo and schools of pilchards moving into the area. The grouper also eat a lot of grunts, crabs and shrimp.”

Occasionally, grouper migrating into the shallows will chase ballyhoo to the surface. That’s when Carlson will break out the deep diving Savage Gear plugs and troll across attractive spots. Grouper strike fast and pull hard, so retrofitting plugs with Mustad 36329NP-BN treble ensures you can hold whatever you hook.

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Jigging also tempts those Keys grouper, so Carlson keeps a selection of Mustad Shrimp Jigs handy for these shallow water presentations. Designed to sit on the bottom with its extra strong Opti Angle Needle hook point angled upward, this jig is a good choice for the grouper, as it helps ensure a quick, efficient hook up. Tipping the jig with a live pilchard, shrimp or cut bait is usually an easy sell to the aggressive grouper.

Another popular option for shallow grouper is the knocker rig — essentially, a 2- to 4-ounce slip sinker threaded directly onto the leader before tying to an 8/0 Mustad Demon Circle Hook. With the weight moving freely and “knocking” against the hook, a fish can grab the bait and pull the leader through the sinker without immediately coming tight. This tends to result in more successful hook ups, as the fish isn’t spooked by the tension of a fixed weight. (Tip: Placing a bead between the weight and hook protects your knot.)

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“My favorite baits for the knocker rig are pinfish, pilchards or ballyhoo,” Carlson said. “I’ll switch up the hooking styles to give the bait different presentations. Sometimes we’ll hook the bait through the jaw and out the top of the head so he’ll sit straight on the bottom; or we’ll hook it through the back of the head, so it creates more of a struggling display. You just have to see what the fish are homing in on.

“Both presentations work. Sometimes, I’ll also throw a flat line out the bottom and let it sit. The bait will work its way down through the water column and the black grouper — and even mutton snapper — will come and eat that.”

Carlson fishes his grouper baits on 7-foot heavy spinning outfits with 30-pound Tuff-Line braided main line and a 40-pound fluorocarbon leader. This gear offers plenty of firepower, but Carlson advises a quick bite response and a diligent fight.

“Pop them hard and keep the pressure on the fish.”

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