Originally published in Tideline magazine in November 2011
By Matt Winter
The game has changed.
For as long as most folks can remember, Lowcountry anglers have bundled up in the cooler months, thrown a block or two of frozen squid in the boat and taken a chilly ride off Charleston to catch grouper, snapper and black sea bass.
But the steady drumbeat of tighter regulations on snapper-grouper species has put a chill on such traditions. This November and December, both black sea bass and red snapper remain off the menu for recreational anglers. Federal regulators have closed those fisheries to help stocks rebuild.
So why bother?
“Two trips in a row. Forty-five minutes and we’re done, limited out,” says veteran commercial and recreational angler Paul Godbout. “These big grouper, they’re almost too easy now.”
That’s right, grouper is in, and the fishing is phenomenal. But you’ve got to get them while the getting’s good. Grouper fishing shuts downs for a spawning season closure from Jan. 1 through the end of April.
The keys to success, Godbout says, are nice live baits, the right equipment and dropping in the right spot.
Where to go
Thanks to all the new bottom-fishing regulations in play, the trick these days is not just finding and catching grouper, but avoiding the other fish on the no-no list.
One of the most attractive aspects of wintertime bottom fishing has been that huge numbers of snappers, sea bass and grouper move in to the reefs and live-bottom areas from 60 out to 120 feet of water. To find big gag and scamp grouper and avoid swarms of sea bass and snapper, anglers might have to rethink these traditional tactics.
“Push out a little deeper,” Godbout says. “If it’s nice enough to go to 120 (feet deep), then it’s most likely nice enough for you to go to 155. You’re talking a distance of about 10 or 12 miles.
“Yeah, there are lots of grouper in shallow right now, but we’re trying to avoid killing a 4-pound black sea bass, to avoid killing a red snapper you can’t keep. So we’re going straight to the ledge.”
So for just a few more bucks in gas, anglers should be able to find heavy concentrations of grouper on hard-bottom ledges from The Deli and South Edisto Banks to the south all the way north to the Winyah Scarp. These rich bottom-fishing grounds include such well-known spots as Georgetown Hole, Southwest Banks, Edisto Banks and the Royal Terrace.
Anglers, though, should steer clear of the Marine Protected Area north of Royal Terrace and south of South Edisto Banks. Trolling is allowed in this specially regulated area, but bottom fishing is not.
Godbout, who with partner Scott Akey owns Sellsfish Premium Seafood in Summerville, is quick to note the quality and quantity of other bottom-dwellers out on the ledge: “Much bigger triggerfish, giant pinks (red porgies) … and the queens have shown up in force.”
Pushing off the ledge even deeper, past 200 feet, anglers also can encounter great concentrations of snowy grouper.
What you’ll need
Anyone’s who’s ever caught a nice grouper will tell you: These fish are no joke.
“We call them freight trains because that’s how most of the big grouper hit,” says Godbout. “They pick it up and head for the hills. They’re trying to get back in their holes. So keep your drags buttoned down to just under breaking strength on the line.”
Beefing up tackle is the first step when grouper fishing.
“I don’t like light line. These people who go out there with 30- and 50-pound test, they’re wasting their time on groupers. They’re breaking off as many as they’re trying to boat, and that’s a problem. Because when you break off a big grouper and he goes charging back down, it’ll shut that bite off in a second.”
Godbout uses heavy braided line, anywhere from 65-pound-test at the lightest up to 150-pound-test.
His crew typically fishes with a couple of multiple-hook dropper rigs, also known as “chicken rigs.” These familiar rigs are often used for black sea bass and other bottom species, but for grouper, Godbout will lengthen the “drop” loops to about 12 inches and make the rigs about 4 feet long. This gives big live baits more room to swim without getting tangled together. Strong No. 7 circle hooks — Owners are his favorite — and a big bank sinker round out the rig.
While anglers work these chicken rigs, Godbout usually deploys a much beefier setup for trophy grouper. He likes to use a heavy trolling rod-and-reel combo spooled with 150-pound braided mainline. He adds a topshot of about 50 feet of 150-pound-test monofilament, followed by a heavy snap swivel. To that he attaches a heavy grouper rig: About 8 feet of 150-pound-test mono with a dropper loop for the weight tied in about 3 feet down. He crimps a 10- to 12-ought Owner circle hook to the end of the rig.
“It’s a brute rig, but big fish will break it. A really big grouper will break it.”
Stout rigs, rods and reels aren’t just for fighting grouper. They’re also for overcoming the current.
“When the current’s ripping like it was during this full-moon phase, we’re taking 30 ounces of lead to hold bottom on the ledge,” Godbout says.
Running a little farther out may be a downside to live-baiting for grouper. Getting to sleep a little later is a definite upside.
“This isn’t the old-school way of bottom fishing, where you throw a bunch of squid and cigar minnows in the boat and go.” Godbout says. “There’s no need to leave at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. Leave at daybreak.”
Light’s necessary to catch live bait, which can be done a number of ways. Inshore, anglers can use light tackle and nets to round up small, common finfish.
“Big grouper love spots. Spots, croakers and pinfish. All of them work. Pinfish are around every marina right now. Throw a couple of handfuls of chum in the water and they’ll come up. Throw a cast net over them, get a hundred pinfish and go.”
Working sabiki rigs around buoys is another productive option. Just about every buoy along the shipping channel and further out hold massive schools of potential grouper baits. Godbout’s crew found easy pickings at the weather buoy during one recent trip.
“There was two acres of bait around the buoy when we got there,” he says. “So it was easy sabiki-ing. Eight-inch sardines, 10-inch cigar minnows, goggle eyes and my favorite, hardtails, which are little bluerunners, about 6 to 8 inches long. I like them because they’re indestructible.”
Catching bait with sabiki rigs isn’t rocket science, but a few tips can still help.
First, keep in mind that bigger isn’t always better when it comes to sabikis.
“What we’re finding with the goggle eyes and hardtails, they like the ones with the red beads on them,” Godbout says. “And I like the smallest ones you can get, like an 8, a 10 or a 12. Very small sabikis.”
Secondly, try to position the rig about 10 feet down near a buoy. It usually doesn’t have to sink any deeper. And don’t pump the rod, just reel. If you pump the rod, any hooked baits can get off.
Third, designate one person on board to do nothing other than take baits off the sabiki rig. With their string of tiny hooks, these rigs are notorious for snagging shirt sleeves, hats and everything else on a boat.
Lastly, don’t get too wrapped up in preserving a used sabiki rig.
“I wind them up and throw them in the garbage. They’re a one-shot deal. The hooks rust. Just take it off and throw it away.”
Godbout says he usually feels comfortable heading to the fishing grounds once he has 50 to 60 live baits in the boat for four people.
When fishing from an anchored boat, live baits should be hooked just above the anal fin, so they swim away from the rigs. When drift fishing, baits should be hooked through the nose.
Watch the regs
Bottom-fishing regulations can change on a dime. Seasons can end ahead of schedule, and rules can change. Before setting out on a grouper trip, anglers should check on the latest developments at safmc.net, the website of the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council.
Here are a few rules and tips:
- Don’t tie up to buoys when catching live baits.
- We careful about using regulated fish as live baits. Size and creel limits count.
- Circle hooks are now required for the snapper-grouper fishery. No J-hooks allowed when using natural baits.
- Bring along some kind of fish identification book or cheat sheet. There are many kinds of grouper, snapper and other fish out there.
- The aggregate bag limit of three groupers per person/day includes: gag, black, snowy, misty, red, scamp, tiger, yellowedge, yellowfin yellowmouth, blueline tilefish, sand tilefish, golden tilefish, coney, graysby, red hind and rock hind. Maximum of one gag or black grouper (but not both) per person/day. Snowy grouper limited to one per vessel per trip.
Again, make sure to read up on all the details and check for any changes to regulations before you go.