For New Englanders it’s like not having Tom Brady for the last two months of the season. For the Heartlanders it’s like having Arron Rodgers on injured reserve for the two months when then chips are down.
The parody for us, that fish these gorgeous waters of Southwest Florida, is that we lost our winter star when government decided to continue closing the grouper harvest during the heart of our tourist season. Grouper, especially the gag grouper, comes inshore in the winter and has always been the large fish stable during the late fall and winter months. We really don’t have any other major size species here until the spring migration from the Keys that sends the kingfish, cobia, permit and tarpon our way.
It’s not that we didn’t try to tell them of the issue and ask a shift of closure months for here in Southwest Florida. At Federal Fishery Management meetings last summer we thought we had consensus that the closure would be shifted from the heights of the “season” – we’d have 45 days to two months to take and enjoy the culinary delights of freshly caught grouper.
When final rules were published we were denied the exception. Southwest Florida would be treated just like winter strongholds in the Panhandle whose high activity periods are months away.
You say, well OK, its an issue that the grouper stock is on the verge of elimination and needs to be protected. Well then, let’s run through a real life example of “a feet on the deck” of what’s actual – not a result of a hypothetical algorithm of species biomass as developed by a Phd analyst buried in a thinktank on the DC Beltway.
On Saturday, a couple of weeks back, we got a break in the wind and had a chance to go nearshore defined as a couple miles off the beach.. That suited our customer that day just fine. On initial inquiry, his primary target was grouper. He had been here some years past during the winter and caught gag grouper, which he and the family enjoyed immensely. All we wanted this year was a repeat.
Upon informing him that we could well catch grouper near shore, but we would have to release them he asked the obvious. “Why”?
In best party line demeanor, I explained that the government was concerned about the grouper population and the species sustainability. After a cerebral pause, he passed on the issue and we discussed other species available.
We booked a trip that Saturday. It would be John and his adult son Doug.
The wind that had been howling for days took a hiatus that Saturday allowing us to make it out to the first set of reefs a mile and a half offshore.
Among other questions enroute, John surmised that even if we put a live bait down on the big rod, we probably wouldn’t see any grouper with them being in such short supply. “Right?”
I tangentially framed the reply in the universal anglers response: “Well you just never know; let’s wait and see.”
The wind during the week had battered the water both inshore and nearshore. We ran along the beach in water best described as Palmolive Detergent – a soapy color green. Then we spotted a water color break just off the South Seas Complex and set up on some open bottom in clean and green water. We planned to chum and target the Spanish mackerel that had been marauding in the scarce nearshore clean water for weeks.
Anchored in 25 feet of water with a respectable incoming tide, we dropped the chum bag into the water and had at it. At first, it was small pinfish, a couple of small blue runners and ladyfish. We kept a number for bait.
We banged the chum bag and even set a little liquid chum as we waited for the macks to arrive. All of a sudden, John’s drag screamed with a fighter aboard his line. The fight was untypical of mackerel and, to our surprise, he landed a beautiful pompano. Then Doug had the same. The pompano had moved with the cleaner water and here they were. Surprise!
Buoyed by the good fortune of the pompano bite, John asked if we’d deploy a bottom rig to try for grouper. I set the rig with an earlier caught pinfish on a circle hook and lowered it to the bottom. No sooner had I turned around when Doug grabbed for the doubled over grouper rod and was hard in the throes of elevating his catch.
As the fish surfaced, it was quickly identified as a gag grouper – well over the 22” harvest minimum size. Beautiful fish – stout and probably 26” in length. As I released the fish boatside, John sarcastically mentioned, “probably only grouper here.”
Now the trip fell into a pattern. The pompano action was quickly followed by good energetic mackerel action and, every time we put the big rod down we had a gag grouper –all well over the 22” minimum.
Even moved to another spot to avoid the pseudo embarrassment of grouper activity but nothing changed. We kept catching grouper. We stopped putting the big rod down after six harvestable gag grouper catch and releases.
As the morning ended, they had a nice catch of pompano and a few mackerel for dinner, but the grouper “thing” still bothered John. He couldn’t conceive how anyone with knowledge of the offshore geography of Southwest Florida could close the action of such a dominant species that was obviously in good supply during such an auspicious economic season.
He asked for the contact information for the Gulf Council of the National Marine Fisheries organization and the Florida Conservation Commission who are the enactors and enforcers of this untimely grouper closure. He sent me a copy of his smokin’ email.
For those who recreationally fish this shallow shelf of SW Florida, there is no shortage of the grouper species – especially gags. Period.
Capt. Bill Walsh owns an established Marco Island charter fishing business and holds a current U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments or questions to email@example.com.