On The Hook: Selecting the target species

Bill Walsh

On most all charters the main objective is “catching fish.” Oh yeah, you may want some keepers in the cooler but the specific species isn’t really an issue; as long as their good table fare.

Know the issue sounds trite because in most all instances, say for example you were targeting sea trout but ran into a school of pompano that were ravenous, you wouldn’t even flinch in putting a brace of pomps in the cooler and feel good about it.

Well, unfortunately, that’s not always the case. In instances, where the customers are rabid fresh water anglers that specifically target bass or walleye for example, they assume you can cherry pick your target species.

And that works if you’re fishing specific bait in areas where the “target” fish is dominant; like fishing pilchards for snook. But in the general salt arena it’s “you get what’s there and hungry.”

But a few years back, we had a charter where the circumstances played out as the alternative.

File: Gag grouper

Their name was Dudley, Mark and Grace, fresh newcomers to the Paradise Coast relocating from the Indiana heartland along the southern edge of Lake Michigan. He had retired from a business venture and she from school teaching.

When first we met they were still oohing and aching about the nice warm temperatures and the great layout and beauty of the backwaters. They both were even excited about seeing the sun so often.

Mark was an experienced angler with long hours of fishing Lake Michigan as well as inland lakes in Indiana and Ohio.

As we got underway that nice early spring morning, Mark set the tone for the trip.” We’d like to catch only grouper today” without any preamble of “if it’s possible” or “if we find any.” It was an absolute.

Stunned, it took me a few minutes to realize that his experience was catching Great Lakes fish and there you either get salmon or trout. Period. Salmon if you set a downrigger in 54-degree water temperature and pull a fluttering lure or, if you run a plug lure on wire line deep you get trout.     

I took the liberty of explaining the difference in the salt with the myriad of species that most all would jump at the live shrimp bait we were using. And secondly, as advertised we were a backwater and nearshore charter and their target species was much more likely to be in deeper water 10-20 miles offshore.

My explanation obviously didn’t work, as they, in turn explained how they had been become obsessed with the blackened grouper filet.

So, our first order of business was to stop on the first reefs that morning and gold hook a dozen or so frisky pinfish for potential grouper bait. Grace was all giggles as she landed the lively little pinfish and ushered them into the live well.

We ran on out first to the Walton Reef just northwest of Caxambas Pass and got out active baits on some heavier rods and ran them down to just off the bottom. And waited. And waited.

I had taken a light rod and with a live shrimp as bait and cast it out to work just off the bottom. Had a strong strike within minutes and passed the rod to Grace. And after lots of screams and yanking she landed a nice 14” mangrove snapper.

After pictures, I mentioned (sheepishly) that these snapper were every bit as good on the table as grouper attempting a species target breakthrough. No way! Mark sternly muttered “put it back.”

We picked up our gear and went on. Our next spot was the legendary Five Mile Reef. We set up on the Southwest corner and got our pinfish down immersed in chum this time. It worked, well, kind of; we got undersized red grouper by the legions that virtually emptied the bait well.

Patience, by this time was growing short both on Dudley and yours truly and we were running out of half day charter time.

Last chance was a long shot. We would rig up with a jointed large plug lure and troll, the inside reef that we had started on hours before. I explained to the Dudley’s that we were true to their target attempts, but this was a last-ditch effort for a specific species in the salt at a marginal water depth.

Gag grouper which tend to be larger than the inshore red grouper like to work the mid-range bottom structure and not hug the bottom outcroppings like the red grouper.

We set the boat at a troll speed for 4-5 knots and deployed a magnum red and white jointed lure on a shot of 50# leader. The difficult part of the trolling was keeping the lure just above the mounds of structure below. We snagged the bottom a couple but were able to reverse and loosen the lure.

We were less than ten minutes away from departure time when the rod almost doubled over and veered right. We took the boat out of gear and handed the rod to Mark. He cranked and lost line over and over again. We started the engine and backed down just a tad which helped on the retrieve.

Suddenly, the big gag grouper surfaced well hooked with the treble hook and with an ear to ear smile and a big cheer from Grace, we netted and swung a nice 26” gag grouper. Dinner was served.

I was amazed that the troll procedure had worked; the Dudley’s thought it was a last-minute miracle.

That was kind of my final thought; a last-minute miracle.

Ain’t fishing great?

More:On The Hook: Fishing is better when it’s shared

Capt. Bill Walsh owns a charter fishing business and holds a U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments to dawnpatrolmarco@cs.com.