On the Hook: Borrowing a technique for grouper

Bill Walsh

The term “downrigger” may seem foreign as a named equipment for plying these South Florida waters in search for one of the most treasured table repasts on the planet.

But, let’s start at the beginning. Before relocating to this Southwest Florida paradise, we lived and toiled in suburban Chicago. Great city but in several ways misses the mark for the beset dedicated angler. Many a year I put the boat away in late September and had to contend with frozen areas in Lake Michigan.

Gag grouper, like this one caught and released in March by angler William Miller of Jensen Beach, are now back on the keeper list in waters of the South Atlantic.

But the ingenuity of the natives, some years back, found a way to stock non-native fish which could at least survive in the winter water temperatures teetering just above freezing temperatures. And they indeed had picked a couple of winners which caught the rabid sport fisher persons attention … the Lake was stocked with salmon and trout that were introduced to the frigid waters as fingerlings. It was a perfect scenario … hungry fish and lots of natural bait.

But, the target fish would focus on bait that was holding and feeding in a temperature of 45 -50 degrees F. Early on, it became apparent that to get a lure to depth while trolling at 5-7 knots that, you’d need literally thousands of feet of line deployed to get your artificial into the target zone.

So, the downrigger was invented. It was a permanent device attached to the gunnel of the boat with a reel of heavy wire spooled on a large reel a that could be raised or lowered by moving the reel. The baits were artificial plugs or specialty rigs called “J plugs” that twisted and turned as the boat moved forward. The salmon and the trout “loved” these lures and would strike veraciously thus separating the lure from the downrigger and the J plug with a hooked fish would come to the surface and be an easy catch.

So, with unfamiliar device still a “Great Lakes” secret and seldom tried in earnest here, I was looking for trip amid ideal “cold” conditions here where we have an opportunity for our favorite … gag grouper.

Remember searching the Internet here numerous times for any mention of the downrigger technique and equipment and finally came across a great article written by a charter captain up in Tampa. He was using the equipment and technique for aggressive gag grouper in the early fall and winter close inshore and having great results.

Next couple days I scurried around and put together a manual downrigger with its mounting plate and accessories and then carved out an afternoon for a simple installation.

 The real test of the concept came a few weeks later in mid-January, when one our snow bird groups booked a trip. These three guys, all escaped experts in the piscatorial capture art, broadcast that they knew everything about fishing worldwide. They had gotten wind of the success, of the new trolling technique “borrowed” from Chicago and were anxious to validate here. We booked the trip for a morning in late January and at least one of them would call every other day just to see if I had gotten “cold feet”. Never happened; I really wanted to prove that good fishing just doesn’t occur north of the Mason-Dixon!

They poured aboard that cold morning and even brought their own bait. Their chilled down cooler had a least a dozen small live pinfish all waiting (hopefully) for their demise. It was rather evident then that here in the middle of sheepshead season these guys had switched to gag grouper on a “new” yet unproven rumor. Time would tell as we anxiously got underway that cold January morning. Thankfully we had flat water and a positive incoming tide that morning.

As we departed the edges of Capri Pass and comfortably ran out along the First Reefs after jumping on some gullible ladyfish which nearly filled some auxiliary coolers and would be important first attractants if we, in fact, ran into the grouper expectation.

Then we went to school on downrigger fishing. I went through the operation the manually operated downrigger. When I mentioned “you just sit there and when the pin dislodges from the rigger clip it signals “Fish on” … all three of them just sat there with a look much akin to having me desecrating the Holy Grail … imagine the grouper hitting a tiny bait being towed on a piece of wire

After they had gained their composure, I meekly asked “Want to give it a try?”

Reply: “Yep. What have we got to lose.”

The new equipment set up easily and we jointly went over operation quickly with the crew. We tied a magnum jointed diving lure on 20# test line strung on a medium heavy spinning reel, clipped the line to the downrigger wire and lowered the weight to a depth of 22’ just a couple feet off the bottom.

Excitedly, we kicked the boat into gear and ran the speed up to a slothful four knots and commenced a run between two ridges of bottom structure.

It’s almost instant! The line jumped out of the clip and the gang roared as the gang screamed and the “leader” let loose with a “fish on”. I shifted into neutral and the action stopped cold. No fish! We had snagged the bottom. Tried to retrieve the jointed lure by reversing course; we had to cut the stuck lure off the line.

We clipped another mega lure, but this time lifted the lure up eight feet and we finally had gotten it right.

The next strike after a 15 minute hiatus was really something. They didn’t just snap up, it almost lurched out of the rod holder. Even had to back the boat down on the big grouper and guys took turns on handling the catch with lots of side bets as to who the victor would be. Finally, we had the big gag in the net with plenty of smiles and pictures. We kept in the net and estimated close to thirty inches and close to eight pounds before we released the great fish; after all, this was just a test that had performed fantastically.

Continuing the morning we finished with two more a bit smaller gags which I’m sure graced the dinner tables that evening.

That winter, sheepshead was virtually forgotten; so, if your fishing the nearshore Paradise Coast waters and see boats with a strange reel of wire astern you can bet it’s “dem grouper nuts.”

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