Grouper 101: What they are, where to find them and how to catch them
How to Catch Grouper
Grouper are one of the most popular species of bottom fish, highly sought after by both sportsmen and diners. Their aggressive nature, heavy weight fighting ability and potential to grow to very large size makes them a trophy any angler is proud to add to their resume. The firm flesh and mild flavor make them very popular as a food source where ever they are found. Although fishing for grouper is popular it is not easy, at least not without a little bit of knowledge and preparation. Hopefully, the following will get you started in the right direction.
The term grouper does not apply to a single species of fish in the way striped bass or albacore does. Instead, grouper is a general term applied to a larger group of related sub-species all of which share similar traits. Think of the term grouper as you would the term trout. Depending on where you are fishing trout could mean rainbow, brook, lake etc., or even sea trout if on the coast. Likewise, grouper can mean any of almost 100 different fish worldwide including red, yellow fin, black or even the enormous goliath. The biggest differences between sub-species being potential size and where they can be found.
Speaking of where they can be found, various species range from New England to South America, including the waters of Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. Florida enjoys the most abundant population, in terms of both variety and numbers. Regardless of where you may be fishing and specific species targeted all grouper prefer to make their homes near cover, an important element when it comes to hiding from predators and hunting for their own prey. Popular sources of cover include both natural structure (reefs, bottom ledges and live bottoms) and man-made habitat (wrecks, artificial reefs and around drilling platforms).
Grouper will establish a hide within the available structure. They will spend the majority of their time in or near this hide as it offers both protection and concealment. When threatened, including immediately after being hooked, a grouper will attempt to enter the hide and extend it’s fins to prevent attempts at pulling it loose. When hunting they will use the hide as a point of concealment from which they will ambush passing prey with a lightning fast gulping attack.
Inshore or Offshore
The overwhelming majority of anglers targeting grouper head offshore. This is not without reason, or because the captain likes running the engines, it is because that is where the big boys live. Offshore is where you find the structure grouper crave. But that is not to say that groupers have not been taken from inshore waters. It is common for juveniles to spend the early part of their life in the grass beds or backwater pockets, places that provide cover (at least for smaller fish) and plenty of food without the larger predators. But what about keepers?
Despite what many anglers believe, even those who routinely chase groupers, it is possible to catch keeper groupers without traveling miles offshore. If your local waters include the habitat and structure grouper need there is no reason some of those juveniles would not take up permanent residence. Look for deeper shipping channels, reefs or artificial structure and fish it the same as you would offshore areas.
How to fish for grouper
Grouper can be successfully taken through several angling techniques. The technique you select will depend on specific species targeted, water conditions and equipment available. We will briefly review each of the most popular methods below. Regardless of which method employed there are a few important points to remember:
1. Because they are ambush feeders grouper are unlikely to chase baits or lure great distances. In fact, their physical build is not well suited for long distance travels but is instead intended for short bursts of speed and brute strength.
2. They feed on a variety of small fish, crustaceans and squid. Popular live baits include pinfish, croakers, sardines, grunts, spots and various minnows. When selecting live bait it is always best to pick a species the local groupers are feeding on naturally.
3. They have the ability to grow very large. This coupled with the depth at which they may be caught requires heavy gear.
4. Once hooked a grouper will attempt to return to their hide. A grouper successful in reaching the hide will be difficult, if not impossible, to dislodge. You will need to ensure you equipment is stout enough to overpower escape attempts. Another good reason to use only quality equipment.
5. If a grouper does make it to cover do not immediately cut bait. Letting the line slack and waiting for the fish relax and move into the open may give you a second chance.
6. Although larger spinning gear can be used successfully it is not as effective pulling large grouper from the depths. Conventional rigs allow the angler to gain more leverage, essential to over powering large fish headed to cover.
Which technique works for you?
As stated earlier, there are multiple techniques that can be used to take grouper. All involve the ability to take big, strong fish from deeper water and some are better than others. The biggest differences between the various techniques are the equipment needed, and this is usually what determines which style an angler will utilize. Let’s discuss each of the three most popular so you can decide which best fits your style.
1. Bottom fishing – this is without a doubt the most common means of targeting any bottom dwelling game fish including groupers. The equipment requirements are simple and can be done utilizing either conventional or spinning gear, although conventional is still the best option.
You will need a quality rod & reel rated for up to 50 lb. test monofilament, although you can downsize if you know the local populations is smaller.
The fish finder rig is most common means of targeting bottom fish. Even when dropped directly into structure they rarely hang up.
For those who are unfamiliar with the fish finder it is a simple combination consisting of a leader, sinker and 1 or 2 hooks. The sinker is connected to the end of the leader, 12” loop(s) are tied into the leader and the hooks are attached to the loop(s). When used the sinker sits on the bottom and the hooks allow bait to float in water column.
Many anglers will use cut bait when bottom fishing, such as squid, which reduced the need to collect and maintain live species. However, although this is effective for grouper it is also very popular with almost any other species in the area. Be prepared to catch plenty of fish besides grouper and rebait frequently as the bait is stolen by smaller fish.
A good way to be introduced to bottom fishing is to take a trip on a head boat. Most utilize this method and provide the gear needed.
2. Trolling – while effective in putting fish in the cooler trolling is not very popular, probably because of the gear needed and the lack of fight experienced. But if catching big grouper is what you want than this is an option.
Most anglers who troll for grouper are targeting larger species with the goal of taking them for consumption.
Set up involves using wireline and trolling weights, necessary to keep tackle at deeper depths. Some anglers will also utilize planning boards.
Because you are using wireline heavy duty rod & reel is necessary, including roller guides and tip. This increases cost and weight of equipment.
Once hooked up this method of trolling allows you to use the boat to pull grouper away from structure limiting its ability to enter hide.
3. Live Bait Rig – live bait is always the best option, regardless of what species you may be fishing for. Grouper are no different. By using live bait, preferably local bait already on the grouper menu, you increase the chance of catching your targeted species. Plus, live bait can be fished with either a conventional or spinning rig.
Rig consists of long leader (sometimes several feet in length), an egg sinker and size 8/0 or 9/0 circle hook. You can use traditional hooks (size 5/0 ) but this will increase you chances of a deep hook, not something you want if practicing catch & release or faced with minimum size limits.
Leaders can be constructed of either monofilament or fluorocarbon, but the latter will decrease visibility and increase strikes.
Grouper will ambush bait and head for cover, so it is essential the angler be ready as soon as the bait is taken. None the less, be prepared to lose fish, and rigs if the grouper does reach cover. Using a longer leader will allow heavy drag setting without restraining live bait movement.
Although the information provided will get you started it is only the beginning. The best way to learn is through practical application and local knowledge. So, get out and fish and never miss an opportunity to learn from more experienced angler.
Good luck, good fishing!