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Grouper Fishing In The Keys

author
Maria Johnson
• Saturday, 19 December, 2020
• 16 min read

Taken as a group, the grouper is one of the most popular game and table fish in all of Key West. Here is your guide to everything you need to know about the most common varieties of grouper to be found in the water around Key West.

fishing grouper keys florida beginners guide
(Source: www.pinterest.com)

Contents

You and your party will have a wonderful time with Captain Pepe’s Key West Charter Fishing. First, its mild, delectable flavor makes the black grouper an excellent table fish.

You can find the occasional black grouper further north along the Atlantic Coast, but they’re much more abundant in the Bahamas, here in the Florida Keys, and in the Caribbean. Their coloring is quite variable, ranging from an olive green to a splotchy gray with dazzling patterns that emanate from the eyeball and radiate toward the tail in very complex lines.

Unfortunately, because they’re considered an endangered species, the Jewish is catch and release only at the current time. They tend to stay at depths of less than 200 feet and like to swim near rocky formations and shipwrecks.

But if you want to give the Jewish a shot, bring along your heaviest tackle and some 100-pound test line just to be sure. For bait, you should only use live fish under 15 pounds, as artificial lures and jigs pretty much never work.

Important for both commercial and leisure fishing, the red grouper is as tasty as its black counterpart and is the centerpiece for a practically endless list of delicious recipes. Just like its name says, the red grouper has a brown to reddish tint and is frequently marked by occasional white spots.

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A good way to distinguish a red grouper is by the large size of its eyes. Typically, the red grouper is a bottom-dweller, with adults usually preferring rocky structures or reef waters.

Despite its relatively small size, the red grouper can be a fairly aggressive fish. This popularity is mostly due to the fact that the gag is considered to have the best flavor in the grouper family, but the strict regulations on catching them contribute to it as well.

It usually presents a mottled, gray color, but you’ll sometimes find a gag with markings that look like a black grouper ’s radiating patterns. Like other grouper, the gag can often be found near rocks, ledges, coral reefs, and shipwrecks.

They’re not the easiest grouper to catch, but with heavy tackle and a good guide, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. We had a tremendous time with Capt Pepe and would highly recommend him to anyone looking to fish while in Key West.

He is extremely personable, his boat and equipment are top-notch, and he kept the fishing action hot all day. My girlfriend and I fished a 1/2 day and it was the BEST part of our recent trip to KW.

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(Source: www.delphfishing.com)

She hooked into a nice sized bar jack and had a blast fighting it to the boat. During any break in the action, we had a great time talking with Pepe about his various experiences being a capt in KW.

My wife and I had been fishing only a couple of times before going down to Key West for our 25th anniversary. The boat was in immaculate condition and Captain Pepe kept us entertained with fishing stories all afternoon.

Captain Pepe went above and beyond the Call of Duty with his hospitality and easy going nature. The May 1st through December 31st open season applies to those three species of Grouper.

That one black or gag counts towards the three grouper total aggregate max. If you are accused of not following these regulations outlined while fishing for grouper, you could be issued a criminal citation.

A citation for undersized or over the bag limit fish is not a simple ticket, it is a criminal violation. However, instead of taking you to jail, which is not very practical for marine law enforcement, they issue you a notice to appear in Court to answer for the criminal violation.

grouper florida keys fishing
(Source: www.delphfishing.com)

The penalties associated with possession of undersized of over the bag limit fishing violations are up to 60 days in jail and/or six months probation. Additionally, the Key West criminal defense lawyers at Robertson & Hunter, can appear on your behalf if you are from out of town.

A deep groan was about all Lane Jarvis could muster as he leaned into the fish with all the pressure he dared to apply. But with every foot of lost line came the sinking realization by both of us that the odds were tipping heavily in favor of the fish.

Finally, as he wound in the remaining line for me to re-rig, Lane muttered, “That fish was not meant to be caught today.” Lane, his wife Wendy, and I had been fishing the shallow patch reefs just off Marathon in the Florida Keys in my custom 23' backcountry skiff, the Fishing' BUDDY.

What also comes to mind is the back-breaking struggle that takes place when a “lucky” angler hooks up; few fish are more reluctant to be dragged from their coral homes than are the various species of grouper. In fact, many an angler has solidly hooked a grouper, only to have the rod slammed down against the gunwale as line is ripped off against what had heretofore been thought of as a “locked-down” drag.

Fact is, this is exactly how I felt about the issue until a couple of years ago when one of my tarpon fishing clients from England, himself an avid fly-fisherman, explained some techniques that they would sometimes resort to in order to catch salmon. Conditions would occasionally warrant his having to bomb flies down 20 feet or more in some pretty swift running water in order to get into fish.

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(Source: wusfnews.wusf.usf.edu)

To my knowledge, no one had been specifically targeting grouper on fly, although the Marathon area is certainly no slouch when it comes to new ideas in fly fishing. So having decided that a fly would make an adequate warhead for the battle that lay ahead, I now went in search of an appropriate delivery system.

After numerous calls and a trip to see renown angler and tackle expert, George Rommel of Worldwide Sportsman in Islamabad, I had my delivery system; a pair of shooting heads that would convert my 9 weight bone fish and 12 weight tarpon outfits into formidable grouper assault weapons (more on tackle later). What transpired over the next several seasons was an adventure in trial and error, highlighted by some truly outstanding catches, but frequently punctuated with lots of re-rigging and heavy hours logged at the fly-tying bench.

And although we haven't broken a rod trying to stop a grouper's dive for cover, that may change soon with my recent switch from 16 to 20 pound tippet. It's not uncommon to hear of 10-20 pound grouper being caught as shallow as 15-20 feet on some patch reefs.

Far from being a bottom hugging sluggard, black grouper are capable of some pretty good runs in the shallows. A hard fighting close relative of the groupers is the spotted Jewish, a protected species which has come back quite nicely in recent years.

There are quite a few other species available that provide good action and keep things interesting for those who bottom fish with a fly rod. There are three distinct places to target grouper on fly in the Keys : out on the reef, in Florida Bay, and at the bridges that separate the two.

fishing florida keys boat charters grouper charter onboatsandsailing
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The reef is a general term describing an area of relatively shallow waters paralleling the Keys about four miles out on the Oceanside of U.S. Hwy 1. The places you'll want to fish are what is referred to as patch reefs, areas of actual coral surrounded by sand.

In fact, it always amazes me how some of the most likely looking places are devoid of grouper while some smaller “hole in the wall” patches that aren't much larger than a couple of boat lengths will produce fine catches. One problem an angler faces at the bridges is a strong current, which at time can run in excess of two knots.

These makes dredging for grouper with a fly all but impossible except during periods of tapering current or slack water between the ebb and flood. During these times, an angler will have about a one-hour window in which he can get a fly down around the base of the pilings where the grouper hang out.

Perhaps one of the most pleasant aspects of targeting grouper at the bridges comes in the form of some “incidental catches” that occur. The third location in which grouper can be targeted on fly is in Florida Bay, especially north of the Marathon area.

Marathon is quite different from its neighbors to the east (Islamabad and Key Largo) in that Florida Bay is deeper and more open. The best part about targeting grouper in the Bay is that many of the spots are in less than ten feet of water, making the presentation much easier and much more efficient as the fly spends more time close to the bottom before being retrieved for another cast.

grouper florida keys fishing
(Source: www.delphfishing.com)

In the fly fishing world where angling has been transformed into an art form, and fish AR often “played” instead of fought, an angler must be willing to dump his philosophy of finesse and prepare for trench warfare. Quite frankly, the use of shooting heads will make even the most unresponsive rods cast adequately, so expensive is not necessarily better in this case.

Any money you save on the rod will need to be invested in a good reel that features a superior quality drag system. The same reel that can handle the long scorching runs of a bone fish might not hold up on a grouper for this reason; whereas a bone fish is basically allowed to make that first run at will on a light drag, a grouper on the other hand must be made to earn every inch of line they take.

Bruised or even bloody knuckles are the rule not the exception with direct drive when trying to turn big grouper, even with the best drag. But the advantage to direct drive is in the ability to regain line on the down stroke of a pump without allowing the fish to get his head turned back toward the coral.

For the uninitiated, a shooting head is nothing more than a twenty to thirty foot length of fly line designed to sink rapidly. For my twelve weight rod, I have a thirty foot, 550 grain head spliced into sixty feet of 35 lb.

There is a relatively new breed of deepwater-application fly line that combines the performance of a fast-sinking shooting head with a smooth flowing running line. Sold under a variety of names by different manufacturers, it comes as a single fly line (as opposed to a shooting head spliced into a running line), and is an excellent choice for this type of fishing.

grouper florida fishing keys catches weekly delphfishing
(Source: www.delphfishing.com)

When fishing some of the more shallow ledges and wrecks in Florida Bay, a monocore sinking line (slimline as it's known locally) can be substituted. It casts much easier than a shooting head, and will allow an angler to use a shorter leader in these small but very productive holes that may only be six to eight feet deep.

While on the subject of leaders, they must be abrasion resistant, due to a grouper's tendency to run for a ledge or wreck when hooked. Weighted Lefty's Deceivers and Closer Minnows get a lot of playing time as do a variety of Whistler patterns often used for tarpon.

My color preferences are based on observations made over fifteen years of reef fishing by conventional means. While trolling for grouper with wire line and feather/bait combinations, I've enjoyed great success with yellow and chartreuse; thus many of my flies are tied in these colors.

Lead eyes are a must in any pattern used for reef or bridge fishing in order to get down to the appropriate depth before the current sweeps the fly away from the coral. Bead chain eyes work fine within the shallow confines of Florida Bay.

Once you have the right tackle and have decided where you want to target grouper (reef, bay, or bridge), the next issue is proper boat handling and positioning. Because the reef patches or Bay ledges you intend to fish can be visually seen without the aid of a sonar, it is not necessary to run over them with the boat.

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In fact, it's best to keep at least about thirty feet between the boat and the ledge while motoring into position because these fish can be surprisingly sensitive to intrusions. Then a frozen block of chum is placed in a 1/2 inch mesh sack (the chum bag) and hung over the side to slowly disperse and flow back onto the spot.

A more natural approach (one I especially like to use on the small shallow ledges and wrecks in Florida Bay) is to anchor diagonally upside of the spot. Making a loosely packed softball-sized “chum bomb,” I'll toss it upside of the target area, letting it disperse and flow over the spot.

Although this procedure is a little more work it allows for a much more natural presentation, in that an angler will be using the current to help sweep the fly by the ledge on the retrieve. Once the stage is set and it's time to start casting, my anglers are instructed to work the near edges first, then the middle of the ledge and finally the opposite side.

After the cast, the fly is allowed to sink a predetermined number of seconds to put it within a foot or two of the bottom. We commonly trolled faster when targeting grouper than we did for sailfish, king mackerel, and dolphin.

What happens is that the grouper, having decided that your fly was his next meal, has darted from the safe haven of a ledge or wreck in the attack mode. Once the fish has struck, don't try to hit him back by arcing the rod in a high hook setting motion.

grouper florida keys fishing
(Source: www.delphfishing.com)

Now is when you've got to really exert pressure on that fish, and again it comes by keeping the rod only slightly above horizontal and giving line only grudgingly with the stripping hand. If you survive the first run without pulling the hook, breaking the fish off, or getting “rocked up” (the term used when the grouper runs into a hole or under a ledge, flares his gills and extends his fins to literally lock himself in), then your chances of landing the fish have just increased dramatically.

Again, it' imperative to avoid that “high rod syndrome” so keep those pumping motions low (10 o'clock max.) For some saltwater fly fishermen, the thought of leaving their beloved bone fish or tarpon to fish for, of all things, grouper, seems out of the question.

Some may wish to try deep-water dredging with a shooting head in their own areas to see what manner of fish can be caught when a fly is presented near the bottom. Captain Buddy Appointed is a cum laude graduate of Pensacola Christian College, and has over 20 years experience charter fishing in the Florida Keys.

When the fall transition comes on here in the Florida Keys, we get cold fronts moving in from the north every few days. The weather change sparks increased intensity in the Key West fishing action, particularly on the reef and in the Flats and Backcountry waters.

This is one of several October reports dedicated to a closer look at one of the easiest Key West sport fish to find and catch; pound-for-pound one of the strongest there is when hooked, and one of the tastiest to eat. They are favorite targets for bottom fisherman, and some sources claim that Grouper is the most popular saltwater table fish in the USA.

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(Source: keysweekly.com)

In the waters around Key West, there are a few Grouper species in particular that are very commonly caught at a range of depths and around a variety of structures. Depending on its life stage, the Gag Grouper can be found in both brackish and marine waters, inshore around seagrass beds, mangroves, and on hard-bottoms, or offshore on drop-off walls, rocky bottoms, and ledges to depths of 500 feet.

Is the usual maximum, with most catches now falling between 2 and 12 pounds due to years of over harvest of large males. In deep water, if the angler is not equipped with a heavy rod and line in at least the 20 to 30 pound range, there is little chance of bringing a Gag Grouper to the surface.

Like all Groupers, adult Blacks are found around relatively high-relief bottom structure, and they are plentiful on the shallower wrecks around Key West. Around Key West, Red Grouper will inhabit almost any reef or wreck in water up to about 120 feet deep.

Goliath Grouper typically inhabit natural and artificial reefs in water depths of 16 to 160 feet, preferring areas that have rock, coral, or mud bottoms, and high-relief features such as ledges, caves, and holes. The difference is that these monsters easily take large food including barracudas, stingrays, parrot fish, octopus, and young sea turtles.

In fact, a big Goliath Grouper will likely eat nearly anything that comes within its reach, and they have been known to stalk and attempt to ambush divers. So choosing bait for these fish is no problem, but a fisherman needs to be specialized ultra-heavy tackle to have any chance of bringing a Goliath to the boat.

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And, since these fish are completely protected with a ban on all harvest, most fishermen jump into the water for a picture with their trophy before cutting the leader and releasing the Goliath back to its home. As a service to our readers, we’ve compiled this handy to the grouper species you’re likely to find in Key West. Because of its mild, delicious flavor and the strong appeal it has as a game fish, the Black Grouper (Mycteroperca Monaco) is one of the most popular targets to fish for in the Key West Area.

While the average size is much smaller, the black grouper can grow up to almost five feet long and weigh up to and over 100 pounds. The Black Grouper has a distinctively beautiful appearance, ranging in color from olive to a blotchy gray and displaying unique patterns that radiate from the eye and zigzag towards the rear of the fish in intricate lines. The Black Grouper can occasionally be found in the North Atlantic, they’re much more common further south in the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean.

Because of its size and its tendency to dart back into the rocks once hooked, the Black Grouper can be a bit of a challenge to land. Appearance Averaging between one and two feet in length and weighing anywhere from 2-15 or so pounds, the red grouper is a moderately sized fish.

True to its name, this fish displays a light brown or reddish hint and are commonly marked with a number of white spots. Interestingly, the coloration of the red grouper can change very quickly when they’re excited or aggravated, especially when they’re spawning or protecting their territory.

Here in Key West, the red grouper is extremely common, with the younger fish preferring seagrass habitats but moving to rocky or reef waters as they mature. Remember that schools of red grouper tend to congregate near the sea floor, so heavier tackle will get you the best results.

grouper florida keys fishing key west
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Regulations for the red grouper are a bit complex, but there’s a 20 minimum for keeping them and it’s open season year round in state waters. The Gag Grouper prefers warmer waters and is most commonly found in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.

A bottom feeding fish, the gag prefers to live near structures like coral reefs, rock formations, and ledges. For complete information on gag grouper rules and regulations, ask your charter captain or click right here.

Although there has been some talk of reducing it of late, there is currently a federal ban on keeping the incredible Goliath Grouper (Epimetheus Tamara). The Goliath Grouper is an extremely broad fish, with its width equal to almost half its length near the middle of its body.

They’re typically found in shallow waters less than 150 feet deep and tend to gather near rock and coral formations, as well as near shipwrecks. Their size alone is enough to scare off even the toughest would-be fishermen, but they’ll also fight tooth and nail to stay in the water.

There’s a good chance angler Jay Cross has spent more time on the Skyway Fishing Piers than anyone else over the past few years. Over the past few weeks Cross has seen quite a few big gags coming over the rails of the fishing pier.

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In addition to smaller grouper, Cross, and his friends who frequently fish the pier known as the Skyway Misfits Crew, enjoy playing tug of war with the bigger Goliath that now frequent the pier. He makes 400-pound wire leaders that are 10-feet long, giving the abrasiveness needed against massive sharks like bulls and hammerheads they target.

On a recent night, Cross’s friend Jake Covington borrowed one of his leaders, but found himself tangled up to another one of the bridge’s Goliath. Cross, who was working at the time, closed up the bait shop and went to assist the release of the massive Goliath grouper.

“We have a rope that we used to pull in big sharks up to 400 pounds on the bridge to release them. In a scene that looked like it was from the movie “Mission: Impossible,” Cross dangles from the rope around his waist with pliers in hand.

The fish kicks away, and Cross is pulled back to the bridge. I knew with that long heavy leader it probably would have gotten tangled up in the structure and died.

Normally, we don’t use that tackle on Goliath so it presented the problem when it ate the shark bait.” When targeting Goliath, Cross uses a 900H Diana on a broomstick-esque rod allowing him to winch them up.

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He pinches the barb down on those hooks, allowing an easier release on the Goliath he’s landed up to 300 pounds. Most of these fish only grow to just over two feet in length, however, with the majority of growth occurring in their first ten years of life.

The black grouper sports an olive-gray color and features dark blotches and bronze hexagonal shapes on its body. That means that all juveniles are female with a portion of the population transforming into males when reaching sexual maturity.

Common predators of the black grouper include the sandbar and great hammerhead sharks, as well as barracuda and occasionally moray eels. Adults feed on smaller reef fish like grunts, snapper and herring and also enjoy crustaceans.

The meat of the black grouper generally sells for a premium and makes this species popular for both recreational and commercial fishing. Adults enjoy shallow water, generally populate depths ranging from 19 to 180 feet.

I love to use live Yellowtail snappers, Blue runners, Goggle eyes, Pin fish, and Speeds all are highly effective. This consist of a bank sinker on a dropper loop that is free to slide up the line or down till it hits the swivel that is used to attach the leader.

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The Goliath Grouper was in serious decline due to overfishing until the 1990s when they were classified as critically endangered, and all harvesting worldwide was banned. Goliath Grouper eat young sea turtles, fish and shrimp, for the main part.

Young grouper commonly hang out together, inhabiting the mangrove swamps and estuaries, where they find suitable food sources in Key West. As a bottom dweller, Goliath's tend to hang out around reefs, wreck sites and coral ledges, as they like to reside in shallow water up to a depth of around 165 feet.

Goliath Grouper, due to their incredibly large size, have been the target of avid sports fishermen for decades; they were also rumored to be a restaurant-quality fish desired by seafood aficionados. Since Goliath Groupers tended to spawn in large groups, this made them easy prey for mass hunting.

Captain Aaron’s find grouper fishing to be a favorite among his new & repeat clients for good reason. He targets Red, Black & Gag grouper on heavier spinning or conventional tackle on Key West many reefs, wrecks, ledges & rock piles.

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Sources
1 finnsfishingtips.com - https://finnsfishingtips.com/grouper-trolling-lures/
2 hummingbirdfishfinderreviews.com - http://hummingbirdfishfinderreviews.com/how-to-catch-red-grouper-tackle-for-red-grouper/
3 www.tormentertackle.com - https://www.tormentertackle.com/trolling_for_grouper
4 theintrepidangler.com - http://theintrepidangler.com/nearshore-grouper-fishing/