For most Gulf reef anglers, red grouper are among the most-wanted catches. Personally, I would rather bring home snapper and grunts (better taste, far fewer parasites). But I can certainly see the appeal of cutting large boneless fillets, and for those who think bigger is always better, red grouper grow a lot larger than lanes and mangs.
Grouper are most often caught on chunks of dead bait. The reason is simple: That’s how most people fish for them. But there are other ways to target these reef predators, and some of them are better suited to taking bigger fish that can actually be kept, instead of dragging up 30 shorts for every legal grouper.
Although red grouper really are predators, they are scavengers as well. Unlike their distant cousins the gag and black groupers, they’re less inclined to chase. Therefore, dead baits are quite acceptable to them.
All groupers have big mouths for their size, and even a 15-inch red can easily take a whole squid or sardine. If you want to cut out the little guys, you need a bigger bait. Many bait shops sell whole Humboldt squid wings. These can be cut into large strips — say, three inches wide and a foot long. Big pieces of fish, such as a slab of bonito fillet, are good too.
This is a little trickier to get right. Small baits will fit easily into any mouth. But a big live bait doesn’t just sit still and wait to be eaten. As mentioned above, red grouper aren’t usually chasers. Drop a 10-inch grunt down, and he’ll swim away from any big grouper he sees coming at him. Unless, of course, he can’t. So cutting off fins is one option.
Another is to offer something that is truly irresistible. When big and little red grouper are feeding close together, if the big ones really want something they’ll just push the small fry aside. There are a few delicacies that are just too good to let the shorties have to themselves. On the list: Live squid, fresh flying fish and jumbo shrimp. It’s not a guarantee that you’ll hook only big grouper — but if they’re around, they’ll be more likely to crush these baits.
OK, so this is counter-intuitive: Red grouper don’t like to chase, but they’ll eat artificial lures. Most experienced offshore fishermen know that gags will pounce on even fast-moving lures. For reds, ya gotta slow it down. Instead of trolling a bucktail over the reef, you need to drop it down and hop it.
This causes a problem — it’s very easy to get a weighted hook hung up on reef rubble. So you don’t fish it right over the reef. You fish it on the edges of the structure. Smaller grouper are more susceptible to big predators and don’t usually feel safe leaving cover to grab a bite. But larger fish will, and a slow-hopped bucktail jig is hard to turn down.
Two things to consider: First, use enough weight. A half-ounce jig takes forever to sink and is hard to direct, since current will carry it. Better to drop a 3- to 6-ounce lure. Second, you can’t legally tip it with natural bait unless it’s a circle hook jig — but you can use Fishbites as an added attractant, or soak the jig in some type of scent.
These lures, which are really just extra-heavy spoons, are meant to be dropped down vertically and then bounced around until they get somebody’s attention. They work very well for many reef species. Around here, gags and amberjack are the most often targeted. But if you keep your jig down near the bottom, red grouper will also go after it.
The nice thing about jigging for reds is that you don’t need to work it so frantically as you do for other fish. Remember, they’re pretty lazy — so you can be too. Let it sink all the way down, then pop it up off the bottom every few seconds. It doesn’t need to go far; a couple feet is enough.
If you grew up fishing in fresh water, you’ve surely noticed that grouper bear more than a little similarity to bass. And while they’re not really that much alike, they do share at least one trait: They often feed on long, skinny prey. For bass it’s snakes and salamanders; for grouper it’s eels. But a plastic worm does a good job of imitating either.
Other soft plastics are also fine choices. Crawfish look like little lobsters. Shad look like any number of baitfish. MirrOlure Lil’ Johns look like … well, they must look like something, because the grouper are more than happy to eat them.
These baits can be rigged like you would for bass or skewered onto a jighead. They also work well attached to the back of a bucktail. Scenting them is not absolutely necessary, but it sure doesn’t hurt anything.
As with the bucktail, keep ‘em moving slow. Usually just dragging them along is enough. If that’s not getting interest, then try vertical hopping like a butterfly jig.
Have fun trying these methods for red grouper fishing. Or, you could just bait up with small shrimp or cut squid and see about reeling in some of those delicious grunts and porgies. Either way, be sure to bring plenty of ice to keep them fresh — and I’ll be happy to come to the fish fry.
As the Fish Coach, Capt. Josh Olive offers personalized instruction on how and where to fish in Southwest Florida. Whether you’re a complete beginner or just looking to refine your techniques, he can help you get past the frustration and start catching more fish. Lessons can be held on your boat, on local piers or even in your backyard. To book your session or for more information, go to FishCoach.net, email Josh@FishCoach.net or call 941-276-9657.