With less than a month left in the South Atlantic grouper harvest season, there is some good news: The fish are chewing off Miami-Dade County.
Captain Bouncer Smith and I joined captain Jimbo Thomas and his brother Rick on a grouper-trolling trip Monday aboard the Miamarina-based charterboat Thomas Flyer, catching a limit of black grouper to 18 pounds in short order. All the fish were caught along the reef line about 20 feet deep from Key Biscayne south past Pacific Reef Light.
“The groupers come up on the reefs when the bally hoo show up, and that coincides with the first cold fronts,” Jimbo explained.
Monday was the first relatively calm day following a recent series of blustery fronts. In preparation, the Thomases had netted a live well full of pinfish, pilchards and cigar minnows, but we never even touched them. All the grouper ate dead bally hoo on trolling feathers.
Jimbo steered the boat along the reef at a speed of six-to-seven knots as Rick deployed the lines. Two giant Penn conventional reels on stout rods were loaded with 035 stainless-steel wire. Fastened to the wire line on each rod was a 20-foot section of 200-pound-test monofilament that serves as a shock absorber between the wire line and 10 feet of No. 10 wire leader.
“You could go all mono — but you’ll get cut off by ’cudas,” Jimbo explained of the wire leader.
The leader was connected to a bally hoo rigged with extra-strength, double 12/0 hooks. Each bait was decorated with a six-ounce trolling skirt in magenta, green, orange or white. As the day went on, we observed that color really didn’t matter; the fish ate them all.
To the spread of Penn rigs, Rick added a lighter Daiwa conventional, lever-drag, two-speed reel with 50-pound mono on a slightly smaller rod rigged with a No. 2 planer.
The object of the wire line on the heavy rig and planer on the other is to keep the baits down deep enough for grouper to grab while avoiding snagging on the bottom. Smith said another method is to troll Rapala X-Rap plugs on braided line with 50-pound fluorocarbon leader.
According to Rick, wire line gets down seven feet deep for every 100 feet he lets out. The planer drops mono line twice as deep. Some anglers mark their lines, but Rick doesn’t have to.
“You let it out at a slow pace for 35 seconds and that’s 200 feet,” he said of the wire line.
Not once did any of our lines get hung up on the bottom. We did experience several short strikes from ’cudas — you could tell by the surgical removal of the bally hoo’s tail behind the rear hook — and a couple from the grouper. But the grouper mostly attacked the baits and stayed hooked.
“There’s no setting the hook,” Smith remarked. “They’ve either got it or they don’t.”
Cranking in a struggling grouper 200 feet behind the boat using wire line is a workout. I had to use two hands just to turn the handle on the drum-like Penns. Reeling was a little easier with the planer — only because that reel had a low gear. When we hooked a fish, whoever was not fighting it had to bring in the other two lines so they didn’t hang the bottom when Jimbo slowed the boat. Rick, Smith and I took turns as anglers.
With favorable weather in the immediate forecast, catching dinner should be a cinch before the season in Southeast Florida and the Keys closes on Jan. 1. The bag limit is three shallow-water grouper per person per day, but no more than one can be a gag or a black. The minimum size is 24 inches for gags and blacks; 20 inches for reds. The season will re-open May 1.