South Atlantic grouper fishing closes Jan. 1

South Florida anglers who want to catch grouper to anchor their holiday and New Year celebrations have 12 more days to get it done. The annual spawning season closure for shallow-water grouper in the South Atlantic, which took effect in 2010, begins Jan. 1 and runs through April 30. That means no harvest at all for red, gag, black, scamp, red hind, rock hind, yellowmouth, yellowfin, graysby and coney until May 1 in federal or state waters on Florida’s east coast and the Keys.

One of the region’s most successful grouper catchers is 30-year veteran captain Dennis Forgione, 48, owner of the charter boat Free Spool at Haulover Park Marina. Forgione says now is a great time to bottom-fish when conditions are right.


“You need north current or south current,” he said. “North is the preferred current.”

The most difficult conditions, he said, are when the wind and current are in opposition, as in a southerly wind and southerly current. Trying to anchor a boat near an artificial reef or rock pile so that baits are close to — but not in — the structure is extremely difficult in those circumstances, especially since the best depth range for grouper is 100 to 200 feet.

Forgione has been known to re-anchor the boat a couple times on the same spot trying to position it just right — or to leave if the current is too feeble.

Best bait

Once the boat is anchored with the stern just up-current of the target, Free Spool’s crew tosses out a few live pilchards or threadfin herring to stir things up. The boat typically carries a variety of live bait, including pinfish and sardines. But bait has been tough to obtain recently in the Haulover area, Forgione says, because a lot of the small fish died when they got washed ashore during the passage of Superstorm Sandy in October. Some boats have been forced to travel south of Government Cut to catch bait while others simply purchase it from Lester’s, Ashley’s or captain Jimmy Lewis’ live bait services.

Armed with plenty of live bait and heavy tackle — Penn conventional rods and two-speed reels loaded with 80- to 100-pound braid — the crew gauges the lead sinkers to the current velocity. That means anything from 3 ounces to 3 pounds of lead. Leader material is usually 10 to 15 feet of 60- to 100-pound monofilament, also depending on the current.

“If there’s a lot of current, we have to use lighter leader so the lead will go down,” Forgione explained.

The long leaders, he said, allow the bait to swim freely and naturally. Hooks are 9/0 circle hooks. Baits are usually hooked through the nose so they don’t get spun around the leader.

Common finds

The most common grouper species in local waters are gag, black and red. Forgione says blacks and reds tend to stick close to the sunken structure, while gags may range outward into open sand. Along with groupers, anglers might also catch mutton snapper, bonitos, kingfish and other species.

Forgione is not willing to give up GPS coordinates for any of his grouper hot spots, many of which have taken him years to locate. But a good place for a would-be grouper catcher to start is the Miami-Dade County artificial reef program website at miamidade.gov/development/reef-locator.asp.

And anglers should always pay attention to their fish-finders while cruising because they might stumble upon a previously unknown but productive site.