There’s still time to catch some black, red and gag groupers before the season closes

Mate Abie Raymond, left, of Bouncer’s Dusky 33 holds a big black grouper that Kyle Whyte caught trolling skirted ballyhoo along a reef in 26 feet of water south of Fowey Light.
Mate Abie Raymond, left, of Bouncer’s Dusky 33 holds a big black grouper that Kyle Whyte caught trolling skirted ballyhoo along a reef in 26 feet of water south of Fowey Light.

More often than not, old-time fishing tactics are every bit as effective as more modern techniques. So with a little over a week remaining in the grouper season, why not try trolling for the hard-fighting, tasty fish?

That’s what Capt. Bouncer Smith did this past Tuesday and it worked like a charm: His five anglers on Bouncer’s Dusky 33 caught five black groupers, three of them keepers, trolling skirted ballyhoo along a coral reef in just 26 feet of water south of Fowey Light.

The season for black, red and gag groupers in Atlantic state waters closes Jan. 1, so the trip provided enough fillets for everyone to have a final grouper dinner until the season re-opens on May 1, as well as memories that will last much longer.

Trolling for groupers was perfected in Miami more than 50 years ago by Capt. Buddy Carey of the famed Pier 5 charter fleet. Smith is one of a handful of anglers who knows how to do it correctly, although he says it really isn’t all that difficult.

“They see something going by that looks like it might be edible and they’re out to get it,” Smith said. “They come charging up off the reef.”

While Smith drove his boat along the edge of the reef, his mate Abie Raymond used planers to get the ballyhoo down about 19 feet, where the groupers could get a good look at the baits.

Fishing with planers is another venerable technique that is most frequently used for wahoo and kingfish. A planer is a small, rectangular, weighted piece of metal that is attached to the main line of a fishing outfit at one end and to a long leader at the other end.

When it is deployed, the planer, which comes in different sizes that travel at different depths, glides down through the water behind the boat. Depending on the size of the planer and how much fishing line is put out, the bait can be presented at a depth that will attract the attention of any fish in that zone.

Raymond used a relatively small No. 1 planer for the shallow water where Smith was fishing. The ballyhoo was on a 7/0 triple-strength 3417 Mustad J hook at the end of a 100-foot length of 100-pound monofilament leader. All of the grouper bites came on a Penn International 50 reel spooled with 65-pound braided line and fitted with a detachable Hooker Electric motor.

“You can use any dual-speed Penn International, generally a 30 or larger,” Smith said. “The Hooker is just a luxury.”

With a little instruction from Raymond, Kyle Whyte quickly became an expert at controlling the retrieval speed of the Hooker while simultaneously guiding the line evenly back onto the reel. The day manager at Shenanigan’s Eastside Pub & Barbecue in Dania Beach, Whyte picked a mild, sunny day with seas of a foot or less for his first offshore fishing trip, and he landed the first and biggest black grouper, which measured nearly 30 inches (the minimum size limit is 24 inches).

“That’s a once-in-a-lifetime fish,” said Whyte, who also caught a barracuda on the grouper rig, a cero mackerel on a feather trolled on the surface and one of four dolphin that ate trolled ballyhoo and live pilchards around a current edge and weedline 8-9 miles offshore. “I’ve never seen a grouper that size.”

One of the nice things about the Hooker outfit is an angler can hand-crank a fish, which is what Pat Utter, the owner of Shenanigan’s, did when a third black grouper was hooked. An experienced fisherman who used to campaign his own boat in local tournaments and now enjoys fishing with friends and family and charter captains, Utter skillfully reeled in another big keeper while preventing the grouper from getting back into the reef and breaking the line.

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“The groupers on occasion will come up and hit it on top of the water, but basically you want the bait about 10 feet off the bottom,” Smith said. “Because if it’s real close to the bottom, they’ve got the advantage of getting back into the bottom. And if it’s too high, then a lot of them will say, ‘Oh, that one’s too far away.’ But generally speaking, they come charging up to get that morsel going by.”

Smith said that anglers can learn how to precisely troll for groupers by practicing with a planer over a sandy bottom. When the bait starts hitting the sand, mark the fishing line and record the rpms of the engines. The next time you troll, run at the same speed and let out the same amount of line and you’ll know how far down your bait is running.

“You want to go by the most jagged part of the bottom,” Smith said. “If you watch your bottom machine, you’ll see it’s up and down, up and down. Every ‘down’ is a place for a fish to hide.”

Smith said another option for grouper is to put a 1-pound sinker on a three-way swivel or a long-line clip and use 50-100 feet of 60-pound fluorocarbon leader with a double-hooked live ballyhoo around shallow reefs. A similar rig, but with a live pinfish or live ballyhoo on a circle hook, will catch groupers in 80-200 feet around bottom structure such as artificial reefs and wrecks.

For information on fishing with Capt. Bouncer Smith, visit www.captbouncer.com