Of all the people I encounter, a good percentage of them are anglers. I ask complete strangers, you see (being immune to what an idiot many people think and are convinced that I am). Doctors, people at the gas pump, cops I run into (not literally, fortunately), people next to me at a restaurant, etc. I always bring up the subject. What the heck, right? About ten percent of them fish or know somebody that fishes. If I took that ten percent and said "ever catch a grouper?" or "do you know how to catch grouper?" a small percentage of that group would say yes. Then ask them where they would go, and they would say "offshore". No question, no doubt about it. Statistically the overwhelming number of fisher people - even those with a few years of experience - would first think deep water.
The man behind the techniques, Vance Tice had no teachers when he first thought of trolling plugs and eventually invented his own "Bubba Jigs" His methods lead to techniques used by professional guides like Zeissman, who started the session out by pointing Vance out as the "Guy who taught me all the stuff - almost - that I am going to talk about. Of course I enhanced them a little, and will share some new tricks with you all tonight." And he did. His comments about topographic maps and bottom shape near the deep channels might have passed over a few of the heads in the audience.
A big part of what we do on this website has nothing to do with pixels. It has to do with teaching. Don't get us wrong -- you can learn an awful lot on YouTube. I am a member of a community known as "knappers". We make stone tools using stone and bone tools exactly like they were done 10,000 years ago. It was not a caveman that taught all of us to pressure-flake Florida coral the way the Calusa did. But if you try to learn how to catch grouper on YouTube, you are going to learn to catch them in 30', 80', or 180' of water. You are not going to learn to catch them in twelve. Until the other night, that is. In a classroom with a whiteboard and personalities that have made them unique and beloved friends for many many years, Captain Tommy Zeissman (Tommy Z) and the creator of the original "Bubba Jig" Vance Tice taught a packed room exactly how to do just that: catch grouper in shallow saltwater. They taught us how to troll for them and they taught us how to sit in a spot and cast to them. Literally. And when you catch a 30" grouper in 30' of water -- or nine or ten feet of water -- they're a different species altogether than when you pull them quickly up from 120' to zero, where the decompression pops the eyes out of their heads, and even with venting leads to a fifty-percent post-release mortality rate. You catch these fish in water like our bay -- even in the deepest parts -- and the fish are fish that live between eight and 40' all their long lives.
The fish these guys teach us to fish for, and the fish we're going to be teaching you how to catch here on the site with their help -- are fish that live their entire lives -- December to December, year after year, in Tampa Bay (and any bay that offers inlet for big ships like Tampa does).
Captain "TommyZ" Zeismann doing what he does best: getting people to laugh while increasing their fishing skills one knot, one measurement, and one secret at a time. Zeismann is an outstanding delivery-based teacher. His natural skills educating a crowd and passing critical information is so friendly that there are gems of knowledge mixed in with laughter, one-on-one interaction with his class, and pure joy in what he does and what he is teaching that you have to be there to truly appreciate the guy. We joked about teaching like he does, with no notes and no teleprompters (we were joking about why someone would need one when speaking to a sixth grade class, as we had talked about that day on Facebook). "I used to write an outline and bring it with me, Gary, to make sure I covered all the points I thought were important, but after a while I found that being natural works the best. I miss a few things now and then but overall the sessions go very well."
Methodology for Catching Inshore Grouper...
There are two ways to catch grouper inshore:
- Trolling. You can troll live or dead baits, you can troll metal, you can troll jigs (both their personal favorites) and you can troll plugs. Since the fish are living on or very near the bottom (they usually rise in the water column to actually feed) you need to troll near where the fish live, so you either need to use planers or downriggers and a weight. Of these two methods, the downriggers are surely the easiest to manage, but trolling with planers is also an excellent and effective way to fish for grouper in shallow water, as you'll see from fellow site manager David Tartaglia, when he talks about catching 31" grouper in the bay with a local legend named Captain Larry Malinoski aka FishHawk.
- Bottom Fishing. When we say bottom fishing for grouper inside the bay, we're not talking about bottom fishing the likes of what you're familiar with on a head boat like the ones run by local legend Mark Hubbard, whose third-generation party-boat adventures have lead anglers to fish in deep water for as long as any of us remembers, or the deep water you'll encounter on boats like those run by Tommy Turke or Travis Palladeno, where you drop lines to 220' of water, where beasts live that require electric reels and still do permanent tissue damage to those stupid enough to pay the freight. We're talking here about keeping a bait on the bottom - or near it -- in anything from 8' to 18' of water in most cases. We're talking the areas just before and just after the deep channels. Flat shapes in the water covered with rock, covered with crabs, and covered all year with keeper grouper. That kind of bottom fishing.
Both work well. In the case of trolling, Vance has developed his name as one of the nation's most effective and proven shallow-water grouper men carefully dragging baits on a horizontal plane using downriggers. He drags the jigs he invented close to the ledges, and close to the homes of the grouper. TommyZ on the other hand, when asked where he trolls, says "In the middle of the channel. I am trolling by catching fish while Bubba here is getting stuck. Vance feels he hooks the bottom a lot but gets hooked up all the more as a result. And they're both right.
Fishing the bottom is another story, and that's where the rubber met the road that night of the seminar the two guys hosted. During the session, TommyZ covered something that sounded important, but may very well have slipped by the attendees. That was his mention of the shape of the bottom -- called the Topography -- and how you can use it to find grouper in our bay all year long. I was almost surprised when he uttered the truth of knowing that structure. The truth of there being keeper grouper on those ledges -- and most importantly on the area immediately before the drop-off into the deep channels -- all year long and always keeper-sized. They're there, and they can be caught, and if you understand the bottom, you'll find yourself in the 10% of people that catch 90% of the fish there are out there to catch.
Understanding Topography: Where the Fish Are
Navionics doesn't advertise with the site -- not yet they don't. That said, we do not suggest you run out and spend the money -- the serious money -- it costs for the software. At $50, it among the costliest of applications on my device -- and definitely among the high-end of applications on the iPad. But there are three-or-four of them, and they are all in the same range. We've played with all of them, and without question love the Navionics application the most. Their charts are comfortable, we know them well, they're accurate, and the features of the software really make a paper-chart come to life on my iPad. What it brings to life is the bottom of the Bay. It shows me what depths are where, provides specific GPS coordinates, and lets me record a virtual collection of great grouper spots.
Let's talk about topography for a minute. Let's assume we're facing north, the Skyway Bridge is to our back, and we're looking north towards downtown Tampa. We are sitting outside the mouth of the Manatee River.
See the channel? See the depth over the "Track/Menu/Route" buttons? It is 6'. It then drops off to a shelf of around 12'. Then it drops at an angle, over a small overhang, and then down to the depth of the channel. You can't see that on your bottom finder. But understanding the topography of the bottom -- and how that shelf appears near all the channels all the way through the entire bay -- will let you "bottom fish" for grouper on those shelves. They feed on this side when the tide's coming in, and on the other side when it's going out. You have to anchore you boat so you can throw (live, dead, or artificial) alongside your boat, and have the tide take it down towards the drop off. When it gets there you take it back and start all over again. This knowledge is worth a lifetime of doing it - and all you have to do is visit a freaken web site, or come (better yet) to one of Tommy and Vance's classes).
Tommy and Vance were talking about bottom fishing near the mouth of the Manatee River. Mostly because that's where they've been fishing of late. TommyZ also mentioned that if you're fishing with live pinfish to catch grouper, and you let them bounce across that shelf without getting hit by a grouper (or big cobia at times) and it makes it into the middle of the channel, hang on. There are tarpon there. From the time they first show up until the end of the summer when water-temps hit 78F. on their way down, the silver kings hang out in this channel. The guys fishing grouper work hard to avoid hanging one, but feel free :)
The software not only has great features, including every tidal data-feed on the planet, but lets you do things like save and pin locations. This one is in the mouth of the Manatee, since that's the exact spot the guys were talking about the other night, but as TommyZ poined out -- there are dozens of spots just like this one throughout the entire bay from the Skyway and outside of it all the way north to the Courtney Campbell Causeway. There is a deep channel that runs still all the way to Oldsmar, if any of you remember when coal barges fed the now-defunct Oldsmar power plant.
The direction of the tide is what will tell you which side -- North or South -- you need to anchor on in order to put baits first in front of, then alongside of, and finally behind your boat to present baits to the grouper that populate the many areas that match the flat-bottom/Shelf/Drop-to-Channel-depth scenario talked about in Tuesday's class. If the tide's coming in, you're on the north side fishing towards the north. If the tide's going out, you should be fishing the northern-most shelves, facing and fishing to the south, with the north behind you. It's simple if you think about it. Find a shelf, anchor in the right place, put enough lead on the bait to make sure it's bouncing on the bottom and presenting the bait slightly above the rocks themselves, and go to it. The grouper are there. All you have to do is put yourself there, too.
Attending our Classes
Like we said at the beginning, a big part of what we're trying to do is teach people what we know about this beautiful and challenging sport. Expensive, hard-to-find the time, and frustrating as it can be at times, it brings a lot into the lives of those it touches. Most of us have been doing this for a long time, and learned from one or two people. The internet gives us the chance to bring information about fishing together with education like we're trying to do here, and -- most importantly -- entertainment. And if you haven't been entertained by something fishy lately, make sure you stay in touch and watch our forums for the next class. They're fun, hosted by some of the country's best anglers, and most importantly -- are a place to meet each other. Tight lines, and until we see each other on the water...
All-around totally cool-guy Neal Cline (aka Stowaway and dad of Stowaway Jr) shooting video.