Catching Red Grouper in Florida
It is possible to catch big offshore fish close to shore in Tampa Bay.
Red Grouper (Epinephelus morio) is one of the most popular Grouper caught off the Gulf coast of Florida by commercial fishermen, client charters, and recreational anglers. These colorful, hard pulling fish have a delicious, firm white meat that’s enjoyable any way it’s cooked. The fish is usually found in excess of nine miles offshore, leaving the keeper-sized Red Grouper just out of reach of your average inshore angler, or so I had been lead to believe when I started targeting Grouper from a flats boat.
The good news is that these 20-inch plus-sized fish that are legal for the cooler are abundant in Tampa Bay waters year round, if you know where to look. Your best chances are at the mouth of the bay, and if you follow the method I’ve perfected over the years, you may be heading home with a Red in your cooler that isn't a Drum.
The Right Tackle
The type of rod you use isn’t that important in my opinion, as I’ve caught these Grouper on stout rods like an Ugly Stick Tiger and lighter rods like a Redbone inshore. The main thing I look at is the reel and the line. I prefer a 4000 to 6000 series reel with a good drag system. Pair it with 40 to 65 lb braided line. I use Tuf-Line. Slide a 3 oz weight on the braid and tie on a 100 lb test swivel.
For the leader, an 80 lb flourocarbon one does well. Use a circle 1/0 to 3/0 hook. I personally use an Owner brand 1/0 and haven't had trouble.
Best Bait for Red Grouper
Don’t get fancy. I use a chunk of cut whatever one inch thick and three inches wide. I like using Key West grunts. I find chunks of cut bait will be picked up by the smaller stuff and after a bit the big ones hit it like a freight train. Make sure your hook is on the bait, exposed, and free of scales for better hook ups. With your line ready, let’s get to where to drop.
Where to Find Red Grouper
With bottom fishing, it’s imperative that you have a good bottom machine. Most of us do; however, if you don't you can obtain one with new, better than sonar alone down imaging for a few hundred bucks easily. In my limited knowledge, I feel the first mistake many fishermen make when trying to bottom fish near shore is to automatically go to marked reefs on a chart. These will hold a lot of fish at times, but it’s uncommon to catch big Red Grouper in these wrecks as they are pressured constantly.
This may get groans, but it’s the honest truth. No one is going to give away the numbers to spots holding fish like this. To an angler, this is the equivalent of giving away a map to your gold mine. The trick is to find your own spot using a good bottom machine. Grouper are a structure-oriented fish that likes ledges, hard bottom, and rock piles. Luckily, there are thousands of these in Tampa Bay. The best part is, many are not pressured because they are unknown and are thus holding big Grouper. Look for small ledges; I'm talking one to two foot drops. These subtle ledges hold fish that don't get the pressure that the ones on the popular known wrecks do. They are usually in 10 to 30 feet. Take your time and you won’t be disappointed.
It is possible to catch big offshore fish close to shore in Tampa Bay. You simply need to remember the habitat they like and be willing to put in the effort to locate those subtle areas. When you find these areas and no longer have to depend on the public reefs for fishing, you’ll never look back. Once you find your spot, you can usually expect the same results frequently. Tight lines, my friends.
By Zac Sturm