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September 21, 2007

Sight Gags

You don't know the meaning of the word "unconventional" until you've tried casting a plastic lure to a trophy gag grouper.
A fire tiger Mann's Stretch 25+ proved to be more than this 29-pound gag could resist.

Whoa, did you see the size of that other fish?" shouted Captain Dan Clymer, as his stout plug rod arched under the strain of his 10-pound adversary. "It was twice as big as this one."

I tried to answer but found speech impossible. My eyes seemed to be playing tricks on me. Surely I'd just witnessed an aquatic anomaly. Moments later, however, when another hefty fish slammed my lure, I knew I wasn't hallucinating - Clymer and I were actually sight-casting to trophy gag grouper in nine feet of water just off Crystal River, Florida.

Nowadays, from Tarpon Springs, Florida, northward to St. Marks, anglers are catching grouper using a rather offbeat technique - trolling and casting plastic lures. Granted, it's not unusual to target grouper throughout the Sunshine State. But the time-honored technique used both here and on the Gulf Coast involves heavy tackle with drags hammered tight, and live or frozen bait pinned to several ounces of lead weight.

Gradually sloping depths and a lush sea-grass bottom peppered with shallow limestone rock piles distinguish this particular stretch of coastline. In the spring and fall, when water temperatures are cooler, this close-in structure holds plenty of bait. And where the bait hangs out, you'll find grouper, as Clymer demonstrated.

When he's not on the clock as a test engineer with Pro-Line Boats, Clymer still spends most of his time on the water. As a result, he has hundreds of shallow grouper spots cataloged in his GPS. So when the Homosassa native invited me along to experience the lure phenomenon, I quickly accepted. Joining us for their own shallow-water initiation were Pro-Line founder Dan Atwood and his wife Jan aboard a 17-foot factory center console.

Because of the close proximity of the fish, it's easy for smaller craft to get in on the fun. From the public boat ramp just west of U.S. Highway 19, our short run down the picturesque Crystal River to the Gulf of Mexico took us past jagged oyster bars and a muddy shoreline. We were starting out on a full moon at dead low tide, but Clymer assured me the fish would be hungry once the tide turned.

The fight isn't over until the fish is onboard. Boatside surges are common so take care when leadering a grouper.

"Gags love moving water," he said. "An incoming tide is best, but they always seem to bite around midday, regardless. If I'm on the water before ten in the morning, it's rare."

True to form, we couldn't entice a strike at the first two stops under slack conditions. Undeterred, we reeled in our gear and ran farther offshore to an overhanging limestone ledge in 20 feet of water. As we skimmed across the gentle swells like a racing hydroplane, Clymer confessed how he's managed to stockpile his lengthy list of grouper spots.

"Sea turtles, sea turtles, sea turtles," he said with a laugh. "If you find one of them, you find structure. That turtle is there for a reason. He's around a ledge or a rock or a wreck. I spend a lot of time cruising and looking, and when I spot a turtle, I mark him on the GPS and then keep searching with the depthsounder until I find what attracted him."

Clymer says another good way to find places is right after a strong storm. Crab traps get blown around during rough weather, so if you find several trap buoys all bunched together afterwards, you've found your gag spot.

Clymer hefts another plug-caught grouper - one of 11 boxed in just three hours of fishing.

As if on cue, the GPS alarm marked our closing distance to the ledge, so Clymer throttled down and broke out the trolling outfits. His tackle of choice is a pair of seven-foot Star 20- to 60-pound-class conventional rods and Shimano TLD reels spooled with 65-pound-test PowerPro braided line. He adds a three-foot section of 80-pound monofilament leader but downsizes to 60-pound if the water is extremely clear. Using a MirrOlure loop knot, Clymer ties on either a Mann's Stretch 25+ or Rapala CD MAG-18 big-lipped diving plug rigged with twin treble hooks. Clymer favors plug colors that lean toward natural for clear water (brown, black-silver or red-white) and more flashy in stained water (chartreuse, orange-yellow, dolphin or fire tiger). If the bite shuts down after a couple of fish, Clymer doesn't hesitate to change lures.

"The bright colors don't mimic anything in nature," Clymer says. "It's just the vibration and movement. The fish can't stand it, so they'll just rocket up and pounce. If they turn off one pattern, I'll give them a different look."

BogaGrips are handy for dealing with sharp trebles and teeth.

With the reel drag set so the line can barely be pulled off by hand, Clymer starts trolling at four to six miles per hour a few hundred feet from the marked structure. He motors right over the spot and then makes a couple of figure eights around it. The biggest gags move off the structure with the boat noise, but they'll generally stay in the vicinity.

"I'll bottom fish on occasion, but I love to troll more than anything else," he says. "First off, you just don't lose that many fish. The forward momentum of the plug takes the fish away from the structure after the strike, so you have a better chance of landing him. When you're bottom fishing in this shallow water, it's hard to turn the big ones - they rock you up so fast. The other advantage to using the bigger plugs is that you catch bigger, quality fish. I seldom hook anything undersize while trolling."

GAG FACTS

Gag grouper are common in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, especially around reefs, wrecks, coral and ledges. More shallow-oriented than other members of the grouper family, gags are known to live up to 26 years and reach 80 pounds. A 22-inch legal fish is likely four or five years old. All gags are born as females and change sex after 11 years.

Gags spawn in 100- to 120-foot depths from December until May, with the peak months being February and March. After hatching, post-larval juveniles then gravitate to coastal lagoons and shallow grass beds for sanctuary before eventually migrating back into deeper water.

Phil Steele, the National Marine Fisheries Service Fishery Operations Team Leader for all offshore species in the Gulf of Mexico, says gag populations are considered healthy. There are no immediate plans to change bag or size limits in either federal or state waters, although a new stock assessment is scheduled for this year.

"Overall the gag stocks in the Gulf are in good shape," Steele says. - Dave Lear

On consecutive passes, Jan Atwood and I each held on tight as our rods bent over with arm-jarring strikes. The initial burst of raw power eventually gave way to short, determined sprints as the fish tried to return to the sanctuary of their rocky lair. But the distance to freedom was too great, and after several minutes of determined tug-of-war, the ten- and 14-pounders were tossed into the ice cooler. Dan Atwood, meanwhile, was winning his own battle with a chunky 19-pound king mackerel that had skyrocketed into a tangle of treble hooks.

"This spot doesn't hold many fish, but the ones that are here are all nice," Clymer said. "I've caught gags up to 20 pounds on this ledge."

With our initial catches on ice, we ran a few more miles offshore to a sunken shrimp boat in 29 feet of water. Once again, productive passes yielded several more quality gags, including one pulling the BogaGrip scale down to 16 pounds and another to 29 pounds - a new personal best for Dan Atwood. With the fish cooler practically stuffed, we retraced our course for my casting lesson.

CASTING CALL
"Boat location is the key when casting," Clymer said. "If you're too far from the structure, you won't get strikes. Get too close and the fish shy away. Ten to 12 feet is the maximum depth I'll try when casting, and I use my trolling motor to sneak within no more than 50 feet of the spot."

When rigging his casting outfits, Clymer doubles the braided line using a Spider hitch knot and then ties on a

0-pound monofilament leader with a Bristol knot. He typically downsizes the lures when casting with his favorite orange CD MAG-18 Rapala. A heavy-duty flipping stick and mid-size reel complete the casting setup.

The missed strike I described earlier will remain etched in my memory for a long time. After Clymer plucked two off the rock pile and Atwood added another, we decided to call it a day. In just three hours, we had boxed 11 nice gags ranging from ten to 29 pounds. We pulled the hooks on two more and didn't record a single undersized fish among our tally. It was the best grouper trip ever for the Atwoods and me, but for Clymer it was just status quo.

"Forget about Atkins," he said, laughing. "I'll feed them plastic every day and twice on Sunday."