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The Deep Gulf of Mexico Holds Tasty Rewards

Of reefs, rocks and wrecks - snapper and grouper galore.

September 17, 2013
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People say that there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. I can add one more: All fish love structure. From the shallow rocks and wrecks off the west coast of Florida to the deep rigs of the western Gulf of Mexico — a variety of snapper and grouper call structure home.

Locating structure is as simple as looking at a chart or purchasing a book of numbers that gives the latitude and longitude for reefs, wrecks, and rocks that litter the Gulf. Even easier, pull out your binoculars, and scan the horizon for the rigs and platforms created by the petroleum ­industry, all of which are fish magnets for various species of snapper and, in the case of deeper rigs, grouper too.

By Popular Demand

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It is a safe bet to say that the red snapper is one of the most sought-after species in the Gulf. In most cases, they are the easiest to locate and catch. Over the years, I have witnessed red snapper taken from shrimp-boat wrecks within yards of the Texas beachfront in less than 10 feet of water, all the way out to rigs in 70 fathoms. The fact is, if there is structure, there is a good chance there are a few red snapper around.

Go Deep for Variety

Other species of snapper —**** such as lane and vermilion — are often found with red snapper, but none is easier to find than gray snapper, often referred as mangrove snapper. Abundant on the west coast of Florida around the roots of red mangroves and inland docks, this shallow-water snapper has started appearing in greater numbers in the northern and western Gulf, especially around rigs and wrecks.

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As for grouper, most stick to deeper water, ­especially in the western Gulf, where serious grouper fishermen won’t even come off-plane until they reach 30 fathoms. The exception: gag and goliath groupers, which can be caught inshore near channels and jetties, especially in southwest ­Florida and extreme southern Texas. As a rule though, anglers targeting grouper in the Gulf encounter the more-common gag, scamp and Warsaw grouper, and other species, such as yellowedge, snowy, strawberry and black grouper, in ­deeper water.

Natural Approach

All snapper and grouper can be caught on dead bait, but live-baiting is often the difference between a fair and a great day. Blue runners, also known as hardtails, are always a good choice. These can be caught on sabiki rigs and jigging spoons at the rigs on the way out. A close second are pinfish, especially closer to port. Pinfish are easily caught on a cane pole around docks and jetties with shrimp and a small hook, as well as in perch traps. The best size of bait depends on the size of the fish sought. For smaller species, such as red snapper, scamps and gags, 5- to 6-inch baits are perfect. For larger Warsaw grouper, a 12- to 14-inch blue runner is hard to beat. Live baits should be fished on a bottom-drop rig designed to present the bait from 2 to 5 feet off the bottom. Smaller baits should be closer to the bottom, and larger baits fished higher.

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It’s important to have a variety of sinkers, ranging from 6 ounces to 4 or 5 pounds. The heavier weight facilitates getting the baits down in heavy current, and past wily ­barracuda.

Know the Rules

**All snapper and grouper****** are the finest of table fare, and have been heavily targeted by both recreational and commercial fishermen, which is detrimental to the stocks. Consequently, reef-fish species are heavily regulated, and it is important to know the rules, which seem to change as often as the tide. For example, when fishing for reef fish in federal waters, a non-stainless-steel circle hook is mandatory. A couple of other important details: It is illegal to possess a -goliath grouper, and the limit on Warsaw grouper is one per boat. These are but a few of the many regulations that fishermen need to know.

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In addition, I cannot stress the importance of being up on both state and federal laws, and to be able to differentiate between the two and know when each is applicable. This is especially important when it comes to season closures, and size and bag limits.

Regulations for -snapper and grouper can be complex, and also vary by state and through the year. Familiarize yourself with current rules for the water you plan to fish. State fish and wildlife agencies post their regulations online; federal regulations, which often differ from state rules, cover the deep water you’ll be fishing for snapper and grouper, and are kept current at gulfcouncil​.org/fishing_regulations.

Work Smarter

The beauty of most snapper and grouper is they can all be duped by artificials, especially in shallower water. Along the southwest coast of Florida, a great many grouper fall victim to diving plugs and bucktail jigs. There are even quite a few caught on fly. However, the single best way to catch snapper and grouper is by dropping a flutter jig into their home.

In the right hands, flutter jigs will outfish live bait for a couple of reasons: First, a streamlined flutter jig cuts through the current and sinks fast. Second, unless you break off a fish in a fight, you are not getting your hook picked clean, as happens with natural bait. This especially important in ­200-plus-feet of water, because it takes a great deal of time to reel 4 pounds of weight from the depths to rebait.

Tackle Up

For a limit of snapper, both live and cut bait work well, fished on a bucktail jig. However, if you are after a big old sow snapper, stick with the bottom-drop rig with a ­medium-size bait. This eliminates the chance of a smaller fish ­grabbing the bait. The only problem is the amberjack, which like to swim with snapper, love to pound a live blue runner or pinfish. Honestly, it’s not a bad problem to have.

When you’re fishing for smaller lane, vermilion and gray snapper, don’t discount a live shrimp. This delectable bait can be really tough to beat, ­provided you’re able to get it to the bottom without a trigger or angelfish stealing it. And don’t forget that a heavier weight can sometimes mean all the difference when seeking out the various snappers that prowl Gulf rigs and rocks.

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Go Deep: Sink baits to the bottom for a variety of species, some exotic and some common, like this gag grouper.
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Top Fare: Red snapper one of the most popular fish in the Gulf, are reliable residents on any structure.
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Bait Beater: Flutter jigs can be as enticing as bait. This scamp couldn’t resist.
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