In autumn months, Capt. Clay Shidler of Hang ‘Em High Sportfishing knows exactly where he plans to take his clients. Shidler sets a course aboard his Suzuki-outboard-powered 42-foot Freeman for small, little known rock and rubble piles some 34 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico off Plantation on Crystal River resort, Crystal River, Florida.
This is where gag grouper and mangrove snapper swarm in the fall, and anglers dropping live pinfish to the bottom find the action fast and furious. That’s exactly what we did during a Suzuki-sponsored trip in early October with Shidler, who likes to anchor up on his favorite spots to fish. It paid off as our crew quickly scored limits of gags (two fish, minimum 24 inches), and then switched to frozen whole shrimp to target big mangrove snapper.
When fishing for gag grouper with Shidler, the first baits in the water on fresh spot get bit almost immediately by the most aggressive fish, which are also some of the biggest fish on a particular spot. Shidler fishes with 65-pound braid with a Carolina-style bottom rig, using a 6-ounce egg sinker and 80-pound fluorocarbon leader. He sets the drags tight to h wrestle the grouper away from the jagged bottom structure.
Live Bait Magic
The key to catching gag grouper is plenty of live bait. While a variety of baits work, Shidler prefers pinfish, which he catches in pinfish trips that he visits on the way out to fishing grounds. Shidler also sometimes chums with live bait to help bring the gags up from the bottom and entice them to feed.
As Fresh as it Gets
Gag grouper make for some of the best table fare that Gulf waters have to offer. To keep one in federal waters, the fish must measure at least 24 inches, with a daily bag limit of two fish per angler. We stayed at the Plantation on Crystal River. The resort’s West 82 Bar and Grill offers a “Catch and Cook” menu, preparing the fish that you caught that day for dinner.
Once the crew reaches it daily bag limit of gag grouper, Shidler likes to break out the light spinning tackle to fish frozen shrimp on small leadheads for mangrove snapper. While the gags tend to hang near the bottom, mangrove snapper tend to feed above the bottom, and provide great sport on light gear.
Mangrove snapper grow large and healthy in the Gulf waters off of Crystal River, Florida, and fight hard. Capt. Clay Shidler hoists a nice one showing its ruddy colors and broad flanks. In this part of the Gulf mangrove snapper must be at least 12 inches in length to keep, but we had no problem catching legal-sized fish.
On our trip, we caught gags to 17 pounds, and released many undersized fish. Shidler says that you can catch gags in depths from 3 to 150 feet, but he prefers to target them in 34 feet of water this time of year.