The Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper

Vol. 14 No. 18 - February 26, 2014

reel time

Grouper on the edge

Reel time

Rusty Chinnis | Sun

Mark McBride holds one of the grouper that fell for a plug
trolled along the Intracoastal Waterway

I first heard about grouper being caught along the ledges of the Intracoastal Waterway almost 30 years ago, but had forgotten about it until my neighbor Mark McBride told me about the big gag grouper he was catching there on a regular basis. McBride learned about the fishing while watching boaters from the local trailer parks trolling the edges of the channels and catching some impressive fish.

McBride, a student of fishing, did some exploring and through some trial and error discovered the most productive ledges and rock piles. Some of his favorites run from Longboat Pass to just north of the Sister Keys. On a cool and foggy day in early February McBride took me out to introduce me to the fishing and taught me a lot about the strategy and techniques he uses to catch grouper in the bay.

When the Intracoastal Waterway was constructed in the early 1900s, the contractors blasted through limestone to reach depths that were required for navigation. Many of these ledges have silted in over the years, but many of them are still prominent and provide excellent structure for grouper. In most cases depth finders aren’t necessary as you can see the dark edges of prominent ledges on a clear day. If that’s not an option, anglers can line up the channel markers that delineate the waterway.

According to McBride, “the key to getting the grouper to bite is putting the lure right in their face.” He uses 80-100 mono and deploys 150 to 200 feet of line to get the plugs and jigs he uses to bounce right over the rocks.

“If they hear them coming, they can’t resist them,” says McBride, “but you better be ready because when they do strike they’ll be swimming full force back to the rocks.”

McBride learned the hard way that the grouper will swim out of the rocks, around the lure and hit it while heading back to the rocks. If you’re not on your toes, the grouper will hang you up in the structure. When he does get a strike, he turns the boat into the channel and away from the ledge making it harder for the fish to get back to safety.

“When a grouper hits it feels just like a rock,” McBride says with a laugh. “You have to set the hook and hope it’s not a rock!”

His favorite lures are made by Yo-Zuri, Mann’s and Rapala. The plugs, some of which swivel and have rattles, come in a variety of colors, but McBride prefers green, blue, gold and black. These lures all feature big lips that dig deep into the water column. When retrieving these deep diving lures, the angler needs to be aware when they are near the boat as they can jump out of the water under a lot of force.

One of the variations in his rig is a 4-ounce torpedo sinker that he positions about 5 feet ahead of the plug. The weight gets the plug to swim deeper and closer to the strike zone. McBride also gets good results from large 4- to 6-ounce lead head jigs with plastic paddle tails. He will work a stretch of the waterway changing colors to see which is most effective.

After several passes and lure changes, he moves to another location. The optimal tide for grouper is the second hour into a hard rising tide. Besides the fact that most fish feed more actively during a running tide, the water is shallower and allows the plugs to get down closer to the structure while deploying less line.

One of McBride’s favorite locations features some impressive rocks and ledges and can yield spectacular action under the right conditions.

“My favorite stretch (about 150 yards) can be incredibly productive. I’ll often run no more than about 100 feet before I pick up a fish.”

I had heard that the grouper (in good numbers) are only in residence during the winter. However, McBride says they are territorial and stick around throughout the year. Besides the Intracoastal Waterway, they inhabit structure in all the local bays and even some unlikely places like Boley’s Creek.

That Saturday morning, despite a weak incoming tide, we landed six grouper in two hours, including two that measured 22 inches, the legal size limit. Anglers are allowed two per person with a four grouper aggregate per boat.

Season closures are constantly changing. so check regulations before keeping gag grouper. For anglers who have patience and persistence and don’t mind losing a few plugs this is an exciting and productive fishery. Try your hand at grouper on the edge, but hold on tight.

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