The opening of gag grouper season in federal waters Sept. 16 not only means tasty fish for recreational anglers, it triggers big business for charter captains.
From the business side, charter captains in areas such as John’s Pass in Pinellas County are hit harder by tighter gag restrictions than those in Bradenton and Sarasota.
While tourist-heavy areas such as Anna Maria Island and Siesta Key attract out-of-town anglers who will fish regardless of what species is in season, it seems anglers in John’s Pass, for example, are mostly “meat” anglers.
They are locals, and if they’re going out to spend at least $400 on gas, they want some grouper sandwiches for dinner.
“It’s true,” said Gary Laabs, owner of the Dos Hombres charter boat for John’s Pass Fishing Charters. “I think when they spend 'X' dollars on a charter boat, they want to take some fish home, and they want to take good fish. Obviously, grouper is a good fish.”
Laabs estimated his profits will increase by at least 30 percent during the open season.
Overfishing, or Too Much Regulation?
The issue of whether the gag grouper population is “overfished” has been beaten down by recreational and commercial sectors, government agencies and conservation groups.
The debate has been marked with , grouper forums and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council science.
A slew of divers and anglers scream grouper are plentiful as ever.
The two-month open season closes Nov. 16. The Council put the temporary rule in place this year.
The bag limit is two gags within the four fish aggregate grouper bag limit, at a minimum size of 22 inches in total length.
The NOAA Fisheries Service implemented the temporary rule based on a gag stock assessment that stated gags are being overfished.
The squeezing of gag grouper season has reportedly put some charter boat captains out of business, especially in Tampa and St. Petersburg. Some anglers said the Council’s data is outdated and unreliable and is putting Floridians out of work.
“It’s just part of too much government regulation that hindered the economy and hindered jobs,” said Capt. Larry McGuire of Show Me the Fish Charters out of Bradenton Beach.
NOAA has stated grouper populations have been cut in half and the science is targeted at protecting grouper, a high-dollar species for commercial fishermen, for the future.
How to Snag Gags
Gag grouper are on inshore ledges and rock piles, including the Sunshine Skyway Bridge shipping channel, and artificial reefs and ledges in offshore waters. Most captains start in at least 45 feet of water, but the biggest gags are in at least 150 feet of water.
Starting with frozen sardines to get the gags feeding and following up with live baits such as pinfish is a good strategy.
Use a minimum of 50-pound test line and a two-foot, 60-pound fluorocarbon leader on a 7/0 circle hook with enough weight (and average of six ounces) to keep the bait on the bottom.
Unfortunately, the opening of gag grouper season comes during the prime months for Gulf hurricanes.
Find a weather window — make safety a priority — and snag a gag while you can.