Author: Terry Lacoss
96965 Buccaneer Trail
Amelia Island, Fl. 32034
Title: “Deep Digging for N.E. Gags”
Caption: Sometimes you have to bang a N.E. “Gag” right on the head with baits or lures, which often makes them mad enough to eat!
Positioned on the bow of my Triton bay boat I readied my ten-foot, 3/8th-inch cast net for hopefully a perfect toss over a large slick spot at the Nassau Inlet. Keep in mind there wasn't a single sign of menhaden schooling on the surface, except for the large school of bait fish that made a yellow and red “Blob” on my Humminbird Helix-10 sonar. Obviously the slick area on the surface was also a dead give away that there were menhaden schooled up deep under the surface. Slick spots are often created when a current flows over a school of thickly gathered bait fish, much like current passing over a shallow bar, or similar structure that makes a rise from the bottom of the ocean.
“Toss the net now,” my son Terry David Lacoss instructed. “The Humminbird sonar is covered with deep water schooling menhaden, just ten feet below the surface.”
Soon I was holding on tightly to the lead line of my cast net waiting for those tell tale bangs in the cast net that indicate the net has dropped perfectly over a school of deep water menhaden. Two seconds later the net was loaded with menhaden that were swimming the heavily weighted net right up to the surface!
“Dad, we need to cull that net full of menhaden,” Terry David said. “Lets keep a five-gallon bucket full for chumming, while placing the smaller menhaden in our Triton's small live bait well and “Turbo” size menhaden in the release live well. I have been catching my larger gag grouper on the smaller menhaden and flat lining large menhaden for big kings and cobia.”
It was perfect summer morning where a light west wind had the Atlantic Ocean laid down like a pancake, which is typical of Northeast Florida summer weather. After filling our Triton's live bait wells with live menhaden, both with small and large baits, we soon were navigating at a 135-degree course from the mouth of the St. Mary's rock jetties to a near shore rock ledge. Amelia Island harbors
a multitude of rock ledges beginning some eight-miles offshore where the FA fish haven, also referred to as the “Fernandina Snapper Grounds”, offers excellent bottom fishing for red snapper, flounder, sea bass, triggerfish and the highly sought after “Gag Grouper”. GPS coordinates for the main ledges are 30-38.13'N/ 81-13.22'W where the average water depth is 65-70 feet. FA live bottom is also a part of the massive fault that runs north to south from eight to ten miles offshore of Northeast Florida. Here a series of 1-3 foot lime rock ledges make for excellent fish habitat. Amazingly FA live bottom entails some two-square miles of rough bottom where finding the right grouper ledge is key. Shortly after our arrival, we began scanning the bottom contour with the Humminbird sonar searching for bait fish, game fish and ledges. The mapping feature showed our fishing boat location at the north end of a deep slough with water depths ranging from 62- to 65-feet of water. The surrounding water depths ranged from 45- to 52-feet, where the steeper rock ledges were pictured holding large concentrations of bait fish and bottom fish too.
After marking a good bottom and bottom fish too, Terry David lowered the Motorguide electric trolling motor and programmed the
motor in the “Anchor” mode. This allowed our grouper baits to drop straight down to the high side of the ledge without setting our anchor and hoping that our boat's anchor would drift us perfectly back to the ledge. Also a heavy anchor and chain tends to spook deep water game fish including gag grouper that are known to be finicky feeders.
Live menhaden were soon barbed right through both nostrils with 7/0 kahle hooks and the tail was snipped off with a pair of sizzers. Cutting the tail of menhaden off allows the bait fish smell to seep out into the water, while producing a seductive swimming action from the barbed bait fish. A six-ounce egg weight was threaded onto a four-foot length of 100-pound shock leader and allowed to slide right up to the hook and barbed menhaden. Our terminal fishing gear included an eighty-pound braided fishing line and medium heavy both spin and level wind fishing rods and reels. Naturally our reel drags were locked down to the full setting. Fishermen can not allow a hooked grouper to reach the sharp edges
of the nearby rock ledge as you will not only loose your evening dinner, but your terminal fishing tackle as well.
Once our grouper baits had reached the rock ledge below, Terry David rigged a large menhaden, also frequently referred to as pogies, to a wire leader and size 4-4X treble hooks. The large live bait was soon cast off from the stern and allowed to drift just under and on the surface. A mesh bag full of ground menhaden was also attached to a gunnel cleat in order to chum up both deep water grouper and striking fish as well. Menhaden were also occasionally cut up into small pieces and tossed overboard while creating a tempting chum slick as well.
Flat line fishing tackle includes twenty-pound spin, or traditional twenty-pound trolling gear which offers great sport for what many summer grouper fishermen consider a real bonus catch. Be sure and employ a three-foot #4, section of piano wire haywire wrapped to a fifty-pound black barrel swivel. The tag end of the leader wire is then haywire wrapped to the eye of a 3/0 live bait hook. Finally a short section of #5 piano wire is haywire wrapped
to a #4-4X treble hook with the lead end of the stinger wire
haywire wrapped through the eye of the live bait hook and the loop
of the leader wire. This connection avoids the stinger wire to pull through the gap of the nose hook eye during a serious fish encounter.
“I have learned that placing the bottom rods in the rod holders and allowing grouper to take the bait, is a much better bottom fishing tactic than holding the rod,” Terry David Lacoss said. “I have learned that my charter clients are more apt to set the hook too early
when a bottom fish takes the bait, which results in a poor hook set and lost fish. However by leaving the rod and reel in the rod holder, grouper have more time to take the barbed live bait deep affording for a better hook up. Also when the grouper has more time to take the bait, the angler can simply reel in the slack fishing line and make a solid hook set.
Seconds later Terry David's grouper rod took a deep bend while playing out his exact instructions! After making a solid hook set. “T.D” began making solid pumps in his deeply bent rod tip hoping to move his hooked grouper away from the dangers of the nearby rock ledge. Soon a 12-pound gag grouper was hand gaffed and placed in Triton's forward fish box insuring that we had secured our family's fresh seafood dinner later that evening!
During our summer morning of bottom fishing we managed to catch our limit of 2- gag grouper which is presently one per person in both state and federal waters.
Live baits can also be jigged up at live bottom ledges and deep water channel markers as well. The “Sabiki” rig includes a series of #6 feathered hooks that are deep jigged with twenty-pound spin or casting tackle. A one-ounce bank sinker is attached to the bottom snap swivel of the bait catcher rig allowing the feathered hooks to drop down into the schools of cigar minnows and Spanish sardines, both prime grouper live baits.
Three to five dozen live baits are needed to begin your day of deep-water grouper fishing. If fishing is extremely good, you can always re-bait during the day. Having on board the proper grouper baits, anchoring precisely over the deep side of a grouper ledge and fishing with the right terminal fishing tackle is key to enjoying hot summer N.E. grouper action.
N.E. Florida grouper fishermen are also successful when deep trolling minnow type plugs with the aid of downriggers. This deep water trolling tactic can be extremely successful when grouper relocated away from the ledge or wreck. While in many cases of fishing with baits right on the ledge and the grouper action falls off,
may not indicate that you have caught all of the grouper, but they have simply been spooked a short distance away from the deep drop.
Also keep in mind that when you arrive at your favorite grouper ledge or wreck and you fail to mark grouper on the structure, this may indicate that resident grouper have simply moved off from the ledge and are now holding on a nearby live bottom.
During both of these situations trolling minnow type plugs with the aid of downriggers can hook your fishing party up to bonus catches of gag grouper. Also keep in mind that trolling with a heavy downrigger weight can result in snagging the weight on the deep structure resulting in the loss of an expensive downrigger weight. This almost always discourages fishermen from deep water trolling with downriggers.
However if your rig your downriggers properly and make it a point to troll along the edges of the deep water structure with your downrigger lures, grouper fishermen should be able to hook up to bonus gag grouper catches instead of snagging the bottom. Employing plugs that dive from 15-25 feet allows grouper fishermen to drop their downrigger weights to 15-25 feet off from the bottom where the plugs will actually be working just off from the bottom. Here large lipped, deep diving plugs will make contact with the
structure with their lip which simply knocks the plug up and away from becoming snagged. This setup simply saves your downrigger weights, plugs and more importantly keeps you fishing instead of loosing time re-rigging!
In most cases many of N.E. Florida's grouper structures are located in water depths ranging from 50-90 feet of water. With this in mind a 10-pound ball shaped weight will keep your plug working close to the bottom where grouper are more than likely waiting to ambush your plug. Also when a large grouper strikes your minnow type plug, the heavy weight provides for a better hook set when the grouper begins to swim away from the weight with the plug deep in it's mouth. Also keep in mind that often times grouper are swimming away from the structure to strike your plug, which makes them easier to catch as well
The lure should be dropped back some 10-feet from the weight so that you can make sharp turns while trolling in a circle around the edges of the grouper structure. Trolling speed should range from 1-2 knots, which keeps your deep water plugs in the strike zone longer.
Deep diving, big lipped plugs including the MirrOlure 111 MR, Magnum Rapalas and the Mann's Stretch 25 work well when paired
with downriggers. Typically the water clarity off from N. E. Florida is stained so brightly colored plugs including gold, pink, firetiger and chartreuse work best. Terminal fishing gear should include large spinning reels, or level wind reels filled with 65-pound braided fishing line with a 4-foot section of 80-pound fluorocarbon shock leader. Trolling rods should range from 6-6.5 feet with a medium light tip action which produces a throbbing action when your deep diving plug is working properly with a medium heavy butt section.
Excellent summer grouper action also comes from Schultz's Fish Market located some five-miles offshore of Amelia Island's Nassau Sound. Water depths here drop down to fifty-feet where an artificial reef consisting of spoil, natural live bottom and small rock ledges attract not only hard fighting grouper, but fast swimming kingfish during the heat of summer. GPS coordinates/latitude 30-30.03′N, longitude 81-15.80′W. .
Gag grouper must measure at least 24-inches to the tip of the tail. However keep in mind that the present grouper limit is 3-per day, per angler which limits 1-gag and 1- black grouper in your 3-grouper limit. Other species of grouper include warsaw, red, scamp and
snowy. Please go to www.myfwc.com for more information.
Summer Northeast Florida Grouper Ledges
Nine Mile Reef: GPS/30-23.32'N/ 81-10.11'W
Montgomery Reef: GPS/30-26.47'N/ 81-13.12'W
Haddock's Hideaway: GPS/30-34.03'N/ 81-08.26'W,
FC: GPS/30-36.35'N/ 81-10.35'W
Tournament Reef: GPS/30-27.47'N/ 80-55.46'W
Tanzler's Reef: GPS/30-29.37'N/ 80-57.30'W
Amberjack Hole: GPS/30-32.49'N/ 81-03.10'W
Desco Boat: GPS/29-53.16'N/ 81-00.31'W
Blackmar's Reef: GPS/30-21.55'N/ 80-50.05'W
Harm's Ledge: GPS/