How to Catch Gag Grouper

As the coastal water temperature drops through the fall and winter, the Florida fishing scene starts to wane a bit, but there’s still plenty of fish to be caught. You just need to alter where you’re looking.

Gag grouper can be a blast to catch, and learning how to catch gag grouper is easier than you’d think! Just because the cold weather is bearing down, there’s no need to take a break from setting the hook!.

Where Can You Find Gag Grouper?

Gag Grouper (1)

These large fish are typically caught in the two to 12-pound range, though they can be found up to 20-30 pounds. An occasional 50-pounder can be landed in the deeper waters, and the world record stands at over 80. You can find them along the East Coast of the Americas from Brazil through the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico to as far north as New England.

Juvenile fish take shelter on the inshore glass flats and shoals until they mature. During most of the year, mature gag grouper like to hide around any type of structure that can give them shelter.

They can be found in ledges and holes and love to populate offshore reefs and shipwrecks.

As winter approaches, a massive migration of gags head for the warmer protection of the inner shores, especially within the Gulf of Mexico, to spawn. Off the coast of the Carolinas, spawning takes place in February, and in the Gulf of Mexico, spawning lasts from January through March.

During the late fall and early winter, they’ll show up a few miles off the shoreline along with spanish mackerel, kingfish, speckled trout, blacktip and spinner sharks that are chasing the schools of bunker and herring close to the beaches.

They’ll still be looking for places to shelter, so searching for large man-made structures close to the coast are a good place to start. You’re looking for any piece of structure located with nearby access to deep water. You should be able to find reasonably sized gags there. Also, head for rocky ledges and patch reefs in 15-30 feet of water. A little trick is to find clusters of stone crab traps and you’re likely to find good grouper structure.

How to Catch Gag Grouper: Live Bait and Cut-Bait

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Many anglers catch lots of gags on spinning and plug tackle, but live bait tends to be the best option. They can be caught on fresh cut bait like mullet or pinfish. They’ll also go for cut bait like squid, octopus, and crabs, though live bait, by far, is the best option. You can use a live pinfish, small gray or lane snapper, or live cigar minnow to draw them in quickly. Pilchards, grunts, or sand perch are options, as well.

Attach your baitfish to the hook just above the anal fins since the supporting structure of the fins adds some security.

How to Catch Gag Grouper: Tackle and Gear

Standard grouper tackle usually works just fine. A six to seven-foot conventional rod and reel equipped with the 40-pound test is a good place to start, but you’ll probably do fine on 20- to 30-pound test. In the warmer months, offshore anglers will lean towards stouter rods with 50- and 80-pound test lines, but that’s not necessary for the shallower waters during the colder months.

Use a four ounce egg sinker on a 2 ½ foot,  80lb fluorocarbon leader.

By law, you’re required to use a circle hook when bottom fishing in much of Florida’s cost, including the Gulf of Mexico. 6/0 will work here, though some tend to opt for a 4/0.

Be Prepared For a Fight When Pursuing Gag Grouper

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Gags are very aggressive strikers and will fight hard at all depths. When hooked, these are very powerful fish that want nothing more than to run back into a hole or ledge and take you with them. You’ll need to have heavy gear with you to prevent the fish from taking your line. Most anglers crank the drag on their reel down all the way to prevent the fish from reaching a hole.

They have a tendency to become “rocked up” if allowed.

This is where the grouper will run into a hole or under a ledge and spread its gills locking itself in place. To prevent that, keep the drag tightened so it’s almost impossible to pull line off of the spool. Lower your bait to the bottom, and then reel up a crank or two so that your sinker is elevated and the bait is swimming just off the structure. Keep your rod held low so you can immediately lift it as soon as the fish strikes, turning it away from the rocks. Lift up… reel down… repeat.  

If your fish is able to get rocked up, place your rod in a rod holder and release all pressure on the fish by giving it some slack. Wait five minutes, or watch to see when the line begins to move (whichever comes first). Start to cautiously reel in all slack to the point that your rod is low to the water and tight to the fish. Then use a quick, upward stroke. If you’ve got a fish pulling back, reel down and lift again to keep your fish headed in towards the boat. Though, you can also find a few other ingenious off-the-wall tricks out there, too.

When you’re looking for something different to try, cooler weather fishing for gag grouper can liven things up a bit and provide some fun fishing that requires a bit of finesse.


This article was contributed by an ANGLR Expert

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Tyler Barnes

ABOUT Tyler

I’m not a average angler I’m part of a fishing community that a large fish is like getting a award. Fishing is a passion for me. I fish nearly daily. I am currently on the field staff team for Penn Reels from Pure Fishing. In the past I’ve had sponsorships from Daiwa, Bullbuster, Eagle Claw, and I’m currently helping promote Monsta fishing apparel. I am also a avid tournament angler in many kayak divisions as well as offshore species. Catch my episode on the ANGLR Tour!

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