SW FL-Bonita Beach: Red Grouper are Back!
Monday morning, 3/26, I fished over hard bottom in 35 feet, with Chris Ernberger, his dad, Jerry, and Chris's son, Carter. There was about a 3-foot roller left over from the windy Sunday that preceded our trip, so we didn't venture too far offshore. The guys used live-shrimp to catch six keeper mangrove snapper to 15 inches, a keeper lane snapper, a keeper triggerfish, and some whitebone porgies. They released additional mangrove snapper that were shorts, along with six additional triggerfish shorts, and gag and red groupers to 19 inches.
Tuesday, I headed offshore to fish with live shrimp in 38 feet, about 15 miles west of New Pass, with frequent fishers Ron Musick, Eddie Alfonse and Dick Arnett. Dick’s family was visiting so his two sons, Josh and Nate, and Nate’s young son, Jack, went along this time. The guys caught five keeper mangrove snapper, a few keeper porkfish, a keeper triggerfish, a half-dozen 14-inch whitebone porgies, a mess of grunts, a 16-inch sheepshead, a 23-inch Spanish mackerel, and a 14-inch keeper hogfish. They released lots of grouper shorts—gags to 20 inches and reds to 18 inches.
Young Alex Goodall, who has been fishing with me each year since he was a toddler, brought his dad Joe, and family friends, Dave, Tony, and Fred to fish the reefs Wednesday morning. Seas had kicked up quite a bit over night, with steady winds of 15-20 knots, so we spent most of our time at the Five-Mile Reef off Bonita Beach, fishing with live shrimp. The guys caught more than twenty sheepshead, but only two of those were keepers, which was unusual, since the reefs have been producing lots of big sheepies lately. They also caught a keeper mangrove snapper, a keeper lane snapper, a 14-inch flounder, and a half-dozen Spanish mackerel in the 20-22-inch range. They released gag grouper shorts.
Stuart Norris, who has fished with me each March for years, headed out to 43 feet with me on Thursday morning. Predictions for calm seas were incorrect. We had a three foot swell with a one-to-two foot chop on top of it, and the winds blew strong all morning. We used live shrimp to catch a 15-inch keeper-sheepshead, a keeper mangrove snapper, two triggerfish, one of which was a keeper at 14 inches, and a 14-inch whitebone porgy. We released gag grouper to 21 ½ inches, as well as red grouper to 19 inches. We also released blue runners and grunts. There were some big fish eating our due catches, and I’m suspecting goliath grouper were the culprits.
Friday, I was hoping to fish an incoming tide, albeit low, all day with Andy Haas and Tucker Dahl. But the tide was strange—It came in and went out again, and it made fishing a little tough in the backwaters. But the guys used live shrimp to catch four sheepshead, one of which was keeper-size,along with a keeper mangrove snapper. They released a 14-inch trout, three 17-inch redfish, two snook that were17 and 18 inches, and four big stingrays to 20 pounds.
Saturday morning, rather than face another low tide in the backwaters, I headed to the near-shore reefs with Ed Oleksy and his twelve-year-old son, Nick. Seas were sloppy, even close-in, and by the time we headed in around noon, seas were hitting four feet. The guys caught and released a couple of gag grouper, one 20 inches and the other 23 ½ inches, a would-be-keeper, if it were not for closed gag season. They also caught two keeper sheepshead, a keeper lane snapper, a couple of grunts, and nine Spanish mackerel. They released all but one of the mackerels, along with lots of ladyfish and a few crevalle jacks. Everything bit shrimp.
Monday morning, 4/2, seas were calmer than they’d been in several days. I headed offshore with Bill Conklin, Jan & Sara Range, their five-year-old daughter, Libby, and father-son duo Rick Weigand Sr. and Jr. We fished about 22 miles west of New Pass, in 45 feet. Being as red grouper season opened as of April 1st, we were hoping to find some of them. We did so, and got one keeper red grouper 23 inches long, and released lots of red grouper shorts. The keeper-grouper ate a spot-tail grunt. We used live shrimp for all our other catches, which included a dozen grunts, all about 12 inches long, a half-dozen whitebone porgies, five keeper lane snapper, and two hogfish, one of which was a keeper at 15 inches. The group also released lots of gag grouper shorts, along with short mangrove snapper, short lane snapper, and triggerfish.
Tuesday, I headed offshore in pursuit of red grouper again, this time with frequent fishers Ron Musick, Dick Arnett, Eddie Alfonse, and Justin Baker. We had the full day, so we headed out to 70 feet, about 35 miles west of New Pass. The prize of the day was caught by Ron, who landed a 15-pound, 28-inch red grouper, which ate a bait fish. The guys caught two additional red grouper keepers on shrimp, measuring 21 inches and 22 inches. They caught about thirty red groupers in all, two additional that were probably keepers, but right at 20 inches, and we released those, along with all the other shorts. They also caught six nice whitebone porgies to 16 inches, a keeper yellowtail snapper, and fifteen keeper lane snapper. They released gag grouper shorts, and battled something big that eventually snapped the line.
Wednesday, winds began picking up somewhat, but we had 2-3 foot seas, so we were still able to get out a way. I fished 22 miles west of New Pass with Dick Driscoll, his son Rich, Rich’s son Jack, Jack’s uncle, Steve Calhoun, and Steve’s daughters, Emma and Sadie. The red grouper bite was on, but keepers were hard to find. We had one that measured right at 20 inches, but fish tend to shrink once in the cooler, so I don’t keep borderline-sized fish. We released it, along with many other shorts. We did well with lane snapper, landing fourteen keepers, along with three keeper mangrove snapper, whitebone porgies and grunts. We had a big cobia on for a little while—it was about 4 ½ feet long—It bit a mangrove snapper that we were reeling in, but it was on a light pole, and we couldn’t get the cobia boated before he spit the hook. We tried to lure him back, but to no avail. Cobia can be finicky and opportunistic.
Thursday, I headed out with Bob Sawyer and family, hoping to get one more good day offshore before winds and seas kicked up. According to the NOAA forecast, I was thinking correctly; but we needed only to get to the pass to see that waves were every bit of five feet, and I deemed it unsafe to proceed even to the near-shore reefs with my group of six. The wind was blowing so hard that it didn’t even seem very appealing or productive to fish the back-bay, or we would have gone back to the dock to trade boats. Instead, we decided to reluctantly bag the trip, and we headed back to shore.
Friday, I tried fishing the backwaters with Larry and Jackie Wagner, Pat Cunningham, and friend, Dara. The wind was gusting to 25 mph. Once again, NOAA's forecast was behind the actual weather event's schedule. The rain that was predicted to hold off until afternoon began, sporadically, in the morning. Fishing was tough. We managed to catch and release a sheepshead and a couple of stingrays before spotting an especially ominous cloud overhead. We decided to cut our losses and come back to shore. Winds and seas persisted into Saturday, so I cancelled that trip also.
The photo shown is of angler, Ron Musick, with a, 28-inch, 15-pound red grouper, caught on a bait-fish, on an offshore trip two days after red grouper season opened.
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