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Fishing the outer grounds: long-range Gulf of Mexico trips come of age.

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Long-range, multi-day partyboat fishing has a long tradition in Southern California, and the concept may finally be catching in Florida waters. Oon the west coast of Florida, anglers are slowly discovering the thrilling potential that lies beyond the continental shelf. Snowy grouper, yellowedge grouper, Warsaw, porgies, deepwater snappers and a variety of other species lurk in the deep Gulf of Mexico, where the 800-foot mark signals a relatively untapped reservoir of fishing.

Anglers wanting a taste of the fishery may find local charter captains who'll do same-day, 200-plus-mile excursions. For a richer experience at a reasonable price, another great option is to sign on for a long-range trip on the Florida Fisherman II partyboat sailing out of Hubbard's Marina in Madeira Beach. The 72foot vessel cruises at 9 knots, and is set up to troll on the approximately 12-hour ride offshore. Amenities include Navy-style bunks, a galley serving hot food, and a covered roof around the perimeter of the vessel.

Hubbard's Vice President Dylan Hubbard recently gave Florida Sportsman an exclusive run-down on the marina's new 63-hour trips. The Hubbard's fleet has for decades been a mainstay for anglers wanting to fish the Middle Grounds and other hotpots along the west central coast of Florida.

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"In the past 5 years we have been refining our skills to fish the deep-drop grounds that stretch along the shelf just west of the Middle Grounds," said Hubbard. "There are families that have been fishing with us in the Middle Grounds for generations that are now deep-drop addicts, only waiting for these special trips to get offshore."

Hubbard mentioned the Dave Underwood family, a multigenerational crew from Florida and Maryland making regular trips on the Florida Fisherman II. Hubbard recalled the first time the Underwoods made the 63-hour trip.

"Their first 63-hour trip started out like any other longrange specialty trip. We boarded the boat just after midday on a Thursday, and by 3 p.m. we were heading southwest, offshore. As soon as our boat gets outside the Johns Pass channel, we spread our outriggers and set the trolling lines. On the Underwood's first trip, we caught big mahi-mahi, a 70-pound wahoo, and plenty of nice blackfin tuna."

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Hubbard said they made some drops in 300 to 400 feet along the way, catching gag and black grouper, as well as mutton snapper.

"After that, we pushed out to the 500- to 800-foot range to catch yellowedge grouper and tilefish. Then we moved out to 900 to 1,000 feet where we started to pull up monster snowy grouper as quick as we could get baits to the bottom. The Underwoods not only limited out their two-day bag limit of grouper at eight per person, they also had monster barrelfish, African pompano, big long tailed bass, tilefish and more."

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The rigs most commonly used for true deep-dropping on these trips are electric reels spooled with 65- or 80-pound-test braided line. Hubbard favors the Daiwa Tanacom 1000 reels, which are powered by rechargeable battery. Anglers are expected to supply their own deep-drop equipment, an important distinction for these trips. Terminal tackle consists of a heavy sash weight up to several pounds anchoring a pre-made multi-hook dropper rigs with glow beads and circle hooks. Sturdy, oily natural baits such as squid or bonito chunks are used.

The 63-hour trips are limited to no more than 18 passengers, Hubbard said, which allows half the group to drop baits at the stern of the anchored boat. "As the first anglers hook up, we move them forward to land the fish," Hubbard explained, "and then the next guys come back to drop their baits.

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"We're mostly fishing deepwater wrecks and hard bottom out on the Steps, an area west of the Middle Grounds where the bottom 'steps down' to the 800- to 1,000-foot range. We have a Furuno sonar with a 3 kW transducer, the strongest on the market, which lets us see bottom clearly as deep as 1,500 feet."

Hubbard says the crew continues to make new discoveries far offshore. "We recently found a spring in super deep water, 600 feet. I didn't know amberjacks lived that deep, but we were pulling 90-pounders every time we'd drop."

Hubbard said the company is investing in future prospects for even longer trips, out beyond 100 miles from shore, perhaps as far as the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Fares for the current 63-hour trips at press time were $799 per person. See www.hubbardsmarina.com

--Jeff Weakley, Editor
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Author:Weakley, Jeff
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Geographic Code:0GULF
Date:Jun 1, 2016
Words:763
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