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Grouper lite: live baits and a light touch are the keys to taking the quirky but delicious scamp.

They're not the most brazen of the grouper clan, but don't sell a scamp short--this sporty little reef fish packs plenty of punch. And, those tasty fillets (white, delicate, mildly nutty-tasting) are well worth the effort necessary to coax a bite.

I say "little" because 20-pound scamps are far less common than 20-pound gags, reds or blacks. Nevertheless, the big pond lacks not for Mycteroperco phenax of respectable size. That goes for suitable habitat in all of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and most of the Florida Atlantic coast.

Lew Bullock, reef fish specialist with Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, examines lots of 10-pounders caught on commercial boats. His biggest scamp specimen was a 25-pounder caught on a bandit boat off Fort Myers. I personally watched my buddy Ryan Farner haul a 17-pound-er over the rail, but if you're in the 7- to 10-pound class, you're catching good scamp.

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WHERE TO LOOK

Bullock describes ideal scamp habitat as hard bottom with rocky ledges and plenty of nooks and crannies. Think Florida Middle Grounds, in the Gulf of Mexico, and areas of similar habitat. Complementing natural structure are manmade sites like the Gulfstream Natural Gas Pipeline mitigation reefs, or any of the countless artificial reefs around the state. The key element, Bullock notes, is lots of corners and edges.

"Scamp prefer a lot of relief and hiding places," Bullock said. "It might be their diet. Red grouper eat more crustaceans, but scamp like finfish. The hiding spots in the reef make it easier to ambush prey.

"Scamp are more wary than gags and reds, so they're harder to catch. I'm sure gags prey on scamp when they can, so the scamp are usually hanging back on the reef."

Of depth ranges, Bullock offered this: "On the west coast, you can find scamp on reefs in 30 feet of water, but they're juveniles. You have a better chance of catching big scamp and more of them in water deeper than 200 feet."

Captain Sam Maisano of Go Fast Charters agrees with that assessment. Running out of John's Pass on Treasure Island, he looks for hefty scamp in the 200-foot-plus range over hard bottom. A few rocks here and there won't do. Give Maisano a sprawling reef site with a good variety of solid structure and he's thinking scamp.

"You want some nice, thick readings on the bottom machine," he said. "And if you get a rock pile in the middle of that thick, hard bottom, that's usually a good spot for scamp."

Maisano said diversity is also a key indicator of a spot's scamp potential. He doesn't worry if gags and others come to play first. In fact, the more the merrier--at least in terms of the right neighborhood.

"If you're getting porgies, yellowtail and grunts, you'll often get the scamps That just says that you're on something good" Maisano said. "The gags are a bit more aggressive, but if the scamp are hungry, you'll get 'em. Sometimes you'll be fishing on a spot and then all of sudden you'll get two or three scamps in a row."

FEED 'EM WHAT THEY LIKE

Few reef fish can completely tune out a chunk of sardine or Boston mackerel, and squid has a standing reservation on everyone's dinner plate. However, if you want to impress the larger scamp, put something live in their face.

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According to Bullock, scamp stomach samples have turned up a lot of vermilion snapper (beeliners) and tomtates (spots). While federal fishing regulations in the Gulf of Mexico prohibit using for bait vermilions and other snappers, you can stir up a lot of interest using tomtates, sand perch (a.k.a. squirrelfish), small grunts and blue runners. All hold up nicely in a livewell and on a hook, and you can usually catch them on the spot.

If you really want to light a scamp's fire, drop a live pilchard (whitebait) and hang on. You'll need to castnet these small, shiny baits along the beach or over a grassflat before heading for the horizon.

"Whitebait is scamp crack," jokes veteran Gult angler Randy Rochelle. "A 2- to 4-inch live whitebait is irresistible."

The scamp's eagerness to strike fast-moving finfish suggests a good target for artificial lures, and that's certainly the case. Shiny, slender jigs like Shimano's Butterfly or Tsumani's Blade Jig, are deadly on scamp. Specialized jigging outfits--conventional and spinning--pair light but high-capacity reels with extremely flexible, yet deceptively strong rods. This task-specific tackle facilitates the fluttering that attracts scamp with frantic baitfish imitation, while providing the backbone needed to wrestle a big'n topside. Traditional buck-tail jigs in the 1-to 6-ounce range work great too, especially when paired with a scented soft bait trailer, such as the 6-inch Berkley Gulp! Swimming Mullet.

TACKLE AND RIGGING

Standard slip sinker rigs do just fine with dead baits, but livies need room to flash and flutter to attract scamp attention, so go with a knocker rig. Essentially a slip sinker rig without the swivel and leader, a knocker rig positions the sliding sinker directly on your main line where it slides or "knocks" against the hook and bait. With the whole package descending in streamlined form, a knocker eliminates the line twist common to slip sinker rigs.

Moreover, with the line sliding freely through the weight, a live bait can roam the reef and find a taker. Hook positioning plays a key role here and two schools of thought merit consideration. First, a tail or nose-hooked livie will tug against the hook and this frantic fluttering does appeal to predators. The downside is that baits soon tire and minimal movement means minimal attraction.

Ryan Farner of St. Petersburg hooks live baits behind the pectoral fin where the metal slides easily through a soft fleshy pocket. Even a small bait can tow a hook in this position and because there's minimal physical impact, you'll get more service out of each one. In strong current, as you'd find along the Atlantic coast, nose-or lip-hooking the bait is preferable.

Another approach is the simple dropper rig, which reef fishermen in Florida usually call the chicken rig. Take about four feet of leader material and tie two or three loops, spaced about a foot apart. Tie a swivel to the top, and a loop at the end, to hold the sinker. Thread each dropper loop through the eye of a hook. You can fish a couple of different baits on the chicken rig. (See notes on circle hooks in accompanying story.)

Farner suggests targeting finicky scamp with tackle about half the size of what you'd use for grouper and snapper. Thirty-to 60-pound main line with fluorocarbon leader is the way to go. Also helpful in the stealth game are Aquateko Invisa Swivels, made of a fluorocarbon-like material, and the Invisible Sinker. Formed from a silica compound, the latter virtually vanishes in the water column.

Because most of the scamp recreational anglers encounter will top out around 10 pounds, you won't need the stout boat rods and 4/0 class reels used for gag duties. Drop down to smaller conventional tackle and even medium-heavy spinning gear and you'll enjoy a good tussle with plenty of firepower, in case something larger crashes the party.

SERVE UP THE APPETIZERS

Scamp are homebodies, sticking close to the bottom. As such, they're unlikely to rise to the kind of surface chum you might put out for gags and snappers. Hanging a chumbag from a cleat and/or snipping sardines at the stern is certainly a good way to perk up the general reef bite. Just don't look for scamp to gobble chum bits all the way to your stern or smack a flatline bait--as fired-up gags often do.

A better way to stimulate the scamp bite is to drop a frozen chum block to the bottom. Take the smell to the fish. Options include tying the block to your anchor chain or deploying it on a down-rigger. In either case, a sturdy meshbag is a must, but don't stop there. Only a metal chum cage will deter the reef sharks and Goliath grouper from helping themselves to a tasty mouthful.

For quick-release bottom chumming, try a device like the Gene Turner Deep Drop Chum Cage. Designed by the late Capt. Gene Turner--Gulf guru and off shore gear innovator--this device features an open face with a weight ring that forces the cage to descend face-down. Water pressure keeps cut baitfish or chunks of ground chum in place and when the cage reaches bottom, a quick tug from above releases the smelly appetizers.

Before running to your scamp spots, get yourself ahead of the game by rounding up a load of live baits. Dro pdown to a smaller mesh castnet to grab the little whitebaits that are best for scamp and shake the sabikis around channel markers and inshore reefs for Spanish sardines, pinfish and spots.

Here's a trick for grabbing tomtates and other scamp treats like small blue runners, squirrelfish and the like: Cut a frozen squid into inch-long strips about 1/8-inch wide and deploy them on fishfinder rigs. With the weight on the bottom, the squid strip floats up in the water column and wiggles like a glass minnow or some other small fish that feeds your target species.

You'll fina it easier to grao a day s supply of live baits in shallow water than with 20-plus fathoms under your boat. However, if you're running late or if the inshore forage plays hard-to-get, you can still grab them in the deep zone. Bump up to the larger sabikis, clip off the bottom two hooks and go with a shorter, more manageable string, as a full house of potentially larger offshore forage can snap the whole deal. Tip your lower two sabi-ki hooks with shrimp or squid to attract a variety of reef rats and hold on to anything usable.

Lastly, don't hesitate to recycle anything that a scamp yacks up. As long as it's still solid enough to hold a hook, send it back to the 'hood. If it was good enough to eat once, the other scamp won't hesitate to give it another shot.

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RELATED ARTICLE: Venting groupers

Venting Groupers

When effective chumming and proper presentations bring scamp to the boat, make sure you're prepared to safely release any undersized fish and any over your daily bag limit. Federal regulations require all boats targeting Gulf of Mexico reef fish of any species to carry venting tools and hook removers. Scamp area delicacy, so treat those you can't keep with care and you may meet again some day under different circumstances.

RELATED ARTICLE: Circle Hook Requirements

Gulf of Mexico

Non-stainless steel circle hooks must be possessed and used when fishing for reef fish with natural bait. Florida state and federal waters.

Atlantic Ocean:

Non-stainless steel circle hooks (offset or non-offset) must be used when fishing for reef fish with natural bait. Federal waters north of 28-degrees latitude (Melbourne, FL). Jig-and-bait combos: The circle hook rules apply to jigs and other lures, if a natural bait is attached. For instance, a bucktail jig with a ballyhoo trailer must incorporate a circle hook. Whether that means simply tying or crimping a circle hook to the bend of the existing J-hook remains to be tested ... but to avoid conflicts, tackle shops are beginning to stock circle-hook jigs. Or, simply use a piece of scented soft bait, such as Gulp! (pictured at left), Trigger-X or Fishbites, with a regular J-hook jig--this stuff fishes as effectively as natural bait.

RELATED ARTICLE: Scamp and Co. The tail tells the tale, for the most part.

On most shallow to mid-range trips, scamp (Myde-ropercaphenax) are easily distinguished from gag and other groupers. Random brown splotches intersperse the spots freckling a tan or chocolate-brown body, while pale yellow bands trim the mouth and gill covers.

Most noticeable are the thin, wispy fin trailers, called exsertions. The aft trailers get most of the attention, but exsertions also mark the posterior edge of a scamp's soft dorsal and anal fin The latter two may vary in prominence from fish to fish, but rare is the scamp whose outboard lacks obvious accents,

A similar species, yellow-mouth grouper (Mycte-ropercainterstitialis), also has tail exsertions, but they're more uniform and appear somewhat like a saw blade, while the scamp's are more uneven and ragged. The yellowmouth has a more prominent lemon hue behind its jaws, around its eyes and along its fin tips. Sources indicate the yellowmouth largely replaces scamp in South Florida, the Keys and Bahamas. Unmistakable are the long, wispy exsertions on the top and bottom edges of a scamp's tail.

To complicate matters even more, Myderoperca venenosa goes by the common name yellow/m grouper. No exsertions here, but there's more prominent yellow coloration on the fins. Also, the brighter body coloration, often with red spots and splotches, sharply contrasts the duller hues of a scamp or yellowmouth. Notably, the yellowfin's latin name means "venomous"--a reference to the species' high incidence of ciguatera poisoning. True yellowfins are rare in Florida waters.

Regulations: Scamp, yellowmouth and yellowfin grouper are included in the 4 per person per day grouper aggregate in the Gulf (excluding Monroe County) and the 3 per person per day aggregate in the Atlantic and Monroe County. Minimum total length is 16 inches in the Gulf of Mexico, 20 inches in Atlantic and Monroe County. (Yellowfin and yellowmouth have 20-inch minimums throughout their range.)

Retention of scamp, yellowmouth and yellowfin (and other shallow-water groupers) is prohibited in the Gulf (excluding Monroe County) Feb. 1.-March 31. Season for same species is closed Jan. 1-April 30 in the Atlantic and Monroe County.
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Author:Brown, David A.
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Geographic Code:0GULF
Date:Nov 1, 2011
Words:2297
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