Gag grouper are among my favorites both because of their tough fighting ability and how they register on the grill. First, you have to go where the fish are and for big gag grouper, that means rocks or live bottom in the 180-to 300-foot range. Areas like Airplane Ridge, Yellow Gravel or the Edge are good places to start, but everyone has their own nicknames for natural bottom areas. Consult the FS Forum for your area, review your local charts and talk to your tackle shop folks if you are unfamiliar with the areas. Regardless of where you go, the key is to watch your fish finder, looking for relief and hard bottom. Productive natural bottom doesn't always show up as big structures like artificial reefs, but that swiss-cheese habitat will often hold stud groupers. Don't be afraid to drop a bait or two on these spots and do a little research. After that, you have some exploring to do, finding your own spots.
There are key moon phases that have produced well over the years, albeit differently. The new moon is Sunday, Sept. 13, so the few days leading up to and after will be best in the opinions of many grouper experts. While some of the experts argue that the grouper bite on the new moon is the best, others argue that an all-nighter on the full moon is more productive. The full moon is on Sept. 27.1 love when the lunar calendar coincides with calm seas, but it rarely happens when you plan a trip, so make sure you go when you can.
A selection of dead and live baits is ideal when you are targeting any reef fish, and particularly gags. One day they might show a strong preference for frisky live baits and the next, dead baits fished really slowly. I like hard-tails, mullet, grunts and pinfish for live baits. Don't be afraid to drop a big one down either. The mouth on a big gag can inhale a football. For dead baits, northern mackerel, menhaden or pogies and Spanish sardines are great. You should always have a small box of squid on a grouper trip as sometimes big scamp will be around, too. And sometimes, that big bite may just come on a small bait.
Braided line is critical when fishing in such deep water and fluorocarbon leaders will produce the best results. I like to start with 80- to 100-pound leader, particularly if I'm fishing large, live baits. You can always downsize your leaders, but these fish will test every ounce of strength against those rocks. Circle hooks are required by law in the Gulf of Mexico when using natural baits for reef fish, as are dehookers.
HUNTING Hunters should be gearing up for the opening of both deer and turkeys next month. Archery Season begins in Zone D of the Panhandle on Oct. 24. From Nov. 30 to Dec. 4 only antlered deer can be taken by crossbow or bow only. Turkey season includes gobblers and bearded only and the daily bag limit is 2 per hunter as is the season and possession limit for all fall seasons combined.
BEST BET PANHANDLE
Fall's first wisp of cool air means different things to us all, but to Panhandle anglers, it means that the baitfish will be migrating into the Gulf and the big bull reds will be stacking up along the beaches and in the bays. Targeting schooling reds is a simple way to enjoy a cool, crisp morning. Catch a few fish and have the rest of your day to either get back to work or play.
Most folks will target reds by trolling the bays and beaches with lipped plugs like the Stretch 25, or chasing birds to find the schools feeding on glass minnows, which is a very effective strategy. And a lot of folks use this opportunity to take reds, naturally a bottom feeding fish, on topwater lures. Still others can know the feeling of besting this tough fighting fish on fly. You get to choose, but running down schools and casting with light tackle is probably the most productive.