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Grouper: It’s What’s for Dinner

Adam Leadin

    After 70 years of fishing I have the luxury of time to think of new ways to catch my dinner. I only keep the fish I can eat or that my friends can eat that day. On occasion I will save tuna and can it. I will freeze only certain species that do well frozen. In past articles I have focused on finding the most plentiful baitfish in the area. Then use this live bait and present it in such a way the targeted species is all over its dinner.
    This technique was actually something I thought about years ago. While fishing on the reef in the Bahamas, I was trolling a rigged ballyhoo on the surface in 40 to 80 feet of water when a 42-pound grouper hit the rigged ballyhoo and headed for the bottom.
    When I got back to the marina, the locals said, “Mon,” this happens all the time in the Bahamas.
    That experience inspired this article. It seemed like a natural choice since I retired to the Florida Keys more than 20 years ago. Grouper are native to the reef in the Florida Keys from Key Largo to Key West. They are caught on the patches and on the edge of the reef consistently. So I formulated a plan to study the habits of grouper on the reef, by scuba diving at the reef on windless days in the summer to observe these grouper in their natural habitat.
    I would scuba over the reef until I located a resident grouper. I use the adjective resident because the fish seemed very territorial. The grouper takes up residence in a hole or cave by backing into the opening in the coral. The grouper only seems to leave the current residence if food supply dwindles; if there’s a change in the water temperature, especially where the water is shallow, or when mating season arrives. The males seem to be very aggressive during spawning season and will stray from their residence to seek Nautical Bliss.
    When I observed the grouper from a distance, the first thing that impressed me was when they are backed into their cave or hole their camouflage is so good it is very difficult to see them. Hint: Look for the moving eyes of the grouper. The next thing you realize is the grouper may be on the bottom but they are looking up toward the surface of the water. By doing this, any fish in between them and the surface is clearly outlined by the sky. Note that the grouper cannot see behind them and will discuss this later. The grouper’s field of vision is up, right or left. This means they can only see right or left less than 180 degrees. Therefore the grouper has to see his prey approaching from his right or left between him and the surface.
    Once the grouper sees the prey approaching from its right or left, it displays an amazing tactic: The grouper actually mimics “Star Wars,” planning an intersect point that approaches the prey from below and behind. This takes the prey by surprise most of the time. The grouper seems at the last second to grab the prey sideways and heads for his resident hole. The prey is usually a fish at the edge of the school or a straggler. The attack happens with such blinding speed you are amazed at how fast this species can go from zero to wide open and inhale its dinner.
    The next important point is the grouper appears to have the need to have to return to its residence. This happens approximately 99 percent of the time. No other hole or cave seems to be acceptable. It backs into its residence, leaving its head exposed, and you can seem it scaling its prey.
    After observing the above behavior, I had to formulate a trolling technique. I started by trolling rigged ballyhoo at about 2 to 3 knots on the surface with marginal results. Since this only produced marginal results, I decided to add a chin weight to the rigged ballyhoo. I surmised that at 2 to 3 knots, the grouper had too long to check out the bait and the speed did not produce enough force to set the hooks.


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