So, are you up for a challenge and maybe even the catch of a lifetime? A huge fish with a hard fight that will test you and your strongest tackle? These grouper fishing tips will help you get started on your quest.
Nothing about fishing grouper is what I would call ordinary. These beasts of the deep hit like no other fish in the world and will strain even the strongest fisherman. There is a reason that many people in South Florida seem to give up on all other species and target grouper specifically.
While some people describe the fight as “like a large catfish,” this is like saying that a monster truck is “like a car.” The initial hit will bury the butt of your rod in your gut and leave you breathless. You just have to get out there and do it to fully understand the power of even the smallest grouper species.
Or maybe you have already had a taste of catching a grouper and you are ready for more. Maybe its tips you want on how to get more hits or larger grouper. We can handle that too.
No matter why you are here, you won’t learn much from ramblings so let’s just jump right in.
Rather than a species of fish, Grouper is the name of a family of fish species. These are large-mouthed, heavy-bodied behemoth fish. They are also some of the strongest pound-for-pound that you are likely to find. They are like a bass on steroids.
While there are some common habitats for grouper where they can be found in abundance, grouper are solitary fish. They prefer and will almost always be found in structure. It doesn’t matter if you are in 30 feet of water or 100. Grouper will be under some form of cover.
Reefs are by far the most common place to run into these monsters. It doesn’t matter if it’s a man made reef or natural, this is the preferred habitat. You can also find them near drop-offs, rock structure, and the steeper sides of shipping channels.
They may even hole up under bridges and docks.
Different species of grouper can be found at different depths. Some fish exclusively in offshore reefs which can hold some monsters but inshore fishing is also popular.
Most grouper caught are less than 50 pounds but some Warsaw grouper can reach 500 pounds. The massive Goliath Grouper can reach over 800. No matter the size, the grouper is a stout fish with a lot of strength.
Their strength combined with their massive mouth makes them an outstanding ambush predator. Their initial hit is violent and powerful. This often stuns their pray and can stun a novice fisherman as well.
Normal foods are mostly baitfish but they have been known to feed on crustaceans, squid, and just about anything else that gets too close. This makes bait selection for grouper quite easy as they will eat most anything if it gets close enough.
For all their strength, grouper lack stamina. They can’t sustain a fight. If you can take the first hit, you can often drag them into the boat. It’s taking that first hit that’s the challenge.
Distribution of grouper species is world over other than the coolest waters. They are fished from the Great Barrier Reef to the Caribbean. Anywhere you can find reasonably warm waters, you are likely to find grouper somewhere near.
In the cooler months, grouper are likely to move closer to shore but there is no season that you can’t land one. Some seasons may take more travel but it will be well worth it. On cooler, sunny days you can find good grouper fishing in as little as 15 feet of water. In the mid-summer, they could be down as much as 150 feet.
Most grouper are caught during the daylight in open water but can be caught after dark around shallower inshore structure. It’s important to remember that a grouper is a shy fish that hides and ambushes prey. Even after dark, a grouper in open water is unlikely to feed.
Grouper Fishing Tackle
The key to catching grouper is to use heavy tackle. Even a 50-pound grouper is very capable of tearing apart a rig used for other similarly weighted fish. It’s hard to go too heavy, especially if you are after the larger species.
For reef fishing, the preferred reel tends to be a conventional reel. The reel needs to be heavy and capable of holding 80 to 100-pound test line. You will need the strength of this setup to get the bests off the bottom or out of the holes they often run to when hooked.
You can successfully fish groper with a spinning reel as long as its heavy duty and can hold the right line. It may be more difficult to put the pressure you need on the grouper with one but they can work. With a spinning reel, you will want to keep the drag as tight as you can.
Normally, hooks should be matched to the size of the fish you are after. Since grouper range greatly in size and have very large mouths, they can take very large hooks. How large will depend more on your bait and setup than the fish.
You will have to avoid wire hooks and go with a standard saltwater hook. I’m pretty sure that even the largest wire hook would be straightened by a large grouper. Go with a forged hook with a fully closed eye.
Either braided or mono main line works as long as it’s strong enough and you have a good leader. Many people prefer fluorocarbon leaders.
This is because you are likely to have your line rubbed against rocks and other structure. Being more abrasion resistant is a bonus when your quarry lives in rocky holes.
Grouper Fishing Rigs
Because grouper feed near the bottom, any rig used for that purpose is likely to be productive. This does not mean that grouper are bottom feeders, they eat swimming fish more than anything else so keep it off the bottom. You want it close to the bottom, not laying in the sand.
The following three are general purpose rigs that will work well for Grouper or any other bottom feeding species. In addition to these three rigs, you will also want to have a good deep trolling rig but we will cover that later.
This simple setup uses a three-way swivel with one loop attached to your mainline, one sinker, and one to your leader. A heavier leader is preferred but the line to the sinker should be relatively light so it can be broken off if need be.
This is a great rig for fishing near structure, especially heavy structure. The hook stays off the bottom and in the current and a snagged sinker doesn’t cost you your hook and leader. Just make sure you are using a swivel that can handle 100-150 pounds if you are after big grouper.
The knocker rig is a common snapper rig but can work well for any fish that is likely to dive for cover, including grouper. Attach your mainline to your leader with a swivel and leave an egg sinker on the leader between the swivel and hook. Your swivel and line weights should be the same as the above rig and your leader should be less than 10 feet.
The sinker will slide closer to the swivel as the bait settles. This takes any slack out of the leader and gives you a shot at setting the hook before the fish darts back to cover. That is, if you are fast enough yourself.
This rig offers any live bait more room to move and works well to draw out reluctant feeders. You will need a significantly longer leader, between 15 and 20 feet preferably. Keep the line weights the same for this rig as well.
In this case, the sinker is attached to the mainline above the swivel, usually by simply looping the line through. The long leader attached opposite the mainline will allow live bait to move more naturally and dead bait to float realistically.
The main downside of this rig is that it gives a grouper plenty of time to get back home before you get the hook set. If you are fishing smaller grouper, this is less of an issue than larger specimens.
Baits for Grouper
Live baits are by far the most successful way to catch grouper. Often fished on one of the above-listed rigs, these baits do the best job at drawing out reluctant fish when nothing else will work. Because grouper have such large mouths, you are better off to go with larger baitfish.
Sardines are probably the most successful live bait, especially if caught fresh with a net or baitfish rig. A close second is a pinfish and third are mullet. Any of these fish are as likely to get a response from a grouper as any bait on the planet.
Due to the noise they make, many fishermen swear by using live grunts as an attractor for grouper. Blue Runners are another popular fish if you are after larger grouper species.
Grouper are not a picky species and will most anything including ladyfish, menhaden, squirrelfish, and threadfin just to name a few. Match the size of your baitfish to the size of your grouper and remember they can take baits much larger than other fish of their size.
Most any baits you can fish live, you can use dead on any bottom rig. Keep them whole if they are the right size or chunk them if they are too large. Other fish that can be used as chunk bait are barracuda and jacks.
Squid is a longtime favorite dead bait for grouper and can be bought frozen at most bait shops. The ease of access to squid is probably why it is so popular but regardless, it will catch grouper. Crab is a less popular bait for grouper but can work well of a bottom rig, especially for shallower water species.
One of the biggest problems with using lures is getting down deep enough without getting hopelessly caught on the structure they call home. The classic way to avoid this is with jigs. While they are effective, you may need to add a piece of shrimp or other bait to the jig. This would make a strike more likely.
For the sheer excitement, deep diving plugs and deep jerk baits are a whole lot of fun. They are also fairly effective. You do run the risk of losing the expensive baits but no risk, no reward.
If you do choose to go with jigs, bouncing a flashy metal jig off the bottom is probably the most effective. Bucktails fished the same way can produce some good hits, especially with juvenile or smaller grouper. Alternatively, butterfly jigs can be a great way of pulling reclusive grouper out into the open.
Any soft plastic that mimics the usual food for grouper can be effective. Patterns that imitate sardine, mullet, and pinfish are probably the most popular and successful options. You can fish these as a jig or with a slow retrieve.
I will admit that I am a big fan of fishing spoons in general, I think they are an underrated lure option. In short, if its shiny fish, it will probably take a spoon. Getting hung up is a real concern with spoons but if you drag one in front of a grouper, there is a good chance he is going to take it.
For retrieve baits, it is important to fish them slow. Grouper are not a fast fish and may ignore lures that move by too quickly. Moderate your speed and pauses, you can expect more hits when the bait is left idle for a second.
Trolling for Grouper
Though normally associated with open water fish, trolling is an excellent tactic to cover a lot of ground in your search for grouper. Most of the time, this will trump any other fishing method when searching out the larger fish. You will have to factor in fuel cost but you may find it worthwhile to spend the extra money for a more likely catch.
Where to Troll
Off the coast of Miami, trolling for grouper has become a big part of the local fishing scene. The idea is to get a large lipped diving plug and send it down to skim the sand in 20 to 30 feet of water. Your trolling speed should be slow and your lure should be running less than 20 feet from the abundant rock structure in the area.
If you pass your lure close by a waiting grouper, it is more than likely that he will rush out to grab it the moment he sees it. These hungry fish aren’t likely to let a meal pass by.
If you head over to Florida’s west coast, you will see something a little different. The Tampa fishermen will run the sides of shipping channels with a live bait suspend just along the steep edge. Their target is the sizable Gag grouper.
Controlling your depth to keep it in range of the channel wall without getting it hung up requires some skill. Done right, when they hit it will be too late. The boat will easily haul them out of range of their cover and all that’s left is the fight.
Your trolling is not limited to these locations. If there are grouper, trolling is an effective tactic provided you can get a lure down deep enough. With the use of a downrigger, you can troll depts. In excess of 50 feet. This is where the big Black Grouper lie in wait.
With deeper trolling comes a greater need for accuracy. You are better off to slow down and make sure your lure is at the right depth. Keep it off the rocks.
Baits and Lures for Trolling
Usually, you will see fishermen using either live bait or large lipped diving plugs when trolling. These are both effective and will catch a lot of fish. You will have to get them down to the bottom and that can be rough on live bait but may be worth the trouble.
There are a variety of mimic rubber baits that are also quite effective. Because of the feeding habits of the grouper, many patterns and colors are effective. You may be better off mimicking local baitfish but the difference will be minimal.
Squid can be used for trolling but effectiveness for grouper is questionable. The same is true of any chunk bait. It may be worth a try just keep it slow so the scent of the bait has some time to spread.
Whatever you fish, you are better to bounce it on a sandy bottom to get the fishes attention and ensure it’s in strike range. If your lure is getting caught on the bottom from time to time, you are doing it right!
Keep your speed low, your lure deep, and stay close to structure. Grouper are lazy and won’t go far or fast for food.
It may be a snag or it may be a grouper. If you get a hit from a large grouper, it may feel like you are hung up until it yanks hard on the line.
Stay ready! Grouper hit fast and will double over even a strong rod. That critical moment of the bite is your only shot at a solid hooks set. Keep your eyes on your pole.
Use a diving rig or lure when you can. If you have a lure that just won’t go without help, throw on a downrigger.
After the shock of your first large grouper catch, the first order of business may be shaking some life back into your arms. It will surprise you just how hard a 20-pound grouper can pull compared to any other fish you have ever hooked.
When you have recuperated a little, the next though may very well turn to how tasty fresh caught grouper can be. This is one of the world’s premier eating fish. Lucky for them they can’t be fished with the large nets they use for other non-sport fishermen.
One thing is for sure, hooking your first large grouper is an experience you are never likely to forget. From the Mack Truck slam of the initial bite to the short-lived fight toward their home, you will be treated to the pound for pound strongest fish in the U.S.
Just be careful this doesn’t become a full-time addiction. Getting all the best gear comes at a very high cost. Unless you are a guide that depends on the gear for your livelihood, it may not be worth the money.
You can always rent a Charter boat and get a lot of fishing done in a day. This may not be a long-term solution but it’s likely the best short term investment. If you enjoy yourself, you can always invest later.