Keys Fly Fishing
Grouper on Fly...No Lie!
Better set your jaw firmly, roll up your sleeves, and check your good manners with the man at the door, because tangling with these tenacious "bulldogs of the bottom" is nothing less than a street-fight! Wimps need not apply.
"Turn him, turn him," I pleaded as I watched line literally sizzle through the guides of my angler's deeply-bowed rod and disappear into the dusty blue water of the reef. A deep groan was about all Lane Jarvis could muster as he leaned into the fish with all the pressure he dared to apply. But with every foot of lost line came the sinking realization by both of us that the odds were tipping heavily in favor of the fish. So moments later when the leader parted, there was no exclamation of shock or disappointment, just a few moments of silence. Finally, as he wound in the remaining line for me to re-rig, Lane muttered, "That fish was not meant to be caught today." And he was right. It was the third such fish that morning; we were both confident it wouldn't be the last.
Lane, his wife Wendy, and I had been fishing the shallow patch reefs just off Marathon in the Florida Keys in my custom 23' backcountry skiff, the FISHIN' BUDDY. Although the action was not particularly unusual for Florida Keys' reef fishing, there were two noteworthy departures from the norm. First, we were fishing the reef with fly rod only, and secondly, we were primarily targeting the hard-fighting, bottom-hugging grouper.
The term "grouper fishing" usually produces visions of stiff boat rods, heavy-duty hooks and over-sized baits. What also comes to mind is the back-breaking struggle that takes place when a "lucky" angler hooks up; few fish are more reluctant to be dragged from their coral homes than are the various species of grouper. In fact, many an angler has solidly hooked a grouper, only to have the rod slammed down against the gunwale as line is ripped off against what had heretofore been thought of as a "locked-down" drag. This abuse may only last for a few moments though; the uncompromising grouper often either saws the line off on the jagged ledges, or else dashes into the bowels of a wreck or under a ledge, becoming hopelessly "rocked up." The typical depths that come to mind for grouper fishing range anywhere from 30 feet on tropical reefs, to 200 feet (or more) when fishing them on deep-water ledges and wrecks.
Why then would any sane angler choose such an unlikely target species for fly fishing? Not only are the odds stacked against the angler who is using tackle created to perform the primary function of casting, rather than turning a sounding fish, but isn't fly fishing geared toward targeting fish that feed at or near the surface?
Fact is, this is exactly how I felt about the issue until a couple of years ago when one of my tarpon fishing clients from England, himself an avid fly-fisherman, explained some of the techniques that they would sometimes resort to in order to catch salmon. Conditions would occasionally warrant his having to bomb flies down 20 feet or more in some pretty swift running water in order to get into fish. It was non-traditional to say the least, and slinging around those shooting heads was definitely a day's work, but it was a productive technique for those willing to pay the price.
Before that day was over I was already trying to think of a way to utilize those deep-water salmon tactics on our reefs here in the Keys. Having worked the cockpit and bridge of a number of large local charter boats in years past, I was familiar with a grouper's penchant for fast moving, deep-swimming lure/bait combos such as a whole ballyhoo or a mullet strip trolled behind a large 2-4 oz. yellow feather. They also seemed to like fast trolled artificials such as large deep diving plugs, and responded well to deep jigging with a large bucktail or nylon hair jig tipped with a strip of ballyhoo or mullet. So there really shouldn't be any reason why a grouper wouldn't take a fly providing it could be presented at the same level as a grouper.
To my knowledge, no one had been specifically targeting grouper on fly, although the Marathon area is certainly no slouch when it comes to new ideas in fly fishing. Living literally just down-the-street from world class guides and fly fishing innovators such as Harry Spear, Steve Huff and Nat Ragland has a way of keeping a fishing guide at his creative best.
So having decided that a fly would make an adequate warhead for the battle that lay ahead, I now went in search of an appropriate delivery system. After numerous calls and a trip to see renown angler and tackle expert, George Hommel of World Wide Sportsman in Islamorada, I had my delivery system; a pair of shooting heads that would convert my 9 weight bonefish and 12 weight tarpon outfits into formidable grouper assault weapons (more on tackle later).
What transpired over the next several seasons was an adventure in trial and error, highlighted by some truly outstanding catches, but frequently punctuated with lots of re-rigging and heavy hours logged at the fly-tying bench. I quickly learned that this was the toughest fly fishing I had ever done in terms of landing that which had already been hooked. And although we haven't broken a rod trying to stop a grouper's dive for cover, that may change soon with my recent switch from 16 to 20 pound tippet.
Designated Target Species
Although there are quite a number of species of grouper in the Florida Keys, the three we like to target are the black, gag, and red grouper, with the black being my personal favorite due to size potential. In February through April, large black grouper invade the shallow reefs to spawn. It's not uncommon to hear of 10-20 pound grouper being caught as shallow as 15-20 feet on some of the patch reefs. Far from being a bottom hugging sluggard, black grouper are capable of some pretty good runs in the shallows.
A hard fighting close relative of the groupers is the spotted jewfish, a protected species which has come back quite nicely in recent years. These are targeted in Florida Bay and to the north in Everglades National Park. When they run, they only run for cover, so many a flyrod battle with a jewfish is short lived at best. These fish will eat a fly...or anything else that swims in their vicinity, and average about 5 to 10 pounds. This makes them a juvenile in the true sense of the word...adult jewfish over several hundred pounds were not uncommon back in the 60's and early 70's before being nearly wiped out by over-harvesting from recreational and commercial fishermen (especially the commercial spearfishing community). They are now fully protected (catch and release only), as are Nassau grouper.
There are quite a few other species available that provide good action and keep things interesting for those who bottom fish with a fly rod. A variety of snapper (mangrove, mutton, and yellowtail), jacks (crevelle, bar, blue runner, and the powerful amberjack) and mackerel (cero, spanish and the occasional shallow-running king mackerel).
Where to Fish
There are three distinct places to target grouper on fly in the Keys: out on the reef, in Florida Bay, and at the bridges that separate the two. The reef is a general term describing an area of relatively shallow waters paralleling the Keys about four miles out on the ocean side of U.S. Hwy 1. The term reef does not necessarily refer to coral or rock-bottom, as much of the reef is actually sand. The places you'll want to fish are what is referred to as patch reefs, areas of actual coral surrounded by sand. Patch reefs may be as small as a couple of boat lengths or as large as 100 yards. In terms of vertical relief (height of coral off the bottom), they range from only a foot or two to as much as 8-10 feet (in the case of large coral heads).
Patch reefs don't necessarily have to be large or have high relief to hold fish. In fact it always amazes me how some of the most likely looking places are devoid of grouper while some of the smaller "hole in the wall" patches that aren't much larger than a couple of boat lengths will produce fine catches. Typical depths of patch reefs where I've had the greatest success range from about 15 to 20 feet.
Another area that grouper frequent are the bridges that interconnect the Keys. Each piling that supports those bridges is in a sense an artificial reef, with an entire ecosystem connected to it. Near the top of the food chain are the large predatory fish such as grouper. One problem an angler faces at the bridges is a strong current, which at time can run in excess of two knots. This makes dredging for grouper with a fly all but impossible except during periods of tapering current or slack water between the ebb and flood. During these times, an angler will have about a one hour window in which he can get a fly down around the base of the pilings where the grouper hang out.
Perhaps one of the most pleasant aspects of targeting grouper at the bridges comes in the form of some of the "incidental catches" that occur. One of these is the tarpon. By the way stiff drags (set for grouper) and tarpon are not a good combination; once you realize you've hooked a tarpon, (if you survive the first jump) get that drag backed off or suffer the consequences.
The third location in which grouper can be targeted on fly is in Florida Bay, especially north of the Marathon area. Marathon is quite different from its neighbors to the east (Islamorada and Key Largo) in that Florida Bay is deeper and more open. Literally hundreds of natural ledges, wrecks, and artificial reefs (made up of old lobster traps, drums, and other wreckage) are scattered throughout the Bay, ranging anywhere from a mile or two offshore, to twenty miles out or more. These spots provide great action for a large variety of fish that include snapper, grouper, spanish mackerel, cobia and spotted jewfish. The best part about targeting grouper in the Bay is that many of the spots are in less than ten feet of water, making the presentation much easier and much more efficient as the fly spends more time close to the bottom before being retrieved for another cast. And don't let the shallowness of the water fool you into thinking that these are small fish only; some mighty big grouper move in on these spots from time to time, especially after a good blow.
In the fly fishing world where angling has been transformed into an art form, and fish ar often "played" instead of fought, an angler must be willing to dump his philosophy of finesse and prepare for trench warfare. Make no mistake...you are going to have to put some pressure on these babies. This must be reflected in all facets of your tackle.
For rods, lifting power is the key, whether you are using a nine weight or twelve weight. For a change, you'll want to think of your rod more as a fighting tool than a delicate casting instrument. Quite frankly, the use of shooting heads will make even the most unresponsive rods cast adequately, so expensive is not necessarily better in this case. It's possible to find a good stiff nine foot rod that provides the lifting power you'll need for half the price of the top of the line rods. A ten weight rod is a good choice, but when those big (10-15 pound) black grouper are up on the shallow reef patches in the spring to spawn, a twelve weight will give you a much better shot at muscling these fish off the bottom.
Any money you save on the rod will need to be invested in a good reel that features a superior quality drag system. The same reel that can handle the long scorching runs of a bonefish might not hold up on a grouper for this reason; whereas a bonefish is basically allowed to make that first run at will on a light drag, a grouper on the other hand must be made to earn every inch of line they take. This means an initial drag setting tighter than any you've ever fished. Poor quality in the drag system will not only cost you fish and flies, but rods as well.
Direct drive is probably a better choice than anti-reverse, as it allows an angler more control of the fish. Bruised or even bloody knuckles are the rule not the exception with direct drive when trying to turn big grouper, even with the best drag. But the advantage to direct drive is in the ability to regain line on the downstroke of a pump without allowing the fish to get his head turned back toward the coral.
The fly line you choose will be determined by depth you intend to fish. Out on the reef, the obvious choice is to go with a shooting head in order to bomb your fly down to those fifteen to twenty foot patch reefs. For the uninitiated, a shooting head is nothing more than a twenty to thirty foot length of fly line designed to sink rapidly. For my twelve weight rod, I have a thirty foot, 550 grain head spliced into sixty feet of 35 lb. braided mono running line. The set-up for my 9 weight rod is similar, only that six feet of the shooting head has been trimmed back to make it castable on the lighter rod. The sink rate on these lines is an impressive 7-8 in./second; in combination with a weighted fly it's possible to really get down to those fish in a hurry.
There is a relatively new breed of deepwater-application fly line that combines the performance of a fast-sinking shooting head with a smooth flowing running line. Sold under a variety of names by different manufacturers, it comes as a single fly line (as opposed to a shooting head spliced into a running line), and is an excellent choice for this type of fishing.
When fishing some of the more shallow ledges and wrecks in Florida Bay, a monocore sinking line (slimeline as it's known locally) can be substituted. It casts much easier than a shooting head, and will allow an angler to use a shorter leader in these small but very productive holes that may only be six to eight feet deep.
While on the subject of leaders, they must be abrasion resistant, due to a grouper's tendency to run for a ledge or wreck when hooked. And it's not just the shock leader that's going to take a beating, but rather the whole leader from the butt section down through the tippet. Mono similar to Mason's hard monofilament has worked well for me during many a grouper campaign. However, these days fluorocarbon is an even better choice, as it combines abrasion resistance with a low visibility factor.
Typically, with the aforementioned shooting head, I like about a three foot butt section of 40 lb. knotted to a two foot section of 25 lb. test, a sixteen inch section of 16 lb. tippet, and finally a foot long shock leader of 40 lb. test. No, I don't mess with biminis and huffnagles...simple blood knots or double uni knots work just fine for joining the various components that make up the leader..
Not long ago, the IGFA opened up a new category for 20 lb. tippet records. While upgrading from 16 to 20 lb. tippet would seem like the logical choice for anglers pursuing grouper, it's important to realize many rods just aren't going to be able to handle the additional strain...that is, with a stiff drag, the rod may break before the drag slips or the tippet breaks. Proceed with caution if you are going to make the jump to 20 lb. tippet.
One thing is certain...if you like to tie your own flies (and constantly look for excuses to do so) then grouper fishing is definitely for you because you will go through a lot of flies. I'm sure some of you will be disappointed here, but frankly grouper seem to be very non-discriminating when it comes to preferring a certain pattern over another. Weighted Lefty's Deceivers get a lot of playing time as do a variety of Whistler patterns often used for tarpon. Lately, I've fallen in love with some of the zonker strip tarpon patterns for grouper fishing. These flies display a hard-to-beat undulating motion when stripped.
My color preferences are based on observations made over fifteen years of reef fishing by conventional means. While trolling for grouper with wire line and feather/bait combinations, I've enjoyed great success with yellow and chartreuse; thus many of my flies are tied in these colors. Recently though, I have found a red and white combination to be very productive, especially in the shallower water of Florida Bay.
Lead eyes are a must in any pattern used for reef or bridge fishing in order to get down to the appropriate depth before the current sweeps the fly away from the coral. Bead chain eyes work fine within the shallow confines of Florida Bay.
Another must is that your fly be weedless, or more appropriately, snagless. You may opt for a mono loop or a single stiff strand of mono or wire running back from the head of the fly. This actually gives the fly fisherman an advantage over traditional grouper fishermen in that a snagless fly can boldly go where no live or cut bait has gone before...right through the structure where the grouper live.
Once you have the right tackle and have decided where you want to target grouper (reef, bay, or bridge), the next issue is proper boat handling and positioning. Because the reef patches or Bay ledges you intend to fish can be visually seen without the aid of a sonar, it is not necessary to run over them with the boat. In fact, it's best to keep at least about thirty feet between the boat and the ledge while motoring into position because these fish can be surprisingly sensitive to intrusions. Even if you don't blow them off the spot, they may spook and consequently not bite.
When anchoring, there are two schools of thought. The most common is to anchor directly uptide of the spot that is to be fished. Then a frozen block of chum is placed in a 1/2 inch mesh sack (the chumbag) and hung over the side to slowly disperse and flow back onto the spot. This is fine, except when the fly is cast behind the boat and then retrieved against the current, it tends to be lifted off the bottom by the current. A more natural approach (one I especially like to use on the small shallow ledges and wrecks in Florida Bay) is to anchor diagonally uptide of the spot. With a right-handed caster, I'll put the spot in about the 5 o'clock position relative to the boat; for left-handed casters, the spot will lay at about 7 o'clock. Distance is about thirty feet, but if the water is really clear, then I'll have to lay even further off to avoid spooking the fish.
Once anchored, in lieu of the standard chumbag technique, I opt to chum by hand, using a mixture of thawed chum, glass minnows, menhaden oil, and rolled oats, (which over the years my clients have dubbed "Bud's Mud." Making a loosely packed softball-sized "chum bomb," I'll toss it uptide of the target area, letting it disperse and flow over the spot. Although this procedure is a little more work it allows for a much more natural presentation, in that an angler will be using the current to help sweep the fly by the ledge on the retrieve.
Once the stage is set and it's time to start casting, my anglers are instructed to work the near edges first, then the middle of the ledge and finally the opposite side. Although I can offer no evidence to support this, I've always felt that if the initial casts are made to the far side, the grouper on the near side would become wary after seeing that thick dark shooting head jerking its way past them during the retrieve. Thus we start close and work out from there.
After the cast, the fly is allowed to sink a predetermined number of seconds to put it within a foot or two of the bottom. Each pattern sinks at a different rate, a rate which can be determined by counting how many seconds the fly takes to sink when dropped off the transom. Of course the shooting head comes with a listed sink rate.
When I instruct anglers as to the rate of retrieve for grouper, most are shocked at the speed involved. I like three rapid strips of about a foot and a half, followed by a one second pause then three more strips with a pause and so on. There is a common misconception that because grouper are basically a bottom fish, then they are sluggish swimmers. This is just not true, as I discovered after years of trolling for them out on the reef. We commonly trolled faster when targeting grouper than we did for sailfish, king mackerel, and dolphin. Frankly, if a grouper really wants that fly, there's no retrieve that is too fast.
The strike is about as hard a any you will experience in saltwater fly fishing. What happens is that the grouper, having decided that your fly was his next meal, has darted from the safe haven of a ledge or wreck in the attack mode. Once he's got the fly, a a grouper instinctively does an immediate "one-eighty" and barrels back to the safety of the structure from which it came. I've watched seasoned fly fishermen who have caught numerous stripers, bluefish, bonefish, and tarpon really get caught by surprise by the aggressive strike of a black or gag grouper.
What follows next is a radical departure from standard fly fishing protocol, but it is tantamount to landing a grouper. Once the fish has struck, don't try to hit him back by arcing the rod in a high hook setting motion. Raise your rod no higher than the 10 o'clock position and do the rest of the hook setting process with the stripping hand in a sharp downward motion. Frankly, there are many times that this first step is eliminated completely because the fish does the hook-setting process for you in his zeal to dart back to his "hidey hole."
Now is when you've got to really exert pressure on that fish, and again it comes by keeping the rod only slightly above horizontal and giving line only grudgingly with the stripping hand. There are times when it's not going to be possible to even get all the line off the deck to be able to fight the fish with the reel...there just isn't a break during the torrid pace of the fight to clear the line without allowing the fish to get back into a hole.
If you survive the first run without pulling the hook, breaking the fish off, or getting "rocked up" (the term used when the grouper runs into a hole or under a ledge, flares his gills and extends his fins to literally lock himself in), then your chances of landing the fish have just increased dramatically. Now it's time to work the fish back to the boat. Again, it' imperative to avoid that "high rod syndrome" so keep those pumping motions low (10 o'clock max.) and short. The trick is to establish some momentum and then keep the fish coming your way with its head pointed toward you.
Recently, I watched an angler use an effective pumping stroke that I had never seen before. The rod is kept low (barely above horizontal), and the reel is brought from a position in front of the angler to a position beside him (the upstroke). Then, line is wound back onto the reel on the downstroke (rod still in same position) until the reel is positioned out in front of the angler again. Though it sounds awkward, it is effective means of moving a large fish at close range.
I've also watched anglers back up on the deck while pumping, and then walk forward again while reeling in what was gained. Fact is, you just have to be creative and modify some tactics (and old habits) if you are to be successful with these fish.
Let's say you weren't lucky enough to stop the fish on it's first run, and now it's "rocked up" under a ledge. This is fairly common when targeting grouper on any kind of tackle so don't despair. Simply back off the pressure and wait. This is a good time to get any additional line off the deck and onto the reel. Sooner or later that fish is going to come out, and more times than not, it'll swim out in less than a minute if the angler keeps the pressure off. When the fish makes it's move, put the "boots" to him and get him out of there. We've landed fish that rocked up as many as half a dozen times. This is where those stiff, abrasion resistant leaders earn their keep.
Another misconception is that grouper basically give up once they are moved away from their holes. Maybe this happens out on deep-water wrecks, but it certainly doesn't in the shallows. Plan on going toe to toe with these brawlers the full distance until they are in the net. Nothing but heavy pressure all of the time on the part of the angler will tire these brutes. And by the way, it is possible to do everything right in terms of fighting technique...and still get your butt kicked! It's just part of the game.
For some saltwater fly fishermen, the thought of leaving their beloved bonefish or tarpon to fish for, of all things, grouper, seems out of the question. For others perhaps, a light will go off and they'll be wondering why they haven't thought of this themselves. Some may wish to try deep-water dredging with a shooting head in their own areas to see what manner of fish can be caught when a fly is presented near the bottom. Most good fly fishermen welcome an opportunity to add another option to their "piscatorial repertoire."
Although grouper on fly is not perhaps what you'd want to do with a fly rod everyday, it does allow one to try something different and quite challenging.
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