Big Bay Grouper

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 By CAPT. MEL BERMAN, 970-WFLA

The overwhelming majority of anglers run hither and yon across Tampa Bay waters, chasing reds, snook, trout. cobia, mackerel, etc. Yet, there is one prime species that remains relatively unchallenged. Here in December, with the onset of cooler climes, comes the promise of a truly unheralded bonanza… big black grouper right in the heart of Tampa Bay.

Bob Fazioli, a newspaper carrier in the wee hours, spends many of his daytimes pursuing his grouper fishing passion. Bob and I got acquainted via my 970-WFLA radio program. He would frequently call with what sounded like outlandish tales of massive grouper catches in Sarasota and Tampa Bays. As a former offshore charter skipper and somewhat of an expert, I knew that conventional wisdom dictated a run well offshore was mandatory to yield such catches. So, whenever Bob would call, I’d accept his grandiose claims with a generous helping of skepticism. You know how it goes… “when in doubt, exaggerate!” It’s part of a built-in skewing of the facts that is endemic with most of us anglers . So Bob’s claims of offshore-size grouper caught in the shallow bay waters was dismissed as merely entertaining radio… and I moved on to the next caller.

Then one fateful day last winter, I decided to call his bluff. Arranging for a trip in Sarasota Bay, my friend Merrill Chandler and I showed up on a dank, bone-chilling morning. Trolling the deeper cuts, channels and rockpiles of Sarasota Bay, we caught an amazing bunch of groupers up to 17-pounds. At that point, I took back everything I thought of Bob Fazioli.

Then, last month, I again heard from Bob, brimming with tales of remarkable grouper catches. This time he racked up the big numbers in Tampa Bay. Unable to resist the clarion call of a potentially bountiful outing, I arranged for a trip on Bob’s 26-foot, workboat-type vessel. Again, Merrill Chandler joined our crew, along with his lady, Joyce.

This time, we enjoyed a glorious, cobalt blue sky kind of day. The air temperature was slightly chilly as we made our way from Bradenton up the Intracoastal aboard Bob’s 10-knot per hour boat. By the time we slowed down to trolling speed in Tampa Bay, the temperatures had warmed to the pleasant 70s, and we were ready to catch fish.

Trolling a No. 2 planer with a Clark’s #5 Spoon Squid, and a No. 3 planer with a chartreuse model 17AX Bomber plug over the first of Bob’s secret Tampa Bay structures, nothing happened. Then as we dragged the lures over the second rockpile, there was a sudden, massive strike on the Clark Spoon. Being the perfect gentlemen, we let Joyce reel in the first fish. She was taken aback at the tremendous pulling power of the big gag. Nevertheless, Joyce played the big grouper like a piano, and eventually worked the hefty critter to boatside where Bob could gaff it. Hoisting it up over the gunwale, we could see that she had reeled in a magnificent 9 or 10-pound black.

Next fish was assigned to Merrill, who landed another large gag, about an inch longer than Joyce’s 28-incher. My turn came just a short time later, about 6 rockpiles away. My grouper just barely inched out Merrill’s. All were caught on those highly effective #5 Clark’s Spoon Squids. If we’d have gone in at that moment, the three of us would have been more than satisfied with our catch. Each chunky grouper would yield two generous fillets, and we savored visions of baked and fried grouper dinners. But it was still early, and this is too much fun. Besides, our skipper Bob needed a fish to take home. Continuing, we landed some 6 gag grouper, three of which were fat keepers.

Retracing our course back to the first rockpile, we circled around dragged the lures over the heavy structure. This time Bob had attached a jointed Bomber on the #3 planer. The action slowed down, and it wasn’t until we arrived at the 5th or 6th rockpile that we finally got a strike. This one was a monster… and it was my turn! Wrenching the rod and reel out of the rodholder, I reared back and gave it my all. Here was a fish with shoulders! “Don’t pump it,” Bob cautioned, “Just reel in any slack he gives you.” Easier said than done! Beads of sweat collecting on my brow erased any memory of the cool morning. Grudgingly, the enormous grouper gave up line, inch by inch. “He’s coming up,” I yelled triumphantly. Then, at the very moment I exhaulted in my potential catch, the line went sickeningly slack. Reeling in the limp line, we could see that the huge fish had actually broken the jointed plug in two. He kept the back end, and we were left with the front end of the lure. This time, Bob fitted the rig with a one-piece blue and clear Bomber plug. By now the tide had stalled, and the strikes were few and far between.

Just as Joyce began unwrapping a sandwich, the new Bomber evoked another violent strike. It was Joyce’s turn “at bat,” and she eagerly put aside lunch for the taste of a tussle with a monster grouper. This one had be to the big fish of the day. We all watched in admiration as this feisty lady struggled with the lunker. Then, as the planer surfaced, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Joyce was reeling in not one, but two keeper-size grouper snared on the one plug. One was attached to the back hook, and the other on the front hook.. In all my years of fishing, I’ve never seen anything like it. It capped what had to be an amzing fishing day. But do me a favor, don’t tell anybody about all the grouper in Tampa Bay. Let them go after their undersize trout and wimpy snook and reds. The big bruiser groupers in Tampa Bay will be our little secret. Okay?