Outdoors | Get out the wetsuits; it's time to go hogfish hunting

Special to the HeraldJanuary 12, 2014 

Hanging out on many parts of the Gulf of Mexico's ledges, rocks and natural bottom, hides the best table fare in our local waters. The hogfish, or hog snapper, is one that makes me wish I were a diver.

It rarely eats hook and lined baits, so the best way to bring home the tasty fish is heading down with sharply pointed steel.

In December, a surprise ruling came down from the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council closing the hogfish season through the remainder of the year. When the calendar turned to 2014, it was time once again to get the wetsuits ready for those who wanted to brave the 60-degree water temperatures.

Last Sunday, Eric Pullen was one of those who suited up. It was a spectacular January day with light winds and calm seas, making a run to their favorite spots 12 miles offshore no problem at all aboard Logan Beal's 27-foot Ocean Master along with JB Tucker. The trio was excited to hit the bottom to see what lay below.

"Every time I go down I never really know what I might see. Each dive, you never know when a huge fish might be around the corner or might appear from the distance," Pullen said.

Following a cold front and rainy days, visibility was low. "We could only see about 10 feet," Pullen explained, "but that kind of visibility can work in your favor because the fish are not as spooky."

By the end, they dove and spearfished two spots in 55 feet of water, ending up with a limit of hogfish (five per person) as well as mangrove snapper. The largest hogfish was 21 inches.

The first spot was a mitigation part of the pipeline from Tampa Bay to Louisiana covered in smaller rocks. The second spot was a natural bottom area, where larger rocks and ledges provide cover for predators and prey.

"There were a lot of fish at both spots. Lots of smaller snapper, grey triggerfish, sheepshead, red grouper, grunts, bar jacks and porgies," Pullen said. "Oh, and there were a lot of nice gag grouper around, but we couldn't shoot them because they're out of season."

The thought of a fillet table lined with hog snapper makes me not only hungry, but also extremely jealous of an amazing haul.

Pullen will be back out in the near future, as wintertime is his favorite time to target flounder and hogfish on nearshore structure. The key is calm weather between fronts, which will allow the water to clean up slightly and makes an offshore run much easier.

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