With the official start of fall on Sept. 23, the days are getting shorter and fish are beginning to transition in the Gulf of Mexico. Water temperatures are still hot, but fish can sense a change of the seasons approaching and begin their yearly migrations.
Experienced anglers picture kingfish following schools of bait southward along the beaches during the fall season. Other pelagics, like tuna and amberjack, tend to stay deep during summer months and head shallower during the fall.
The extremely popular bottom fish, gag grouper, become a nearshore favorite during cooler months. But after a poor season last year, where will the offshore gag grouper be around this fall?
I jumped on board the Legal Limit on Thursday to see if we could find some of these transitioning fish. The hope was to locate tuna and amberjack then get into some grouper out in deep waters.
After loading up both live wells of the 32-foot Contender, we pointed westward to a destination some 75 miles away. It was a beautifully sunny day with one- to two-foot seas allowing our journey to be made fairly quickly. When we arrived it was very apparent fish were home and hungry throughout the water column.
Behind the boat, football-shaped fish pounced on our live chum offerings. An immediate hook up resulted in a small shark and then a bonita, the relative of the blackfin tuna we were looking for. It provided hope as they often school together. On the bottom, almaco jacks, amberjack and red snapper attacked both live and dead bait offerings.
For the first hour it seemed every bait resulted in a bite. The amberjack started small and gradually got larger eventually resulting in a few close to 40 pounds being put in the box. We were happy to harvest amberjack for the smoker as it seemed the legal-sized ones have been very deep since their season opened in August. That season will close in November. Larger amberjack should move shallower to popular wrecks once water temperatures drop.
On the bottom, Caleb Grimes pulled up a nice mangrove snapper that ate a pinfish. I joined in and targeted snapper, landing another big mangrove snapper and some monster vermillion snapper. When the bite slowed we moved to search for grouper.
In depths of 220 feet we found many schools of fish with the Garmin depth finder. The only problem was the majority were aggressive red snapper schools.
With each new spot, we found that many red snapper came up from the depths below. Eventually a few nice-sized red grouper were caught, but it was a struggle to get away from the red snapper. We worked through them to find a few more mangrove snapper and grouper before heading home with the setting sun behind us.
I believe the extremely high populations of red snapper are hurting populations of other bottom fish and catches of grouper species by forcing them off their normal transition grounds. Last year was probably the fewest gag grouper I’ve caught in a winter, and other anglers are experiencing the same. There is the occasional good gag grouper bite, but the consistency isn’t there.
Some sense needs to be put into the red snapper fishery as it’s extremely apparent they are the most prevalent fish offshore, especially in deeper waters. Longer seasons and more access to recreational anglers are needed if we want to balance our fishery.