South Florida anglers and divers look forward to the month of May because the grouper and hogfish seasons open May 1.
“Opening day is a Wednesday,” spearfishing expert Jim “Chiefy” Mathie said. “If you’re a diver or underwater hunter, you may want to take that day off from work to get out there and get an early jump on grouper and hogfish.”
The grouper season in Atlantic waters has been closed since Jan. 1 and hogfish season closed on Nov. 1 in local waters. Scuba divers like Mathie could only look and stare at black, gag and red groupers and hogfish as they hunted for other fish and lobsters. When the seasons open, they’ll be targeting what many people consider to be the tastiest fish in the ocean.
The same goes for offshore anglers, especially those who fish on local drift boats like Capt. Skip Dana’s Fish City Pride at Hillsboro Inlet Marina in Pompano Beach. Dana will run trips focused on grouper fishing the first few days of the season. Until then, anglers on his boat and others have had to release every grouper and hogfish they’ve caught.
“We’ve been catching quite a few groupers,” Dana said. “We’ve also caught quite a few hogfish this past winter using dead sardines or squid.”
In addition to closed seasons, grouper and hogfish have restrictive bag limits. Black and gag groupers must measure at least 24 inches and reds must be 20 inches. Anglers and divers can keep a total of three grouper per day, but only one can be a black or a gag. The other two, or all three, can be red grouper.
The limit on hogfish is one per person per day, a minimum of 16 inches long. Previously, the season was open all year, the daily bag limit was five fish and the size limit was 12 inches. Mathie, of Deerfield Beach, has seen an improvement in the hogfish population from Pompano to Boca Raton since the regulations were instituted in 2017.
“We definitely are seeing a lot of big males,” Mathie said, explaining that male hogfish that are big enough to shoot have a long snoot with a dark stripe down the forehead. “Every dive, we’ve seen at least one big male, and in all depths — shallow, medium, deep. Their typical behavior, in particular the big males, is they’ll have a harem of females.”
Mathie is the author of Catching the Spear-it! The ABC’s of Spearfishing, which is sold by most area dive shops as well at Chiefy.net and other online retailers. Among the many tips in the book is to always keep in mind the 3 R’s — recognition, regulation, and range. In other words, be able to identify the fish, know the size limit and be close enough to shoot it with your speargun.
Spearfishers must check off the 3 R’s relatively quickly with black and gag grouper. Unlike hogfish and red grouper, which often try to hide behind a sea fan when a diver approaches, blacks and gags don’t usually stick around.
“You land a black grouper, you’ve done well, because they’re always on the move,” Mathie said.
A member of the South Florida Spearfishing Club (Spearfishing.org), Mathie and his dive buddies start the season hunting the west-facing side of the third reef. The top of the reef is about 50 feet below the surface and the bottom is 60-65 feet.
“The structure holds a lot of fish, and that’s where you see the bigger fish,” said Mathie, who also hunts for grouper and hogfish around wrecks at 65 feet. “Last year we did those areas for almost the whole month of May because we were finding big fish. We didn’t always get them, but we saw a lot of fish. After that, we went to the deeper wrecks in 110, 120 feet.”
Dana fishes wrecks from 75-240 feet for grouper. (GPS coordinates for Florida’s artificial reefs are available on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission website, MyFWC.com.) Dana said wrecks in 75-120 feet are good for gag grouper. Blacks are on the same wrecks and deeper ones. Reds can be as shallow at 30-40 feet around rockpiles, ledges, and grass patches, as well as on wrecks.
He added that heavy tackle is needed to quickly get hooked grouper away from wrecks. If the fish get into the ruins, odds are good your line will break.
“I’d use at least 50- or 60-pound monofilament or braided line with an 80- to 100-pound leader and a 7/0 or 8/0 circle hook,” said Dana, adding that anglers might use sinkers ranging from 2 to 16 ounces, depending on the strength of the current, to get their baits to the bottom. “I really like live pinfish for bait for grouper, but you can use two or three dead sardines on a hook, a goggle-eye head or a fillet of bonito. “Let the line spool out and feel for the bite. If you’re fishing a wreck, you want to be up current and upwind of the wreck so the bait will drop on the wreck. When you get the bite, there really is no drop-back or feeding the grouper. Just lock up the reel and pull hard to get the fish off the bottom and away from the wreck.”