February is a good time for me to break the old habit of just fishing for redfish, trout and sheepshead. It’s time to start searching for gag grouper that migrate into Tampa Bay.
As the water temperature drops in the month of February, the gag grouper will migrate from the Gulf of Mexico into the many rock piles and artificial reefs that are inside Tampa Bay. These gag grouper, which can range anywhere from 5 to 15 pounds, can be found along the edges of the shipping channel leading into upper Tampa Bay and some of the wrecks and artificial reefs.
Fishing for gag grouper in shallow water can prove to be a very exciting experience using light tackle. Over the years, many local anglers have been able to find schools of medium to large grouper by trolling along the edge of the shipping channel. This angler prefers to find a good rock structure or one of the many sunken wrecks from the early 1900’s. By chumming these fish off the bottom, they will rise close to the surface, thus allowing us to use lighter tackle and providing a more exciting fight.
Here’s a good tip: try to find some of the old charts from the 50s, 60s, or 70s. Many of these can be found at yard sales in your neighborhood. They will show where all the old ships that sank in the early and mid-1900s are located in Tampa Bay. Most charts purchased at your local tackle store only show some of the current wrecks and artificial reefs, but have deleted the locations of the old wrecks.
My favorite shallow water tackle for gags are medium heavy spinning rod and reel combo or light action conventional reel outfit. A 30 to 40-pound test braided line seems adequate enough to fish in these areas using a 3/0 circle hook, 2- or 4-ounce lead sinker and a 50-pound test monofilament leader. Fluorocarbon leaders are great for light tackle. But, when grouper fishing, I find monofilament works great and at a much cheaper price. Live pinfish or frozen Spanish sardines are one of my favorite baits to use in February.
While fishing for gag grouper along the edges of the shipping channel and artificial reefs in Tampa Bay, don’t overlook some of the side benefits of finding flounder and mangrove snapper that hang around the same area. Tampa Bay is host to over five artificial reefs, 26 wrecks and who knows how many ledges and rock piles that are yet to be discovered.
Trolling along the shipping channel, you need deep diving plugs. There are many on the market that work well. Some of my favorites are the Livingston Lure #8100 Voyager for depths up to 15 feet and the 8200 Voyager 30 for depths of to 30 feet. You never know what color turns them on, so be prepared to carry a variety. My favorites are black back silver sides or blue back silver sides.
Gags can be caught from Skyway bridge channel north to Gandy bridge. Both sides of the channel can produce fish. Sometimes current flow can change the bite, so try trolling at different times or change direction of your trolling. You want the lures to bounce of the bottom, so adjust your speed accordingly.