There is an old adage among mariners from the days of whaling that he who chooses the sea as an enemy has chosen a bitter foe, but he who accepts it as his friend shall find its treasures opened before him. How apropos an idea when you consider the state off offshore fishing in the Gulf of Mexico during winter.
As Captain Richard Bailey is quoted in a feature elsewhere in this months issue, you have to choose your days to fish offshore in the cold months. Cold fronts bring strong northwest winds that make the Gulf a dark, rough, whitecap-covered mess that even tanker captains hate venturing into, especially if the wind is blowing against an incoming tide. The 20- to 30-knot southeasterly gusts that precede one of these same northers arent much good, either. It is easier to stay inshore, or better still, at home and think about better days that come in spring.
However, the angler who shows a little patience, watches the weather, and finds a stretch of mild days where the Gulf settles down and flattens out, can run out of the jetties and find some topnotch fishing for the larger representatives of various species of grouper, known collectively as ground fish.
"Thats hardcore fishing," said Captain Frank Vasquez. "Youre fishing in deep water (over 200 feet) for some big fish."
These arent the friendly, accommodating 2- and 3-pouind strawberry grouper that you may encounter on a quick run to the short rigs for red snapper. These arent even the sharp-dressed and coveted gag grouper that have become the prize quarry as deep-water jigging makes inroads to the Texas Gulf Coast.
These arent even the more exotic snowy, yellow, yellow-edge, or rick hind grouper you find deep-dropping around the continental shelf with electric reels. The big fish Vasquez is referring to are Warsaw grouper and its rockmate farther north on the coast, the black grouper. These big, surly bruisers sulk over deep-water rocks and rigs and can snap 100-pound line and break heavy boat rods. These fish are akin to reeling a small car up a steep grade when you hook one. Were talking about fish that are not for the faint of heart or weak-backed. If you are going out to fetch the king of ground fish, you had better be well heeled.
"The Warsaw start moving into the rigs around February and March," said Bailey. "They come in to start feeding on the hardtails (blue runners) that start collecting around the rigs in 175 feet of water and deeper."
The big grouper sit under the rigs with their faces into the strong currents that flow through the rigs and feed on runners and other prey fish that happen by. Schools of blue runners tend to hand out in the mid depths and closer to the surface, so it is conceivable that saws move up and hunt their meals, but it has yet to be an observed activity. In any event, the grouper are under the rigs.
The barnacle-encrusted legs, jagged pieces of pipes, drilling equipment, and anything else that might have fallen overboard by makes these beasts an iffy proposition at best, and impossible without the proper equipment and preparation.
You can always try what Penns Mark Davis, host of Penns Big Water Adventures, calls his "ultimate ground fish rig", an International 12 VSX lever drag reel paired to a CARJG200C56 Jigging Rod and spooled with 150 pound Spiderwire Stealth Braid. The reel is capable of an impressive 35 pounds of drag. Ive had the rig in my hands, and for a powerful rod, it is light, functional, and easy to use.
The heavy tackle is necessary to bull a large grouper out from underneath the rig. The usual strategy is to set the boat up current of the rig and send a big bait down, put the rod in a rod holder, and wait for the bite. Once the fish takes the bait, torque down the drag to maximum while the captain puts the boat into gear; you pull the fish away from the snags and into open water. Once the fish is clear of the rig, you can grab the rod handle and settle into the fight in earnest.
Bait is simple enough. Grouper have moved to the rigs to feed on blue runners. Bailey recommended sending a Sabiki or small spoon down to the schools of hardtails that hold in the mid depths and catch a few for live bait. Even better is a small vermillion snapper, but those are a bit harder to come by. If neither the hardtails nor vermilions are cooperating, a large finfish such as horse mullet or chunk of bonito will do in a pinch. The only concern with bloody bait such as mullet or bonito is that sharks eat them with great relish as well.
"Youll know when you latch into the man in the grey suit," Bailey said. "At first they fight like a big grouper but they start swimming away from the rig. Thats when you know you have a shark."
If you can avoid the shark and latch into one of the biggest of Texas ground fish, youll understand what it means to be friends with the sea.