The past few months have been a busy time for Florida Keys Reel Adventures Charter Fisherman Kevin Johnsen, mostly catching yellowtail with snowbirds or taking spring breakers on novice spear and free diving classes to the reef. But, with Friday, May 1 marking the opening day of the annual grouper season after a four month hiatus, he has high hopes of fresh fried grouper fingers on his menu.
“When we are out on charters, I specifically try not to catch them during the closure,” Johnsen said. “But, we have brought up a couple of pretty big black groupers the past couple of weeks. There are a ton of grouper out there right now.”
Johnsen credits the closures, which started in 2010, to the increase in fish stock he has seen recently.
“There is an incredible difference now from when they put the restriction in place,” he added. “I know it was an unpopular decision, but it’s amazing how everyone has changed their tune about it when they started reeling in bigger and more fish.”
Most grouper spawn between January and May, some year-round, so the closure corresponds with the grouper’s life cycle. Most grouper species are protogynous hermaphrodites — born as females but can later become male. Black, gag and red grouper are the most popularly and readily available grouper species in the Keys.
The grouper fishery comes with its own set of rules. Basically no matter where you go, if you leave from a Monroe County dock, fishermen have to abide by Atlantic rules, even if they are fishing in the Gulf.
Fishermen are looking at gags and blacks longer than 24-inch total length and reds at a 20-inch total length or more. Scamps and snowys can be found on deeper Keys wrecks. Warsaw, Nassau, and goliath grouper harvest is prohibited year round. Fishermen can’t have more than three grouper on their boat per person and can only have one black or gag per person, i.e. a black grouper and two reds, or a gag grouper and two reds, but not a black, a gag and a red.
Charter Captain Chris Mendola, of Far Out Charters in Key West, has the first four days of May booked for grouper and a few other May dates already scheduled. “We usually fish reefs and wrecks, but will try and shoot down to closer to Dry Tortugas if the weather allows,” he said.
Mendola was a commercial fisherman for six years for grouper and snapper before switching over to the charter side eight years ago. He suggests a live bait for the best bites, pinfish, grunts and blue runners he said work great.
Grouper fishing from a boat typically involves baits fished near the bottom, with heavy tackle and line to bring grouper to the surface. Some also like to get in the water and try their hand at hunting down their tasty meals, like recreational spearfisherman Chase Grimes of Key Colony Beach, who claims he has been shooting fish since he was five years old. He has been counting down the days to the season opener on his Facebook page.
“It’s better than any holiday on the books,” he said. “It’s even better than Fantasy Fest.”