Anglers who like to catch groupers along Florida’s Atlantic coast and in the Keys have become big fans of the closed season that was instituted a few years ago.
When the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission first approved a four-month closure to protect grouper stocks, many anglers were not happy. The season for shallow-water groupers, including gag, red and black groupers, is closed Jan.1-April 30 in state and federal waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Keys.
Now, with bigger and more groupers in those waters, those anglers look forward to May 1 like deer hunters look forward to opening day. The best of those anglers bring a variety of baits that always includes some pinfish to drop around reefs and wrecks.
To those in the know, a pinfish is the best grouper bait.
“It’s funny,” said Capt. George Clark Jr., of Key Largo. “I never knew that a pinfish was a good grouper bait until we had a tough day catching bait and we kept some and threw them in the well.
“[The groupers] wouldn’t eat anything. We had all sorts of bait. We had ballyhoos, we had big pilchards and goggle-eyes, and we couldn’t get bites. And I said, ‘Put a pinfish down,’ and it didn’t hit the bottom, and we had a grouper on, and that’s what they were eating – that and grunts.”
Since that day, Clark, whose Rodeo Charters runs offshore and backcountry fishing trips, never goes grouper fishing without pinfish.
“I always try to put a pinfish trap out there and have some available,” said Clark, referring to a metal cage that is baited to attract the little fish and placed on a sandy spot by a grass flat that pinfish frequent.
“Groupers like them. They look like silver dollars flashing down there, and I think they know what they’re eating, because they don’t wait long before they jump all over them.”
Capt. Bouncer Smith and his mate, Capt. Billy Springer, also love to use pinfish for groupers. They are members of a very small minority in Miami Beach.
“We watch hundreds and hundreds of pinfish get thrown back every day when we’re catching bait by guys who don’t care what [gamefish] they catch,” said Smith, who fishes out of Miami Beach Marina on Bouncer’s Dusky 33 and catches his bait in front of Government Cut with the rest of the charter captains and recreational anglers.
Like Clark before his revelation, those anglers are interested only in heading offshore with pilchards, herring, ballyhoo, sardines and other baits that go down easy. They figure no fish would want to eat the aptly named pinfish, which have sharp spines in their dorsal fins.
“They’ll tear your hands up if you’re not careful,” said Springer, who uses a de-hooking tool to drop pinfish that are caught on sabiki rigs into the baitwell, then handles them delicately when he puts them on a hook.
Those spines don’t bother most gamefish.
“If you asked 10 guys about using a pinfish, they’ll probably say, ‘I guess you could use it, but you’ve got to cut the fins off.’ Anyone who knows snook or cobia or grouper knows pinfish are candy to those fish,” Smith said.
Smith and Springer use a chum bag to attract pinfish to the boat. If the pinfish won’t hit their sabiki rigs, they’ll put a tiny chunk of bonito or mackerel on the sabiki hooks to entice the baitfish to bite.
“If you can see them down there and they’re not biting, they just don’t like the smell of your sabiki,” Springer said. “Give them some nice smell on it, and they’ll give it a peck and try it out.”
Smith and Springer deploy a pinfish on a Penn International spooled with 80-pound braided line tied to a three-way swivel with an 80-pound monofilament leader and a sinker heavy enough to stay on the bottom. When a grouper grabs that pinfish, there’s no doubt about it.