Griffis knows groupers

Big Bend region is 'phenomenal' for these fish


Published: Friday, January 28, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 27, 2005 at 11:11 p.m.
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A gag grouper, which are the most dominant of the grouper species in the Big Bend region (except for summer when red group dominate).

TIM TUCKER/Special to The Sun
In this quiet seaside hamlet, Capt. Rick Griffis is known as the Grouper Man, a guide who specializes in catching the bottom-dwelling species that live well out in the Gulf of Mexico. But he certainly took a circuitous route to get to this point.
His fishing career began as a youngster working as a mate on the Helen S, an 87-foot party boat that specialized in bluewater trips out of Hillsborough Inlet in South Florida. From there, Griffis spent 14 years fishing for bass on the Bassmaster and FLW professional circuits.
Two years ago, he bought the Christy Lyn, a 30-foot Chris Craft Sport Fisher and began guiding deep-sea trips out of Gulfstream Marina in Steinhatchee.
"I grew up bluewater fishing and some of the captains I used to work for assumed I would come back to South Florida someday to start bluewater charter boat fishing," said Griffis, 45. "When I told them I was staying up here doing grouper they said, 'You're not going to be happy doing that because it's bottom fishing.'
"But I've just fallen in love with the hunt and trying to figure where these fish are and why they're there. Personally, I like the hunt. For the guiding part of it, it's kind of like hunting for bass. I like the hunt to find new fish, where they're located and why they're located there. Grouper have peaked my interest."
And Griffis has gotten good at it. He has developed a reputation as one of the best grouper fishermen in the Big Bend region.
"The grouper fishing in this area is phenomenal," he said. "I think it's (because of) a lack of pressure more than anything. The grouper get a lot more pressure in the more popular places like Panama City, Mexico Beach, Tampa, St. Pete and New Port Richey.
"Right now it's a little tough this time of year. The fish are a little picky. But we catch 15, 20, 25 grouper on a trip. This is a good time of the year, although we're right on the cusp of the water temperature where the fish are starting to shut down. In November and December, the fishing was on fire - and big fish, too. Good quality size fish, 15 or 20 pounds."
With the exception of summer, gag grouper are the main game for anglers like Griffis (red grouper rule the hottest months). Unlike reds, gags don't migrate much throughout the year.
Griffis typically runs 30 to 35 miles out into the Gulf and targets a depth of 60 to 65 feet.
"Like bass fishing, it's about finding structure," he said. "I fish mainly hard bottom - lime rock. I fish a lot of stuff that is similar to what you look for when you're bass fishing. I fish breaklines. I watch my bottom machine and try to fish a breakline where the bottom goes from hard to soft. That's probably the one thing that not a lot of people do. You've got to know your equipment to do it.
"I haven't dove it yet to see, but my theory is the tide washes out and it makes hiding places where two different kinds of bottom come together. It makes like a lip that the grouper can back under. I have nothing to base that on other than it works. I can work an edge like that that might be a -mile long. I can work up and down it and catch fish."
His experience in both fresh- and saltwater fishing has shaped him into a different kind of creature from most Gulf guides. His bass fishing influence can be seen in how he fishes for grouper.
"Because I'm running as far as I'm running - an hour and half out - I target aggressive fish," he noted. "If I don't get bit on a spot in 15 minutes I move. A lot of people will soak a spot using chum, but I want to get my people fish. So basically I'll shoot from spot to spot to spot and try to get a bite going quickly.
"And I just started messing with artificials. I've used some bass lures and caught fish - soft plastics like Slug-Gos and Flappin' Shads. A Flappin' Shad will catch a grouper quick. I like scent in the water, so I've been experimenting with the new Berkley Gulp saltwater series of baits like the herring. I finally broke them out and tried them with a charter. On the first drop we caught the biggest grouper of the day. The first time it went down. I thought, 'Holy cow, I need to start using these things more.' So I started playing with them more. Berkley's Gulp are impregnated baits that grouper love. And they hold up through several fish. Even when they get bit in half, the darn grouper will still eat them."
In most situations, though, live and dead bait produce best for Griffis. His bottom-fishing tackle includes Daiwa Sealine reels and Beefstick rods, 60- to 80-pound test Berkley Trilene line with a 3-foot leader of 100-pound test mono and 8/0 Eagle Claw hooks. He usually begins by dropping cut bait (sardines, squid, snapper, grunts or bonito) down to the bottom.
Once the action slows, he breaks out the live bait - pinfish, spottails and flannel mouth grunts.
In the springtime, Griffis does some trolling to locate the hiding places of grouper. He trolls two lines with planer boards and Bomber Long A jerkbaits.
Tim Tucker is an award-winning outdoors writer who lives in Cross Creek.
If you go:
  • Capt. Rick Griffis, Reelality Fishing Charters, (352) 213-7330.
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