Across the Tampa Bay region, July means more than high temperatures and afternoon thunderstorms. July is when grouper season opens up, which means anglers can look forward to a fun challenge as they drop down a bait for this bottom feeder fish. The species most often caught in the bay are gag grouper, which are abundant throughout the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, anglers are allowed to keep two groupers per person, one more than on the Atlantic coast. Check local regulations for size limits. One of the more popular ways of catching grouper in Tampa Bay is by using pinfish hooked on a standard knocker rig with enough weight to hold it on the bottom. The amount of weight will be determined by the current. Circle hooks must be used when fishing for grouper and other bottom feeders; the use of these hooks makes the catch more efficient as it prevents hooking the stomach, minimizes traumatic injury and facilitates release. Most species of grouper weigh less than 100 lbs and are formidable fighters once they are hooked. Record catches up to several hundred pounds have been recorded on some of the species. An example would be the Jewfish which is commonly over the 100 lbs mark and more often than not will leave you with a broken line.Jewfish are strictly catch and release and should not be brought into the boat. Grouper is a staple of Florida’s seafood cuisine; it can be enjoyed baked, grilled, fried, or blackened.
Along with grouper, big mangrove snapper are also being caught in the bay. This species is also a bottom feeder that requires similar tackle as grouper, although the circle hook used is smaller. While grouper hooks are in the 6/0 range, circle hooks about 1/0 to 2/0 will work well for big mangroves since they tend to be considerably smaller. Snapper love live shrimp. A good way to start the bite is by hanging a frozen chum block over the side of the boat or using cut baitfish and dropping them over the side. This chum technique also works for grouper and many other bottom feeder fish you are likely to encounter fishing over structure.
Other Summer Catch in the Tampa Bay
In addition to grouper and snapper, anglers in Tampa Bay can also look forward to cobia. Typically a solitary fish, they can be found higher in the water column over structure as well as following behind stingrays in the shallows. Cobia are a good eating fish that fight hard and can be big. Check local regulations for size and bag limits. When it’s rough outside and the bay is bumpy or it’s just too windy to fish open water, there are still plenty of snook in the canals. Live chumming with whitebait will often turn the fish on to feed. Make sure you have plenty of frisky baits for this type of fishing. Snook are out of season for the summer while they spawn but can be fun catch and release fishing. Remember that many of the fish are actively spawning so be very careful with them and release them as gently as possible.