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by Bob Harbison

Middle Grounds Party Tips!

As a Florida native, I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in some of the very best fishing and hunting imaginable. I can remember catching over 100 kingfish a day just a couple of miles off Clearwater Beach as if it were yesterday. Grouper were extremely abundant, and about the only thing lacking back then was American red snapper.

I remember fishing the Middle Grounds when grouper and mangos filled even the largest fish boxes, but I fished an entire summer without a single red snapper.

Now the situation is completely different. Grouper and kings can be hard to find, but the Middle Grounds are stacked with red snapper. In fact, they are so abundant it is often difficult to get a bait down past them in an attempt to catch an “in-season” fish.

Located northwest of Tarpon Springs, the Middle Grounds consists of over 1,000 square miles of prime fish habitat that is home to around 170 species of fish, including the now-abundant American red snapper.

The 100-plus mile one-way trip is too far for most anglers. Fortunately, party boat fishing allows you to fish this pristine area and share the cost among 20-30 other anglers. I’ve fished with Hubbard’s Marina in John’s Pass for over 30 years aboard the “Florida Fisherman,” which heads to the Middle Grounds every weekend.

Over my many years of Middle Grounds fishing, here are some very effective tackle and techniques I’ve picked up that have proven to produce:

ROD: Shakespeare’s Ugly Stick “Signa” (20-40 lb. class) is light, yet tremendously strong. The sensitive, solid-glass tip can feel even the slightest nibble from bait-stealing mangos, and I’ve had it bent double by very large grouper without damaging it. For grouper, upgrade to the 30-50-pound Ugly Stick.

REEL: For red and mangrove snapper, try the Shimano “Speed Master” with a very fast 6-to-1 retrieve ratio (great for the 120-plus feet of water you will be fishing). For grouper, a Shimano TLD 20 will land the big ones.

LINE: If fishing for snapper only, I go with Berkley’s 30-pound test, green, super-strong Trilene, but 40-pound test does much better when a grouper hits. For grouper, I use green Trilene 60-pound test, but heavier line can cause problems when snagged.

TERMINAL TACKLE: The lighter the sinker, the better. Four ounces is preferred, however six ounces (sometimes eight) is usually required to hold bottom. Let a barrel sinker slide freely above your swivel so you can feel the fish without him “feeling” the sinker.

Leader: 40-pound fluorocarbon is best for snapper. I’d rather use 30-pound, but I’ve had it broken too many times. For grouper, use about 20 pounds heavier than the main line test.

Hooks: Use Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp Circle Sea hooks. For snapper, use the hooks in tandem, by tying a standard mono knot to secure a 5/0 hook to the leader. Gently open up the eye of a 3/0 hook, slide it on the 5/0 and close the eye of the 3/0 hook back with pliers. This double-hook rig will greatly increase your catch of the notorious bait-stealing snapper. Many Middle Ground snapper are very large, and the combination works well for all sizes of snapper as well as grouper. For grouper, use Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp Circle Sea hooks 6/0 to 8/0. I find 6/0 to be adequate.

Bait: The boat usually provides Spanish sardines that work very well for mango and red snapper. It is standard to cut off both the head and tail before baiting your hook. For grouper, live pinfish is preferred, but you can catch red grouper on live or cut bait.

SNAPPER HINT: Let your offering hit the bottom, then make about five cranks on the reel. If you do not get a strike after a few minutes, drop down to the bottom, wait a minute, then bring it back up a few feet. If you make it this far, a snapper has probably stolen your bait.

Watch the rod tip for any movement, keeping one finger on the line and a hand on the reel handle. A quick reaction is essential or the elusive snapper will have your bait and be gone without you knowing he was there. When you feel even the slightest nudge, start reeling immediately. DON’T set the hook when using circle hooks! Just reel fast! This is a true contest of wills. The snapper is an expert at survival, but he is hungry. It will take all the skill you can muster to show him who is boss! Hopefully, some of these “party boat tricks” will help you get on some hot Middle Grounds snapper and grouper action!

PARTY BOAT PACKING LIST: While loading his truck for his latest overnight trip to the Middle Grounds, party boat veteran Bob Harbison came up with a few “must-have” packing tips. They include:

1) TACKLE TAMER: Excellent for storing ready-to-use leaders. Really reduces re-tying time to a minimum.

2) SUNBLOCK: A real must! Should be at least SPF 45!

3) SHOES: All-rubber shoes (by Marlin) really work well. Tennis shoes are also fine.

4) LEADER CUTTERS: Fingernail clippers work just fine.

5) VENTING TOOL: The mates on the boat will have these and pliers, but I like having my own, just in case he is helping others.

6) CAP and SUNGLASSES: Both a must!

7) WHERE’S MY ROD? Many rods on the boat will look exactly the same. A small piece of aluminum tape will easily identify yours from the crowd and get you fishing sooner.

8) PUNCH: A small punch makes opening the eye of a hook easy.

9) RED BEADS: These can be used above the hook to help attract snapper.

10) Woods ‘n Water: Take this issue with you for the tackle and rigging tips on the next page!