12437609852?profile=RESIZE_710xKen Udell of Boca Raton shows off a big black grouper in his right hand and a hogfish in his left hand that he shot while diving with Jim ‘Chiefy’ Mathie. Steve Waters/The Coastal Star

By Steve Waters

This is an exciting month for South Florida anglers and divers because the seasons for grouper and hogfish opened on May 1.

The grouper season in Atlantic waters had been closed since Jan. 1 and the hogfish season closed on Nov. 1 in local waters.

April was a difficult month for scuba divers like Jim “Chiefy” Mathie, a retired Deerfield Beach fire chief, because the lobster season closed on April 1. So he and his buddies focused on spearfishing for lionfish while also taking note of where hogfish and grouper were hanging out.

That scouting definitely pays off. Mathie said that on opening day a year ago, each of the divers on his boat shot a black grouper.

It’s essential for divers and anglers to know that grouper and hogfish have restrictive bag and size limits. Black and gag grouper must measure at least 24 inches and red grouper must be 20 inches. Anglers and divers can keep a total of three grouper per day, but only one can be a black or a gag. The other two, or all three, can be reds.

The limit on hogfish is one per person per day, a minimum of 16 inches long from the tip of the nose to the fork of the tail. Previously, the season was open all year, the daily bag limit was five fish and the size limit was 12 inches. Mathie has seen an improvement in the hogfish population since the regulations took effect in 2017.

“We definitely are seeing a lot of big males,” Mathie said, explaining that a male hogfish big enough to shoot has a long snoot with a dark stripe down the forehead.

Mathie is the author of Catching the Spear-it! The ABCs of Spearfishing, which is sold by most area dive shops as well as at chiefy.net and other online retailers.

Among the tips in the book is to always keep in mind the three R’s — recognition, regulation and range. In other words, be able to identify the fish, know the size limit and be close enough to shoot it with your speargun.

Spearfishers must check off the three R’s relatively quickly with black and gag grouper. Unlike hogfish and red grouper, which often try to hide behind a sea fan when a diver approaches, blacks and gags don’t usually stick around.

When they head out of Boca Inlet in May, Mathie and his dive buddies concentrate on hunting the west-facing side of the third reef. The top of the reef is about 50 feet below the surface and the bottom is 60-65 feet. The reef holds a lot of fish, including keeper-sized grouper and hogfish.

Wrecks in 65 feet also are good spots to shoot big grouper and hogfish.

There have been years when Mathie and his friends hunted those spots for the entire month of May. Then they move on to wrecks in 110-120 feet.

Capt. Skip Dana of the Fish City Pride drift boat in Pompano Beach fishes wrecks from 75-240 feet for grouper. The GPS coordinates for Florida’s artificial reefs are available at myfwc.com/media/19397/ artificialreefdeploymentlocations.pdf.

He noted that wrecks in 75-120 feet are good for gag grouper. Blacks are on the same wrecks as well as deeper ones. Reds can be as shallow as 30-40 feet around rockpiles, ledges and grass patches, and on wrecks.

Grouper will bite live baits such as pinfish and pilchards, but dead sardines also work. Hogfish will bite live shrimp, but so will everything else in the ocean, so they are rarely caught on hook and line.

Coast Guard celebration
U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary 54 will celebrate National Safe Boating Week from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 18 at Harvey E. Oyer Jr. Park in Boynton Beach. Call 561-331-2429 for more information.


Outdoors writer Steve Waters can be reached at steve33324@aol.com.

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