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Near Tampa Bay, it’s the best time of year to catch one of the Gulf’s best-eating fish

·3 min read
Jon Chapman/Special to Bradenton Herald

“Is it always this easy!?” Wendy Jordan happily screamed as her rod bent with a fish. “I can’t believe this!”

Years ago, anglers didn’t realize that hogfish were very obtainable on hook and line. Now they have become a popular winter target. And with a stretch of beautiful weather, many have taken advantage of the best time of year to catch one of the best-eating fish in the Gulf.

Jordan, along with her husband, Kevin, and I joined Stephanie and Jay Travis aboard the Travis’ 32-foot Contender last Sunday. Winds had laid down substantially from the day before when a cold front came through. We were all bundled up for a cool run west into the Gulf of Mexico.

The live well was loaded with shrimp, and we acquired some live whitebait and pinfish as well, but knew shrimp would be the go-to for the day. The first stop was in about 50 feet. I tied on 1-ounce pink and gold Hogballs to light spinning rods with 20-pound leader and showed how to bait them.

“Take a shrimp and if it’s big you can use a half. Thread it on the hook so it’s slid up the hook shaft with the point exposed,” I explained. “Let it sit right on the bottom and the hit will be very subtle from a hogfish but there will be plenty of other fish caught.”

It didn’t take long and Jordan avoided all by-catch, hooking up to a hogfish almost immediately. When the rod bent she screamed with excitement, not even knowing the prize she had on below. As the hogfish broke the surface and swung into the boat we explained the rarity of the catch. It was measured above the 14 inches needed to the fork and added to the box.

After many grunts, a few small gags and one mangrove snapper, we pushed west in an effort to get away from pesky by-catch. A visit to some small ledges was just the ticket to get away from the grunts.

Stephanie Travis managed to start catching mangrove snapper after mangrove snapper while fishing the bottom. Kevin Jordan stayed patient and was soon rewarded with a quality hogfish of his own, soon followed by another from Wendy. I joined them and eventually got a pair of nice 20-inch hogfish on back to back drops.

As what tends to happen when hogfishing, they came in a flurry before moving on.

Switching to a light 1/16-ounce jig head, the mangrove snapper size increased as the box began to fill up. As often happens in winter, the snapper stayed close to the bottom but happily ate a slowly dropped jighead.

When it slowed, we pushed west slightly further, ending around 75 feet of water. A few more hogfish and snapper along with some bigger break offs kept the fishing rods bent. As the afternoon north winds picked up, the fishing slowed and we made our run home.

Over the next two months, hogfishing will be at its peak. Gag grouper will be on similar bottoms with their season coming to an end when the calendar turns to 2022.

The ideal technique is to fish shrimp right on the bottom with Hogballs or knocker rigs. When wanting hogfish patience can be key, as plenty of other fish also fall for this technique!

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