The Florida Middle Grounds
If you are an avid bottom fisherman then you’ve likely heard of the Florida Middle Grounds, an expanse of ledges, pinnacles, springs, live bottom and other fish holding structure in the Gulf of Mexico. The Middle Grounds start about 75 miles west of Tarpon Springs, a distance that used to put this fishery beyond the range of most fishing boats. With the current trend of fast, seaworthy vessels, the Middle Grounds get a lot more fishing pressure nowadays, and it’s not quite the angling oasis it used to be. What if you pushed beyond the Middle Grounds, a hundred miles or more off the coast? Gary Jennings, Doug Olander, Patrick Sebile and I were about to find out.
We pulled into the Madeira Beach Marina at 4:30 am where we met up with Captains Trae Sorensen and Anthony Belmonte. These two captains have almost 15 years combined experience fishing the nearly untapped waters over a hundred miles from shore. We boarded Belmonte’s 36 foot Contender center console with triple 300 horsepower Suzuki’s. Each of us picked a cushy bean bag chair and nestled in for the long ride to the fishing grounds. As the last lights of civilization disappeared out of view, the first hint of daylight crept over the horizon and treated us to a glorious sunrise.
The Jigging Begins
We all perked up when Belmonte finally eased off on the throttle. Soon we were all scurrying about, grabbing rods and picking spots around the boat. “Drop em boys,” Belmonte announced. It took awhile for the jigs to reach the bottom over 400 feet below. I’ve rarely experienced such excitement from watching line melt from a spool. When I finally felt the subtle bump of the bottom and line went slack, anticipation was on overload for that solid thump of a deep sea denizen. I wasn’t disappointed. Soon hoots and hollers echoed around the boat as jig rods doubled over.
I was the deep jigging novice among the crew. I know there is skill involved to make a jig dance in a way to tease a reluctant fish to strike, but that didn’t seemed to matter in these virgin waters. If the jig moved, it got bit. You could even leave the rod in a rod holder and the rocking of the boat would impart enough action to get bites, which was nice when you wanted to take a break for a drink or snack.
These depths are a smorgasbord of tasty bottom fish. Part of the excitement is not knowing what will grab your jig next. It could be anything from a three pound porgy, a ten pound grouper or some deep water behemoth that can’t be stopped. On our trip we caught four different species of grouper (yellow mouth, snowy, scamp and yellowedge), three species of jack (greater amberjack, lesser amberjack and almaco jack) plus porgy, tilefish and blackfin tuna.
Going to Electric
For those who want a change of pace from jigging, Sorensen and Belmonte bring bait to fish on deep drop rods with electric reels. Jennings opted for this on the second half of our trip. Hits were almost instantaneous on the bait. With four pounds of lead anchoring his rig, Jennings would often reach bottom, hook up and be reeling in his catch before any of our jigs got to the bottom. Multiple catches on a single drop was common. This was a great way to fill the fish box.
The One that Got Away
What’s a fishing trip without a story about the big one that got away. Jennings had the honors on the deep drop bait rod. He was pulling up a catch when suddenly the rod bent down to the water and the electric reel ground to a halt. Despite the heavy tackle and electric reel, it was slow, tedious work to gain line. After about 25 minutes, we estimated the fish was about a hundred feet off the bottom. That’s when the beast had enough. It dove for the bottom and wasn’t going to be denied. The 150 pound test line snapped and we were left with nothing but a story about what was likely a monster, triple digit warsaw grouper that got away.
If you like big fish, variety and taking home lots of tasty fillets then a trip beyond the Middle Grounds may be for you. I added five new species to my lifetime catch list. Even Sebile, who’s fished all over the world and has caught over 784 different species of fish, added a new species, yellow mouth grouper, to his list. For more information, and to book a trip, check out topknotchfishingcharters.com and figureditoutcharters.com.