Gag Grouper - The Complete Guide | Great Days Outdoors

Gag Grouper – The Complete Guide

The Gag Grouper is a popular and interesting species prized by recreational and commercial anglers alike. Known for their violent strike and hard initial fight, gags are beautiful to look at, wonderful to eat, and challenging to catch consistently. A mysterious fish, Gag Grouper exhibit a reproductive behavior called “protogynous hermaphroditism.” This means that they are born female and have the ability to change into males when needed. In this guide, we’re going to learn some fun facts like this one and along the way, we’ll talk to one of the best Gag Grouper Captains in the Gulf of Mexico to learn how to bring more of these awesome fish into your boat. 

Gag Grouper Size

Gag Groupers are known for their impressive size among the grouper species. On average, adult Gag Groupers can reach lengths of between 30 to 48 inches. Their weight typically ranges from 10 to 20 pounds for many of the adult gags caught by anglers, though larger individuals are certainly not uncommon. The growth rate of the Gag Grouper is relatively slow. It can take 5 to 6 years for a gag to reach a length of about 24 inches and a weight of around 10 pounds. The IGFA world record Gag Grouper caught on rod and reel was a fish that weighed 80 pounds and 6 ounces. It was caught off the coast of Destin, Florida in 1993 by Bill Smith. 

gag grouper
While Gag Grouper aren’t the largest species of grouper, they can still grow to an impressive size.

Gag Grouper Identification

Gag Groupers typically have a grayish to brownish body color, sometimes with a slight bronze tinge. Their color can be variable depending on their surroundings, age, and mood, allowing them to camouflage effectively. Juvenile Gag Grouper often have pronounced, dark, worm-like markings on their sides. These markings become less noticeable or fade entirely as they mature, but they can be a key distinguishing feature in younger fish. The edges of their anal and dorsal fins are straight, distinguishing them from some other grouper species that have more rounded fins. They have pale or white margins around the eyes, which is a unique characteristic. The tail of the Gag Grouper has a slightly concave or straight edge, whereas some other groupers have more rounded tails. Like other groupers, gags have large mouths, but their lower jaw projects past the upper jaw, which can help in identification. To accurately identify a Gag Grouper, it’s helpful to have a good reference guide with images, especially if you’re comparing it to other grouper species in your region. 

Black Grouper Vs Gag

Black Grouper are found mainly in Florida, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean. They prefer deeper waters than the gag, usually found at depths of 60 feet and greater. As the name suggests, Black Groupers generally have a dark gray to black body coloration. They have rectangular blotches that are arranged in a more regular pattern. The blotches can sometimes appear like a checkerboard pattern.

black goruper
Black Grouper look similar to the Gag but are capable of growing much larger.

They may also show dark rectangular blotches on their bodies, which are set more or less in rows. Black Grouper dorsal and anal fins have a more rounded appearance. The Black Grouper’s upper jaw has a noticeable protrusion at its mid-point. The Black Grouper’s tail fin is more square-shaped. 


Scamp Grouper Vs Gag

Generally, Scamp Groupers are a brownish-gray or greenish color with a distinct yellow or olive-gold hue on their head and fins. One of their most distinguishing features is the long, flowing tips of their anal and dorsal fins, giving them a more ornate look compared to the gag. Scamps often have faint spots and lines on their sides and they also have a series of darker and lighter vertical bars on their sides. Their jaws are more or less even with the lower jaw of the gag protruding beyond the upper jaw.

scamp grouper
The yellowish hue on the head is a distinctive characteristic of a Scamp Grouper over a Gag Grouper.

Scamps are generally smaller than gags, commonly reaching lengths of about 24 inches, with a few larger exceptions. Scamp Grouper are mostly found in the Gulf of Mexico, but their range extends from North Carolina to southern Florida and then westward whereas gags have a broader range, found from North Carolina to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

Catching Gag Grouper

The best Gag Grouper angler that I know is Capt. Delynn Sigler, from Pensacola, Florida. I recently had the pleasure of watching Delynn land a 50+ pound gag on a two-hook rig without even a grunt to let the other anglers on the boat know he was hooked up. When you see someone consistently catching true “copper belly” gags on a regular basis, there has to be more to it than luck, so I recently quizzed Delynn on an episode of the Northwest Florida Fishing Report and he was kind enough to share his decades of bottom fishing knowledge with the rest of us mere grouper fishing mortals. 

Gag Grouper Habitat

When it comes to Gag Grouper habitat, they can be found in shallow estuaries all the way out to deep gulf waters, and while fisheries like Crystal River, Florida are known for their shallow water grouper fishing, most keeper size gags are caught deep. I wanted to know if there was any type of structure that held more gags than anything else. 

“I catch them on wrecks, I catch them on natural bottom, I catch them all over. Generally earlier in the year like the first week of June, when snappers come in I catch a lot in shallow water. With gags not coming in till September I’m probably gonna fish a lot of that deeper stuff. I wouldn’t fish anything less than 200 feet. That’s for sure.” said Capt. Delynn. 

The Best Bait For Gag Grouper

When it comes to choosing a Gag Grouper bait, the answer lies in testing what the fish want that day, Delynn says.


“I would mix everything up; everybody gets a different bait. You know, maybe one dead bait, a two-hook rig with a couple of squids, live bait like Cigar Minnows, Threadfin Herring, Spanish Sardines, and Hardtails. Mix it up and see what they want. They are so picky, you never know from one day to the next what they want. So I always mix them up and see what they want.”

The magic in fishing multiple baits can come from the excitement that a lot of bait in the water creates.

It is best to try out different baits when you are fishing for Gag Grouper.

 “It’s just just a big frenzy,” Delynn said. “Once you get that big frenzy going down there, they’ll all bust loose. So here’s a little tip I do sometimes. Everybody is fishing, we’re on a great spot, but you’re not getting a bite. So we all reel up, we all change. We all go back down again at the same time. And then have somebody run a jig down and just hook anything up, something like a little baby Amberjack, and with him struggling around down there just seems to fire them off and all sudden everybody’s catching fish.” 

Gag Grouper Rigs

Whether you’re choosing a Carolina rig, a fishfinder rig, or a two-hook rig when you’re fishing for Gag Grouper, it’s important that your line is strong and your connections are too. 

“For gags, I like 100 lb test. I usually run 20% drag but you can go up to 25% drag on your line. This allows you to put a lot of heat on him that’ll get him off the bottom. I use a power snell but I snell it backwards. It’s different from the way most people do it. But there’s a reason I do it that way but that’s my personal favorite connection. For a circle hook, I really believe in snelling the hook.” 

For the right Gag Grouper hook size Delynn says to go with a tried and true. 

“I match the hook to the bait and the line. I love the old commercial hooks. Mustad 39960 12/0 or 13/0 if I’m using 100lb test depending on the bait size.”

Gag Grouper Fishing Mistakes

You don’t know what you don’t know, so I wanted to know what common mistakes Capt. Delynn sees when fishing for gags. 

“Well, they reel down three or four times then raise the rod and they yell, “I got him!” No, you don’t have him, you’re just telling him you’re there and he’s gonna run home. Especially if he’s using monofilament because it stretches so much. And even though I use a lot of braid, I use a 30 to 50-foot top shot, so it’s going to stretch. So I tell people to keep their rod low reel and reel until it will not reel anymore until your drag actually slips. Put as much line on that reel as you can, then you can lift the rod.”

gag grouper
Gags can be found in shallow estuaries all the way out to deep gulf waters.

There’s another mistake that Gag Grouper captains are making, and it comes to their electronics calibration.

“I zoom in to the bottom 30 to 60 feet so I can see details. If you’re in 300 feet of water and you’re zoomed all the way out and looking at rocks that are maybe a foot off the bottom, you’re almost looking at nothing. You have to zoom your machine in. Additionally, I turn my gain on manual. I turn my gain all the way up till I get just a little bit of “snow” on the screen. It’s just little specks. That way you’re seeing everything. You can put it on auto and get rid of all that stuff, but you also lose a lot of your fish and a lot of your detail.”

Gag Grouper Season

While seemingly abundant in some areas, The Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council chose to open the gag recreational fishing season on September 1 and close it when the recreational ACT is projected to be met; this is expected to result in a season duration of about two months in 2024. It is important that you monitor Gag Grouper regulations constantly as they are prone to change. Below you will find some helpful links to seasons in the states where they are most commonly caught. 

Gag Grouper Season Florida

Alabama Gag Grouper Season

Gag Grouper Texas

Gag Grouper Recipes

Gag Grouper are one of the finest eating of the groupers, third in my book to Scamp and Yellowedge, but certainly not far behind. Whenever I need a good recipe for any type of fish, I always consult my good friend Hank Shaw and his James Beard award-winning website, Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook as well as his cookbook, Hook, Line, and Supper for inspiration. Grouper is a fish that deserves to stand alone, as its mild, buttery, and almost crab-like texture and flavor needs little to command its own part of the plate. For that reason, I typically choose a simple Pan-Seared Grouper recipe to really let this fish shine. Additionally, you should use every bit of the grouper that you can, and one great way to do that is with a Grouper Cheeks recipe

Gag Grouper Final Thoughts

Where they are found, Gag Grouper is a prize, and for good reason. When you do battle with these fish, you will undoubtedly learn that a different set of skills and tactics are needed to winch them from their lair in the reef. If you do, you will be rewarded with excellent table fare and the bragging rights that come from winning the battle that so many others have lost. So get out there and start dropping deep, big Gag Groupers are lying in wait. 

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