Middlegrounds report August 19-20th out of Steinhatchee-Grouper, mangroves, etc

Fishing overnight is a rare treat due to the number of factors that have to go your way in order for the trip to be successful. Between the weather, wind , the tides, the bite, the moon, freighters- there are a lot of ways you can end up paying for your sins on one of these trips. Fortunately for us this was not one of those trips and the fish treated us well and we got back in under our own power which is always a success in its own right (more on that later).

The original plan was to do a trip overnight on Dale Shelton’s boat “Justitication” (Screenname “Shel” on FS ) for mangroves out of St. Augustine or Mayport around the August full moon. However, early in the week it looked like the weather and seas weren’t going to be ideal on our coast due to a Southwest fetch so our Capt suggested a middlegrounds run from Steinhatchee. The middlegrounds is always a great trip to begin with, and with all eyes on the weather it just looked better and better as the forecast was for seas of less than a foot and just a couple knots of wind. Yes it would be hot, but it would also be flat and the fish should be fired off with the full moon. We decided that would be a great call after looking at everything, and we put together a crew of Ryan (Let’s go amigo) and his buddy KC who both had ample offshore experience. Planning your crew is extremely important on these trips as a lot can happen 90-110+ miles offshore, so you want to be sure that your crew is aware at all times and ready to help if needed.

Friday morning finally got here and the buoy 112 Mile NW of Tampa was falling nicely, and with little wind and bright sunshine we set off towards Steinhatchee a little before 7am. We got to the ‘Hatch and despite it being scallop season, the crowds were not bad and we quickly launched after a pit stop at SeaHag to see if they had pinfish and pick up some extra supplies. No pinfish were available but Dale has some rockpiles that we’ve baited up on before so we headed in that direction to catch some livies before headed towards the middegrounds. Using double dropper rigs with bream hooks and squid pieces, we quickly put about 40-50 baits in the livewell. Mostly sand perch, pinfish, and some other finned critters which the fish didn’t seem to mind later that day.

The run out to our first stop was a 96 mile stretch that we made quick work of by taking turns at the wheel, and before we knew it we were in 130 feet of water at our destination. The current wasn’t bad at all so we started drifting this area of structure, dropping a combo of live baits and boston Mackeral. After a few drifts to locate where the fish were holding (slow due to light current) and a couple of Amberjacks(released) our good Capt was pinned to the rail on what looked to be a good fish. Just like our last trip, Dale quickly and calmly reeled our first gag grouper up from 130 feet making it look easy the whole way. The lip gaff was christened and we had our first fish in the box with high fives all around.

Next up was Ryan, who popped not only the next one but also the third fish so before we knew it we had 3 good groupers on ice and the box was already in good shape.

I got into the game after a couple of missed opportunities with a grouper of my own, which was my personal best so that always feels good.

The bite slowed after a bit and the Amberjacks were thick (out of season) so we went off in search of other bottom to fish.

We hopped around to a couple of spots, slightly spoiled after our first spot and picked away at a some smaller fish until we decided to anchor up for the night and get the chum going, get some dinner made,etc. In the middle grounds there are areas of high relief that come up to 80-90’ of water, whereas the areas around the relief fall off to 110-130 feet (varies) and what we do at night is anchor on top of the relief and chum to bring the fish to the boat. We got the chum going on our chosen spot, and let it do some work for us for a bit before we started fishing. Fish started coming over the rail a little before dark , starting off with white grunts, then a short red grouper, then the mangroves started to bite and we put a few of those in the box.

We picked at fish all through the night, catching a lot of mangroves, some short red groupers, a short cobia, nice king that got away at the boat, misc grunts, just a ton of fish all through the night. We were fishing a combination of drift fishing 1//2 egg sinker knocker rigs and also bottom rigs, fishing frozen sardines that we kept intact via dry ice that we had bought at Publix the night before we left. The conditions at night were perfect with a little wind and nice temps, we took turns sleeping in shifts. Dawn broke and we pulled the anchor with 36 nice mangroves in the box to add to the groupers from Friday afternoon.

We revisited the first grouper spot early Saturday morning, but only the AJs wanted to play so we decided to drive around and look for new spots for future trips. We found a few, bringing in a red snapper and a couple beeliners off one new spot, then KC nailed a really nice red grouper on the last spot of the day which we found just by driving around watching the depthfinder. Gotta love the middlegrounds!

We started to head back to Steinhatchee around 10 or so Saturday morning and the first 45 miles were perfect, until we backed off the throttles to take a break and switch drivers. Upon throttling up, the port motor was shaking pretty badly for some reason and upon tilting it up we saw that one of the four blades was broken off! None of us had ever seen that happen and we didn’t notice hitting anything during our first 45 miles, but it was there and we were forced to limp in on one engine so as to not damage the other one. Five+ hours later we got to a busy boat ramp at Steinhatchee and loaded up the Justification for the trip back to Jax.
Exhausted but extremely happy with our results, we got back to Jax uneventfully and quickly rinsed off the boat and we parted ways after dividing up the fish for the four of us. It was 9:30pm and after being on the water or the road for 48+ hours it was time to get home and call it a day.

These pics are of 3/4 of the fish we had after dividing everything up. Total was 5 grouper, 36 mangroves, and a couple beeliners that came home with us.

It was a great trip with excellent company, and it could not have gone any better (except we ran out of beer thanks to the prop hiccup!) . Thanks again to Dale for a great trip and I’m looking forward to doing it again soon.


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