Diehard grouper fishermen once headed for the ledges in spring before a January-to-April season closure changed their habits. Now, many fishermen are experiencing their best action in the final month they can these fish.

Capt. Mike Webb of Morehead City's Pelagic Sport Fishing and Jodie Gay, owner of Blue Water Candy Lures, did just that one day last December, taking advantage of one of the idiosyncrasies of North Carolina's weather patterns. When winter arrives, there are always some warm, calm days that leave the ocean's surface as slick as motor oil, and these are perfect days for bottom fishing.

"We catch just about anything out on the ledges in December," Webb said, "but with the season closed for sea bass and red snapper, it makes grouper your best option for bottom-fishing. You are going to have to sort through a lot of fish you can't keep, but you are going to catch some nice grouper. There are plenty of big gags out here."

"Here" was an area east of Cape Lookout that featured a lot of the natural and man-made structure that holds all kinds of bottom fish. Three places Webb stopped were the Atlas Tanker, Chicken Rock and AR 285.

On the way out, they stopped on a piece of nearshore hard bottom and Webb used a gold-hook rig to jig up enough bluefish that they had plenty of live bait for a full-day trip.

"A lot of species aren't going to bother eating a bluefish," Webb said. "It's one way to specifically target grouper when the other fish are so abundant. We will also use bluefish for light-line baits to give us a chance at a king mackerel or a wahoo."

Webb had also netted a bucket full of menhaden, which he sliced at an angle through the center of the body to make two baits for use on a two-hook bottom rig. Slicing them at an angle exposed more raw tissue to the water, he said, leaving a better scent trail to attract grouper.

He also cut off the tail to prevent the bait from spinning on the way down and twisting the line.

Gay was more focused on using jigs of his own design to catch grouper. Once a commercial fisherman who used natural baits to load his fish boxes with grouper and other bottom fish, Gay has had a revelation of sorts.

"If I had just known how effective jigs were for catching bottom fish back then, I would have saved myself tens of thousands of dollars buying bait," he said. "Any fish worth catching will hit a jig if you know how to fish it properly."

Approaching his first spot, Webb scanned the bottom with a color depth finder. When he found the right location, he would calculate an anchor course and drop his anchor, allowing the line to tighten as the boat came to a rest over the fishing spot.

"I look for small natural reefs with low relief of 3 feet or less in 70 to 130 feet of water," Webb said. "Small spots of 50 feet or less in diameter are the best places.

"I look for green or light blue marks on the bottom and watch for them anytime I'm out here trolling or riding. Small spots don't get as much pressure as the larger, better-known places."

Webb also checked the water-temperature reading. He said bottom fish will bite at temperatures above 63 degrees, and king mackerel and wahoo would stick around until the temperature dropped below 68 degrees.

"With the grouper limit so low, it's always nice if you can snag a king or wahoo while you're grouper fishing or after you catch your limit of grouper," he said. "But there are other fish, such as triggerfish and grunts, that you can keep."

Once Webb found a good spot, he moved a quarter mile away to gauge the direction of the drift created by the wind and current. He drifted back to the ledge and dropped his anchor.

Red snapper bit right away. Both anglers were hooking and releasing the off-limits fish as fast as they were dropping baits to the bottom.

"Chicken Rock was named after the small red snapper that were always here," Gay said. "Commercial fishermen called them 'chickens,' (and) they called big red snapper 'mules.' These are mules."

Fishing with electric reels, the anglers reeled in slowly when they thought a red snapper was hooked up, to prevent gas bloating so the fish could be released because they aren't in season.

"Catching and releasing red snapper alarms them until they will eventually leave," Webb said. "That's when you start catching the biggest grouper."

The first big gag grouper struck a live bluefish, while sea bass, snapper, triggerfish and amberjack were biting jigs and cut baits with abandon.

When the grouper bite stopped, Webb hauled the anchor and headed to another spot nearby.

Gay used a Roscoe Jig to probe the structure, while Webb watched his depth finder screen and idled along. Gay was catching fish as fast as he could set the hook and reel them in.

"When I'm fishing in water this deep, I like to use a glow-bone color with a blue or pink tip," Gay said. "If you want, you can also tip the hook with bait, but that usually isn't necessary. I call the Roscoe Jig, the 'old man's jig' because it is so easy to work."

Gay said the jig is designed to sink fast, with just a minimum of action. He said that, weighing only 7 to 12 ounces, it does not have the weight or resistance as a typical bottom rig.

"You just raise the jig and drop it slowly, keeping the line tight as it falls because fish strike it during the fall," he said. "When it hits the bottom, you raise the rod tip overhead then let it go back down."

A trick to fishing the luminous jig is allowing its glow to recharge. If Gay isn't getting strikes, he reels the jig back to the surface to allow sunlight to re-energize its finish. Once glowing brightly, he lets it sink again and usually begins catching fish, one right after the other.

Another trick he uses is tying 15 feet of 80- to 130-pound fluorocarbon leader to the 80-pound braid spooled on the reel using an Albright Special or PR knot. He said it makes the line less detectable, keeps the hooks from tangling in the braid and gives him something to grab when landing a fish.

"The leader will chafe on the structure, so you have to keep checking it," he explained. "Keep cutting it back and re-tying until you have a few feet left; then it's time to change the leader."

Another advantage of using a jig was evident during drifts while Webb was trying to find its sweet spot with the depth finder.

Gay simply bounced the jig up when he felt the hard structure. Then he determined how high above the bottom he was getting strikes by watching the colored line. He then fished at that depth, and the lure did not snag.

He tried another jig that was equally effective at catching bottom fish, although it was designed for sight casting to cobia. It was a large, conventional jig with a bucktail dressing. He had added a willow-leaf blade that spun as the lure rose and fell or drifted along at the speed of the boat.

"I lose a lot fewer jigs than bait rigs," Gay said. "A fish will see the jig and come up to eat it, even if it's well above the bottom."



HOW TO GET THERE/WHEN TO GO - Morehead City is close to the eastern terminus of US 70. A popular public boat launch is behind the Visitors Center on US 70. It provides easy access to the ICW, Beaufort Inlet and the Atlantic Ocean. Try these grouper hotspots east of Cape Lookout: AR 285 (Summerlin Reef), 34 33 34N/76 26 15W; Atlas Tanker, 34 31 74N/76 14 49W; Chicken Rock, 34 34 20N/76 10 01W. With grouper season closed Jan. 1-April 30 to protect spawning fish, calm, warm days in December offer excellent opportunities to get in a last-minute trip.

TACKLE/TECHNIQUES - For fishing live or cut bait, Shakespeare Ugly Stik BWB 1160, 6-foot-6 heavy-action rod with 40- to 80-pound test line spooled on Precision Auto Reels HT or Penn 114 electric-assist reel with 80- to 130-pound braid. For jigging, Shimano Trevala 5-foot-8, medium-fast action rod paired with a Shimano Torium 30 revolving spool reel, or Star Plasma 5-foot-2 extra heavy action rod with Shimano Stella 2000SW spinning rod with 80-pound test Diawa metered color-braid line. For jigging, Blue Water Candy's 7/0 Roscoe Jig in blue tip or red tip with bone-glow body or Candy Cobia Jig with white Grinnin' Gus head, white bucktail trailer and gold willow-leaf blade trailer. For bait, live bluefish or cut menhaden fished on two-hook bottom rigs with circle hooks.

FISHING INFO/GUIDES - Capt. Mike Webb, Pelagic Sport Fishing, 252- 904-3361, www.pelagicsportfishing.com. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS - Comfort Inn, Morehead City, 252-247-3434; Hampton Inn, Morehead City, 252-240-3100; Holiday Inn Express, Morehead City, 252-247-5001; Sheraton Resort, Atlantic Beach, 252-240-1155, Windjammer Inn , Atlantic Beach, 252-247-7123, AmeriSuites, Atlantic Beach 252-247-5118.

MAPS - Capt. Segull's Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855, www.captainsegullcharts.com; Grease Chart, 800-326-3567, www.greasechart.com; Maps Unique, 910-458-9923, www.mapsunique.com.