Grouper aren't jumping into boats off Atlantic Beach; you do have to reel them in, but sometimes it seems like they are lined up waiting for the next bait. Other bottom species are biting just as well.

Bobby Freeman has run the Sunrise charter boat out of Atlantic Beach for enough years he has seen the snapper/grouper population grow and decline several times. He said the fishing is good and limits are being filled regularly.

Freeman (252-726-9814) said he used to fish deeper water for snowy grouper and tilefish, but those limits fill so quickly he now stops closer inshore and fishes for gags, scamp and red grouper. He said he is going to places he hasn't fished in years and finding lots of fish, and the other bottom-fishing boats and headboats are all catching lots of fish too. 

"The biggest thing to catching grouper is to anchor so the baits get down to the fish." Freeman said. "If you can read a scope, you can see the fish. Dropping the anchor so the boat swings over the fish is an art that takes a little practice. Sometimes there is an unusual current, and even experienced captains have to re-adjust a time or two. However, once you get the hang of it and start doing it correctly, it makes all the difference in the world." 

Freeman fishes a mixture of cut bait, menhaden, squid and cigar minnows until the fish show a preference for something – then he switches to it. He said if you are on the fish and go very long without a bite, it's because your bait was stolen and you didn't feel it. Reeling in and baiting up will put you back in the game. 

Freeman said he has been fishing in 15 to 25 fathoms (90 to 150 feet) this year and is finding a mixture of gag, red and scamp grouper, plus grunts, beeliners (vermilion snapper), triggerfish and even some big black sea bass. He said he tries to avoid areas that he knows hold red snapper, but he still catches enough that it's obvious the stock is in better shape than the federal fishery managers think. 

"I'm looking forward to having some weekends we can keep red snapper this fall," Freeman said. "I can go to places where I know there are some big red snapper and let my fishermen catch and keep one. Right now, we try to avoid them and take care with the ones we catch to vent them and get them back in as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, we know all of them don't make it."  

Offshore bottom-fishing is good off Atlantic Beach. The mixture in the catch includes a little of everything whose season is open. Several fishermen have said the fishing is as good or better than it has been in years, and it's as close to going catching as fishing ever gets.