The economic drive behind specialization is that once a specialist gets really good at what he or she does, customers are somewhat forced to call when they require a service within the expert's specialty.
If all that makes you understand why many 8th grade students can't remember the term come test time, here's a simpler way of looking at it: A doctor who specializes in helping kids gets called when a child is sick. A mechanic who specializes in small engines gets called when a lawnmower is broken. And a guide who specializes in reef fishing gets called when somebody wants to catch grouper.
Capt. Lenny Maiolatesi can catch just about anything that swims in the Gulf of Mexico, but this Ocean Springs-based charter captain specializes in fishing out around the Continental Shelf with 80 wide reels, 250-pound-test braided line, 400-pound-test leaders, 10 pounds of lead and another 10 pounds of bait.
"We showed up here a few years ago doing this stuff, and I don't know of any other boats that do anything similar to what we do," he said. "The bulk of the clients here are after redfish, sharks, jacks, kings - that kind of stuff - around the islands. That's as far as most of these boats will go."
Maiolatesi suggested that, beyond the struggle it is to run far and fish deep, the capital outlay required to rig a boat to fish deep groupers is staggering. Reels in the neighborhood of $2,000 each spooled with $300 worth of line on $400 rods pushes each combination up to around $3,000. Put four rigs on a boat with a couple smaller ones and seven batters to run the electric reels, and you're looking at $15,000 just in gear alone.
"Not everybody is going to do that," said Maiolatesi. "Fishing big groupers in deep water is tough. It takes a lot of work and money. I think that's why nobody around here, at least that I know of, specifically targets deep grouper."
However, all is not lost for anglers who aren't willing to make such a large investment of time and money. Maiolatesi catches some smaller grouper as shallow as 65 feet, and he says you can hand crank the gags and scamps, which are typically found in the shallower water.
"Most of the time, you run out of gags and scamps around 350 feet," Maiolatesi said. "Gags, at least the juveniles, live in the shallowest water, and they are what you typically see people catch on snapper trips. There aren't that many gags out there right now, though. Overall, they have been depressed the last few years, and you don't get 20 gags; you get three or four."
Since the gags have been recently depressed, it is the scamps that provide the best option for anglers looking to put what Maiolatesi called "the fillet mignon of the ocean" on their tables. However, they require a willingness to go a little deeper, as you don't see that many in less than 200 feet.
"They're usually between 250 and 350," Maiolatesi said. "And they seem to be just about everywhere you fish. I think we've only had a handful of throwbacks in three years. They've only got to be 18 inches to keep, so most of them you don't even have to think about; they're 5 to 8 pounds. The biggest we have is 23 1/2 (pounds)."
When targeting grouper, Maiolatesi brings live and dead bait. He likes squid, octopus and any kind of oily cut bait, but he also likes to have live pinfish and hardtails, and he usually ends up with a bunch of both. However, fishing live and dead bait is about the only similarity he has with anybody else targeting grouper.
Frequently the target of good-natured laughter, Maiolatesi likes to fish multiple-hook rigs with one live and one dead bait in a high-low kind of rig, but that's not what people laugh at. Rather, it is all the other silly things he puts on his lines.
"Yes, people make fun of us," Maiolatesi said. "I have lights and clickers that make noise and glow in the dark. I've got glow-in-the-dark squid. But you know what? The rod that has all the extra crap on it catches more fish than the rods that don't. It's dark down there, and the I believe the flashy stuff works to help those grouper find my baits."
Maiolatesi made his point clear by describing one of his best snowy spots. It's a coral ledge in 700 feet of water, and as he mentioned, it's dark down there. He has experimented with lights and clickers at this particular spot by putting lights on only one rod, and two out of three bites come on the rod with the lights on it.
As much as he likes all the silly stuff, Maiolatesi isn't married to it. There are some areas that he called "sticky" where he loses a lot of tackle, and, at $50 a shot for some of these lights, he doesn't want to lose them if he can help it. He insisted that there are some days where it doesn't matter one bit if a light is on the line because the fish are just "biting their heads off."
Anybody who heads out on Maiolatesi Fighting Chicken can expect to leave the dock at 5 a.m., and make about a 2 1/2-hour run, assuming the weather is good. Fishing usually starts by 7:30 or 8 a.m., and the day typically ends upon return to the dock around 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. All told, fishing for groupers in deep water requires about a 14-hour day.
Unlike many grouper anglers in other states, Maiolatesi rarely targets rigs. When asked if he agreed with some other anglers claim that the first minute is the most critical part of getting a grouper off a rig, Maiolatesi bristled at the notion.
"That's a lie," he insisted. "It's the first three seconds! If you don't get his head turned and coming to you instantly, he's gone. Part of the reason we come in with limits of grouper on a regular basis is because we don't fish rigs. Getting them out is tough even for an experienced angler. To get him out you've got to have a little bit of luck on your side no matter what."
When fishing coral ledges and reefs, Maiolatesi keeps the Fighting Chicken moving along at 0.1 to 0.2 knots along the open bottom with his drags locked down. When a grouper bites, the boat keeps moving at that same rate, so he's actually pulling the fish away from his hole.
"If I can get the guy on the rod to crank him three or four turns, he's good," Maiolatesi said. "I back the boat into deeper water, even if it's only 10 feet deeper, and all of a sudden he can't get to the bottom. That guy can fight him for an hour because that fish isn't going anywhere, he's not going to get off, and he's not going to break; we own that grouper."
Although Maiolatesi says the grouper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico is good all year long, the one thing that can mess it up is current. In fact, current is the worst thing a grouper fisherman could run into because it requires too much lead, you can't hold the bottom and you can't hold the boat even with a big sea anchor.
"That's our issue right now," Maiolatesi said. "We're having a lot of current because the Mississippi River is high and the loop current is acting up. There has been 2.5 knots of current on the Continental Shelf, and that's too much. If the wind and tide are together, a sea anchor won't even slow you down. If the wind and tide are against each other, you may get drug upwind and really bad things start happening with your lines."
Maiolatesi's best advice for grouper fishing when the current is strong?
"Go do something else," he said. "Grouper fishing is a pain in the butt when the current isn't strong, so why would I want to make the pain any worse?"
However, when the current isn't messing everything up, grouper fishing is one of the best on-the-water therapies in all of Mississippi.
Contact Capt. Lenny Maiolatesi at 228-326-3180 or www.fightingchickensportfishing.com.