Photo By Jeff Dennis
Capt. Leroy Bennett displays a nice Goliath grouper
By Jeff Dennis
Saltwater anglers in search of the giant of the grouper family, can target the goliath grouper along the Southwest Florida Gulf Coast. Harvest and possession of goliath grouper has been prohibited in both state and federal waters off Florida since 1990, in an effort to conserve the species.
Local fishing captains understand the fishery and are able to guide anglers toward checking off the potentially huge fish from their bucket list. The goliath grouper fishery is open, but it is catch and release only. Photos can be made of fighting the fish and the release process when the hook is removed.
A smaller goliath grouper has more of the dark bands that ring the body and can be lifted into the boat before release. A larger goliath grouper must be left in the water during the release process because its body structure can’t support its weight out of the water, risking an internal injury that could threaten its mortality.
Young goliath grouper frequent the safety of mangrove habitat, but as they mature they migrate to shallow reefs in search of a broader food source. Goliath grouper are ambush predators that stay mostly stay put in one spot, content to eat crabs and slower fish species that swim by.
Knowing where a goliath grouper is holding up, and being able to reel in that fish to the boat, is part of the challenge that anglers cherish. Captain Leroy Bennett of Tap Out Charters leaves out of Gasparilla Marina, fishing out of a 22-foot Aquasport boat.
Stopping for bait at a mangrove island in Charlotte Harbor, Captain Bennett tosses a 10-foot cast net in search of horse-sized mullet. The next stop is an old phosphate mining dock that now looks like a menagerie of dock pilings that now serve as an artificial reef, about 200-yards from Boca Grande Pass.
It takes specialized tackle and tactics in this situation since fighting a large grouper inside the pilings will be largely impossible due to becoming tangled and cutting off fishing line. Instead, Bennett looks to tempt the goliath grouper to bite, and then back down the boat to move the fish out of the structure long enough to bring it to the boat.
Heavy tackle choices include a Penn 50-wide reel spooled with 600-pound test line attached to a 20-ought Mustad hook. Captain Bennett nudges the bow of the boat into the pilings while the angler holds onto the stout rod, waiting for a goliath grouper to latch on.
When the goliath grouper takes the bait, it is not uncommon for the stout rod to bend over like a reed, and for the reel to become locked up due to the pressure exerted from the fish. A battle of brute strength versus the willpower of the angler ensues, and the Captain’s skill at identifying crucial stages of the fight and barking out instructions plays a crucial role.
Once the goliath grouper is alongside the boat, they seem to turn into something more like a gentle giant, offering little resistance to being handled during the release process. Even lifelong saltwater anglers have to pause and give thanks at the sight of such a grand gamefish.
The largest goliath grouper leave the inshore and nearshore waters and head to structure on the bottom in the Gulf of Mexico. Anglers fishing in 35-feet of water or deeper for snapper and other species of fish to keep for supper, can always encounter a goliath grouper by chance. This scenario usually ends quickly with the unsuspecting angler reaping the rewards of a fish tale about the one that got away.
The author’s Lowcountry Outdoors blog is celebrating a tenth anniversary in 2019.