Grappling with Giant Grouper in the Gulf of Mexico

Goliath grouper beneath schools of almacos and amberjacks make for a frenetic free-for-all over a wreck far out in the Gulf off Marco Island, Florida

Wrecks in the shallow Gulf of Mexico west of Florida's Marco Island quickly become oases in the desert of a smooth, featureless sea bottom. As the only show in town, they attract a variety of game fish, but one never knows which species he'll find upon arrival. One type of fish you can fairly well count on, though, is the goliath grouper. Given complete protection from any harvest, its populations have rebounded and often several brutes up to 400 pounds or more are likely to have taken up residence in a wreck. So tugging on some behemoths was on the agenda when Paul Michele, with Navionics, invited me and three other anglers to join him aboard his Andros 26 for a day fishing a wreck in 85 feet of water, some 45 miles out.

barracuda used for goliath grouper fishing bait
You know it’s going to be a different kind of day when you catch a good-sized barracuda — and the skipper rigs it up to drop back down as a live bait.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing
giant goliath grouper caught fishing Marco Island, Florida
Our captain for the day, Paul Michele (left), holds the rod while angler James Hall, editor of Bassmaster magazine realizes that lifting up the head of his catch is no easier than it was for him to battle the beast to the boat.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing
giant goliath grouper caught fishing Marco Island, Florida
If you can’t bring the fish into the boat with you, go to the fish, Hall decides.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

Barotrauma and Grouper

Why was Hall’s monster so cooperative for its photo session?

Hall’s goliath remained temporarily immobilized at the surface by the pocket of air that formed in its swim bladder. The normal amount of gas within that organ is just right to keep the fish neutrally buoyant where it lives, near the bottom. But when the fish is pulled rapidly upward, the gas expands as the pressure decreases toward the surface. Fish like goliaths have no mechanism for the immediate release of this trapped gas. The result is what’s called barotrauma. All goliaths we caught this day were vented — via a small puncture through their abdominal wall to release the trapped gas — and they swam back to the wreck to be seen no longer.

giant goliath grouper caught fishing Marco Island, Florida
Up next: Michael Caruso, publisher of The Fisherman magazine. This time a 10-pound almaco jack enticed this goliath to enjoy the snack, and Caruso took his turn with the big Okuma Makaira reel filled with 200-pound braid. (Fishing anything lighter for goliaths is most often going to end futilely.)Doug Olander / Sport Fishing
giant goliath grouper caught fishing Marco Island, Florida
A pair of good gloves, a strong back and plenty of determination improve one’s odds of simply lifting a big goliath’s head above water for an instant, just long enough to get the shot.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

Three Reasons to Keep Goliath Grouper out of a Boat

Here are three good reasons not to try to pull a 350-pound goliath grouper into a cockpit:

  1. The damn thing could sink a boat with that much mass plus the weight of the three or four guys needed hoist it all leaning over the gunwale at the same spot.

  2. Doing this is illegal. Their populations seem to be soaring, and goliaths are no longer on the U.S. Endangered Species list, but they still enjoy complete protection from harvest; removing one from the water is a legal no-no.

  3. And most of all: Pulling a fish this big into a boat for a photo session may well doom the goliath, in part because that enormous mass is designed to be supported in a medium such as water. Manhandling it inside a boat can wreak havoc on internal organs.

amberjack deep sea fishing Marco Island, Florida
Yee-haw! Caruso's glee's not hard to see as he tries to slow the run of whatever grabbed the Savage Gear Sandeel he had tossed out toward the wreck.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing
amberjack caught fishing Marco Island, Florida
By the time Caruso sees that his catch is an amberjack, James Hall has made it a double, with the AJ that had tried to run off with a big metal speed jig.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

Amberjack or Almaco Jack?

Many an almaco jack has been mistaken for its cousin, the amberjack, by anglers unaware of the two different species. While they do look similar — and, as at our Gulf wreck, are often found together — in fact there are very distinct differences that make them readily distinguishable.

Almaco Jack

almaco jack fish illustration
The most notable difference in the two species is the second dorsal fin, which in the almaco is more than twice as high as the spines in the first dorsal fin.Diane Rome Peebles

Greater Amberjack

amberjack fish illustration
In the greater amberjack, the second dorsal is not so high relative to the front dorsal. Amberjacks may also be more slender and elongate than almacos.Diane Rome Peebles
amberjack caught fishing Marco Island, Florida
Taking some time out from running his Andros center console and helping with the release of goliaths, Paul Michele sailed out a Yo-Zuri Sashimi 3-D Popper, which this amberjack quickly clobbered.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing
Savage Gear Sandeels amberjack fishing lure and Okuma Metaloid reel
When the topwater bite slowed, Savage Gear Sandeels did the trick. Here, Dave Morel, Sport Fishing's intrepid publisher, is about to toss one out toward the wreck using an Okuma Metaloid reel.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing
amberjack caught fishing Marco Island, Florida
After losing his Sandeel to the wreck, Morel went to a metal jig and the hookup was instant.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing
making margaritas while offshore fishing
Knowing how to keep his anglers upbeat during the long ride home, Michele breaks out the blender and ice and whips up margaritas for everyone (but himself of course). A perfect ending to a great day.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing