Sometimes the name says it all — the Goliath Grouper is a true giant, growing up to 800 pounds and eight feet in length. It is the largest of the western north Atlantic Groupers.
These fish are big. The Florida record is a 680 pounder caught of Fernandina Beach in 1961. They can be aggressive, and have been known to attack divers and fend off large sharks.
Skin divers with a 7-foot, 500 pound goliath grouper speared off Rock Island, Florida May 1957
Historically they are found in tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean, along both coasts of Florida and from the Gulf of Mexico down to the coasts of Brazil and the Caribbean.
Goliaths typically frequent inshore wrecks up to 80 feet deep or may be found cruising under bridges, particularly in South Florida. Fishing technique isn’t subtle – 400 pound plus monofilament line, super stout rod and reel with 90 pounds of drag. Lighter tackle will result in break-offs. Prepare for a work out, as this is physically demanding fishing.
Adult Goliaths are almost always caught on bait — live or dead. Lures are rarely used. The most common technique is to anchor near a reef or wreck. The trick is getting close enough for them to come out to your bait, but staying far enough away that you can pull them away before they retreat and break you off. Large circle hooks are recommended to avoid gut hooking and to facilitate release.
Given the unusual tackle requirements and the unique nature of the fishing experience, a guide specializing in Goliaths is probably a wise choice.
Sadly, the populations of these unique fish nose-dived during the 1970s and 1980s due to commercial and recreational overfishing. That led in 1990 to a prohibition on harvesting in U.S. waters – the fishery is currently strictly catch and release.
Fortunately Goliath populations have largely recovered in recent years, and the fish are there to be caught. They are now particularly abundant in areas like Tampa Bay, Charlotte Harbor and the Ten Thousand Islands, and can be found throughout areas of their former range throughout Florida, including the Big Bend and Panhandle regions.
While it is not necessarily a bad thing to lift a juvenile to remove a hook, adult fish should never be removed from the water. Their skeletal structure cannot support their massive weight out of the water. Bringing a large Goliath on-board a vessel will inflict internal injuries. That’s why so many fishermen actually go into the water with their catch to get dramatic trophy photos (try image googling Goliath Grouper fishing).
To review Florida regulations for Goliath Grouper, and for “how to” instructions on how to handle and release the fish, visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission website.
It takes a long time for a grouper to grow as large as Goliath’s do. They are a long-lived fish. One was documented as being at least 37 years old, and some scientists believe they may live as long as 50 or even 100 years.
Young Goliaths spend their first 5-6 years in mangrove habitat, particularly in the Ten Thousand Islands area off southwest Florida, which provides a critical nursery habitat.
The groupers feed mostly on slow bottom species. Calico crabs provide the bulk of their diet, along with other invertebrates and fish. While Goliaths have been known to occasionally grab a fish struggling on a fishing line, they rarely hunt down fast, free swimming fish. Their feeding tactic is to ambush prey, which is sucked in whole by a rapid expansion and opening of the mouth.
Going after Goliaths – true saltwater giants – is demanding and not for the faint of heart, but it’s a fishing adventure that you’ll never forget.
(Originally published at Coastal Marine Outfitters, September 20, 2016)