Keep hearing stories of the big one that got
away? Sure, we all exaggerate a little when we get excited.
During that moment when the fish is hooked and the rod bends
down toward the depths, adrenalin begins to flow and our
minds wonder about the possibilities of what monster just
snapped the line on the wreck below. Fortunately for anglers
here in Southwest Florida, there are lots of large fish
living both inshore and further out in the gulf. Species
like the goliath grouper inhabit a variety of areas common
to recreational anglers. These oversized sea creatures are
more than capable of starting some "big fish" stories.
Goliath grouper ( Epinephelus Itajara
) are the largest of the grouper family, reaching lengths
of just over 8 feet and weighing as much as 800 pounds!
It's not uncommon for anglers with the heaviest of tackle
to catch fish between 200 and 400 pounds. Endangered on
a worldwide level, the heart of their range begins right
here and in Florida and extends south to Brazil. They are
also found in the East Pacific from the Gulf of California
to Peru, and on the west coast of Africa from Senegal to
Congo. Stocky in build, the widths of these beasts are half
as much as their total length. They are long lived with
slow growth and reproduction rates. Ages have been confirmed
at 37 years, and most scientists believe that 50 years would
be a better time frame for their lifespan.
This large heathen begins its life as pelagic
larvae, hatching from eggs to be swept away with the ocean
currents. At this stage it looks more like a creature from
the depths of a scary movie than a grouper. The main spines
from the dorsal and pelvic fins are greatly elongated, possibly
to act as "sails" to help it travel with the moving water.
It feeds on small plankton until it becomes a benthic juvenile
at about 25 days. From there, it takes a lot of eating to
become a 500-pound tackle buster!
Maturity does not come quickly for goliath
grouper. With such a long lifespan, males don't reach maturity
until 4-6 years of age, and females even later at 6-7 years.
Such slow growth and reproductive rates make the species
much more susceptible to over harvesting, as it will take
longer for them to replace the older, mature fish. Spawning
occurs during the months of July, August, and September
around the full moons.
One advantage the goliaths may have on their
side is that they are believed to be protogynous hermaphrodites
like their cousins the red and gag groupers. This means
individuals that begin their lives as females are actually
able to physically change sex at some point and become males.
Not all females change however; usually environmental or
population related issues prompt the transformation. Many
protogynous hermaphrodites change because there is a lack
of one gender in the population. Others usually have local
populations that are run by an "alpha" fish of one gender
that may need replacing, prompting the most mature member
of the group to change and take over the area. The specifics
of goliath grouper reproduction are not totally clear, but
the ability of a species to change gender would clearly
help it reproduce under less than ideal circumstances.
In their early years, goliaths live in the
middle of the food chain. Natural predators include sharks,
barracudas, king mackerel, moray eels, and even other grouper.
Once maturity reaches, and the goliaths begin reaching weights
counted in the hundreds, their only predator is man. Taking
refuge in and around heavy structure like reefs, wrecks,
and bridge and dock pylons, these adults can be very territorial.
A goliath grouper will often flare its large mouth and shake
its body in order to intimidate other creatures trespassing
in its area. They are also able to make a low rumbling noise
from their swim bladder; this is used both to intimidate
other creatures, and to locate other members of the same
It would be very hard to reach sizes approaching
half a ton without having a healthy appetite, and goliath
grouper are opportunistic feeders to say the least. With
very large mouths, several gallons of water can be instantly
consumed, along with helpless prey that never knew the well-camouflaged
predator was there. This method is particularly useful in
catching spiny lobsters, one of the goliath's favorite snacks.
Most fish that venture too close cannot even escape the
sudden vacuum created when the grouper opens its mouth.
Like other grouper species, goliaths will also chase prey
such as fish for short distances. Extra rows of bottom teeth
help grab larger, faster fish such as snapper, crevalle
jacks, and other grouper.
Excelling at eating this variety of sea life
also means trying a few human offerings every now and then.
Keeping or taking possession of goliath grouper is prohibited,
as they are a protected species. If you do catch one, even
a small juvenile, do every thing in your power to ensure
you release it unharmed. With larger ones, use caution not
to damage the spine or organs by bending the heavy fish
over the side of the boat. Also their small eyes can be
easily damaged if the weight of the fish presses them against
something. These fish are made to live in the water; the
forces of gravity can be very damaging if not applied evenly
Every year a few monster goliaths are caught
under the Sanibel Causeway, as well as the old phosphate
docks of Boca Grande. These fish are accessible to small
boaters, and even shore fisherman. They are year round residents,
and have surely frustrated many anglers un-equipped to battle
such a large foe. Remember that next time your friends come
back from the Sanibel Pier saying they hooked a fish that
was 5 feet long.it may have been longer!
Keep On Pluggin'
Capt. George Howell