"The author cradles his big grouper before releasing it to fight again. This fish won't soon be forgotten! Photo courtesy of Tom Berg."
At this time last summer I was traveling through southwest Florida, seeing the sights and sampling some of the excellent saltwater fishing available during the summer. The fishing was good, but the weather was extremely strange. It rained almost every day, and not just the usual afternoon rain showers, either. On most days the sky was gray and it rained nearly all day long!
Luckily, on one of the mostly sunny days I was scheduled to fish for goliath groupers. Originally called jewfish, these large groupers can grow to immense sizes – sometimes up to 600 pounds. I met Capt. Chris O’Neill from Charlotte County’s Tail Chaser Charters and had a fantastic time out on the fishing grounds near Boca Grande Pass. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning.
After a flurry of early morning thunderstorms cleared up, I met Capt. Chris and his First Mate LeRoy Bennett (nicknamed “Goat”) on Chris’ boat in Gasparilla Marina. We headed out of the harbor in search of big fish, and Capt. Chris knew exactly where to go. One of his favorite goliath grouper hotspots was a large group of abandoned dock pilings set in 20 or 30 feet of water, only about 100 yards from shore. Capt. Chris explained there were probably lots of goliaths down near the bottom, and all we had to do was get a big bait in front of them. And then hold on tight!
Goat opened the baitwell at the back of the boat and I quickly saw exactly what they meant by big baits. Inside were several oversized mullet (15-18 inches long) that Capt. Chris and Goat had caught with a cast net earlier that morning. Each one probably weighed 1-2 pounds and they were very lively.
The baits were definitely impressive. I knew anything that could swallow them whole would have to be big! Goat hooked one with a large circle hook and handed the rod to me. I sat down on the swiveling “fighting stool” at the front of the boat and lowered the bait to the bottom. The one-pound lead sinker kept the bait near the bottom, but it didn’t stay there very long.
Within seconds, I felt a heavy strike as a big grouper took the bait. Capt. Chris told me to wait a second and let the fish hook itself on the circle hook. “Just hold on, and don’t let go of the rod,” he said! I held on, and as soon as the line tightened-up I was nearly pulled off of the fighting stool. Goat had a firm grip on one of the belt loops on my pants and Capt. Chris put the boat in reverse to pull us away from the dock pilings.
The excitement only lasted a few seconds, though, because as soon as I started fighting the fish the hook came free. I reeled the line up and looked disappointedly at the empty hook. “That’s weird,” said Capt. Chris. “That doesn’t happen very often,” chimed in Goat. They explained that when a fish is hooked on a circle hook it usually doesn’t come off.
We hooked a new bait and lowered it back into the depths. Again, it only took a few seconds for a fish to take the bait, but the results were the same. The only difference was this time the bait was not gone. The poor mullet was still alive, but it was pretty beat up. Big patches of scales were missing and it couldn’t swim straight, but Capt. Chris said it would still work. Back down it went.
Nearly every time I lowered one of the nervous mullets down to the bottom, it was quickly and unceremoniously chomped by an unseen giant. Getting the goliath groupers to bite wasn’t a problem, at least at the start of the trip. I must have hooked or missed nearly a dozen big groupers before we ran out of bait. I didn’t know you could lose a fish that was hooked on a circle hook, but somehow I managed to do it multiple times!
After a short break to catch more mullet for bait, we got back to fishing. Unfortunately, the grouper bite had subsided. Finally, after an hour with no action I hooked and actually landed a nice goliath grouper. It was big! “How big do you think it is?” I asked. “Oh, it’s only a baby,” said Capt. Chris. “It’s probably only 75 pounds.” Goliath groupers are a protected species in Florida, so anglers cannot keep them and the fish cannot even be removed from the water. I said “If that’s a baby, I want to see a big one!”
The day wore on and I caught two more goliaths in the 80-100 pound range, but I couldn’t seem to latch onto the really big one. Happily, near the end of the trip my luck changed. A monster-sized grouper grabbed the bait and took off. I held onto the rod, but the fish jerked me off of my feet and banged me against the side of the boat. Luckily, the fish abruptly changed directions and swam the other way, giving me a few moments to recover and get back to my feet. If the fish hadn’t changed directions, I probably would have been pulled overboard! This was a really big fish!
To make a long story short, the mighty goliath grouper was soon subdued and I had him floundering at the side of the boat. Since the fish was hooked only about 100 yards from shore, Capt. Chris used the trolling motor to steer the recovering fish into the shallows for some photos. Once we were near the beach, myself and Capt. Chris jumped into the water and wrestled with the suddenly feisty fish for a minute or two until we regained control.
We measured the grouper and it was five feet long. Capt. Chris estimated its weight at 350 pounds, and I believe it. I tried to put my arms around its belly and it was like putting my arms around a 55-gallon barrel. The spines on his dorsal and anal fins scratched big gouges in my arms as I wrestled with him, but I was feeling no pain. He was so big that I could have easily fit my entire head into his mouth!
After several photos, we removed the hook and prepared to release him. Since we had never pulled him out of the water it wasn’t long before he was ready to swim off. With a flap of his giant tail he was gone. It was time for us to leave, too.
Although it was sunny most of the day while we were fishing, on the way back to the marina we saw an ominous group of big black clouds developing along the shoreline. Sure enough, with only a mile to go to reach the safety of the marina, the skies opened-up and the rain absolutely soaked us. But since Capt. Chris and I were already water-logged from taking fish photos in the water, it didn’t really matter!
The big grouper put up an awesome fight and it was an unforgettable fishing trip. Goliath groupers are certainly one of the hardest-pulling fish I have ever fought. If you are up for a challenge and are looking for the fishing trip of a lifetime, give Capt. Chris O’Neill from Tail Chaser Charters a call. Battling giant goliath groupers is one of his specialties, and few charter captains are more successful than him. Goliath groupers are not the only fish that Capt. Chris chases, though. He is also an expert in finding and catching trophy-sized tarpon, snook, redfish, snapper, shark and many others. Check out his website at www.tailchasercharters.com to see which species will be biting when you make your trip.
While in the Englewood, FL area, we stayed right on Manasota Key at Weston’s Wanna B Inn resort. It was clean, comfortable and right on the beach. The staff were super friendly, too. For reservations, call 941-474-3431 or click www.wannabinn.com. For vacation information on the Charlotte Harbor area, visit the website for Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf Islands (www.CharlotteHarborTravel.com) or give them a call at 941-743-1900. Charlotte Harbor is the perfect getaway for outdoorsmen and families who want to bypass the crowds and experience everything southwest Florida has to offer.