Beasts below

BOCA GRANDE

Mark Davis has fished all over the world and caught everything from blue marlin to big sharks. But nothing gets the South Carolina native's blood boiling like a good old-fashioned "wrasslin' " match with a ravenous goliath grouper. "This is a full-contact sport," Davis told his friend, Andy Pickett. "Get ready for the fight of your life." Davis, the host of the Outdoor Channel's Big Water Adventures and Pickett, who runs a fishing website in his hometown of Charleston, traveled to Florida recently for a little rest and relaxation.

For Davis, that meant catching snook, redfish and trout instead of the usual big-game fish he pursues on his TV show. But then guide Ryan Rowan told the pair about a southwest Florida tradition, catching fish the size of Volkswagens underneath the old phosphate docks on Boca Grande Pass.

Looming down under

"We can go out and catch them every day," Rowan said. "It is a regular part of my business."

This historic fishing hole is best known for tarpon and the monster hammerheads that feed upon them. But the 12-fathom-deep pass also has a large resident population of goliath grouper, a protected species that many fishermen and scuba divers would like to see reopened for harvest.

These fish, the largest member of the grouper family, have been off limits since 1990. These massive bottom dwellers, which can grow to be more than 7 feet long and weigh more than 800 pounds, can literally inhale a legal-sized gag or red grouper.

Underwater, goliath grouper look lazy, some might say feeble, until there is an injured or hooked fish in sight. That's when these bruisers move with astonishing speed.

Many recreational anglers and spearfishermen blame these opportunistic predators for the downturn in local gag and red grouper stocks, and they want the goliath grouper population culled. But it is unlikely federal fishery managers will open them to harvest any time soon. It is illegal to possess these fish, but anglers can catch and release them, as long as they don't bring them inside the boat.

"That is why you get in the water with the fish," Davis said. "And let it go, no worse for wear."

Twenty years ago, goliath grouper were in short supply. A spearfishermen would be lucky to see one or two of these fish on one of the major offshore wrecks. But two decades of protection have helped this species recover. Now it is not uncommon to see a dozen of these tackle busters in a single dive.

Today, goliath grouper are found in good numbers throughout subtropical and tropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. In areas such as Boca Grande Pass, where a deep channel runs close to shore, you can catch these normally deepwater fish around docks and pilings.

Big bodies, appetites

"Their favorite food is stingrays," Rowan said. "You just drop one down, bounce it off the bottom, and hold on."

Like most large predators, these fish ambush prey. Goliath grouper can open and close their mouths quickly, causing a change in water pressure that allows them to literally suck in unsuspecting victims.

According to marine biologists, goliath grouper eat crustaceans and a variety of slow-moving finfish such as toadfish, filefish and catfish. Researchers say there is no direct evidence to suggest that these lords of the deep actively hunt and capture faster moving species. But goliath grouper will eat whatever crosses their paths, including a hooked fish, even if it is just a few feet below the surface.

Davis has caught his share of 500-pound fish from beneath the docks of Boca Grande. Pickett, however, had only seen the photos and videos.

"I've got to catch one," Pickett said. "… just to show my son."

Rowan's goliath grouper outfit includes an 80-pound Fin-Nor stand-up rod and matching Santiago 50-Wide two-speed reel, rigged with 400-pound test and topped with a Mustad 16/0 Demon Perfect circle hook.

"Once you get the fish out from under the dock, it is just a battle of wills," Rowan said.

Pickett took his place in a folding lawn chair on the deck of the boat. The stingray was only in the water 10 seconds before the rod bent. The boat was put into reverse to drag the fish away from the structure. That's when the heavy lifting started.

Pickett fought the fish in open water for 15 minutes, gradually leading it to the shallows, where Davis hopped in the water.

By now, spectators had gathered on the beach to watch the men wrestle the 300-pound fish. Davis and Pickett worked to quickly unhook and release the fish, which swam back to the phosphate docks.

The two men high-fived, and Pickett took a look at the digital photograph on the camera. "Now that's a keeper," he said.

To book a goliath grouper charter, contact Ryan Rowan at (941) 706-5061 or go to tarponcaptain.com.

Beasts below 07/07/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 7, 2011 9:45pm]

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