We were casting to pods of false albacore sipping bait off the surface near Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, when reports of a greyhounding Atlantic bluefin tuna crackled over the VHF radio. The 800-pounder was apparently gobbling up 20-pound blackfin tuna like breakfast sausages and making hash browns out of false albacore. “I didn’t know a Volkswagen Bus could fly,” my friend Kary Via piped in over the radio.
I didn’t get to see the bluefin that morning last year, but the reports reminded me of another large fish that is something of a YouTube favorite, the goliath grouper. I remember watching a video showing an angler in South Florida leadering a shark next to the boat as a pair of brown blobs swirled beneath it. In an instant, a goliath grouper opens its hatchback-size mouth, consumes the shark, then swims off as if it had eaten a cocktail olive off a toothpick. Impressive.
The goliath grouper today is a controversial fish that is at once despised, loved, misunderstood and considered critically important. What isn’t up for debate is their size. They are large.
The International Game Fish Association all-tackle record for Atlantic goliath grouper is a 680-pounder that Lynn Joyner caught in 1961 off Fernandina Beach, Florida, the northern limit of their range. However, the fish can grow larger than the IGFA record, according to Chris Koenig, a research marine ecologist with the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory in St. Teresa, Florida, who has been studying goliath grouper for 26 years. “There are some 800-pound specimens swimming around in the species’ natural range,” he says, “but the largest goliath you’ll likely find in South Florida these days are around 500 pounds.”
Golithas can live between 30 and 50 years, but they were nearly wiped out throughout their Florida range by overfishing in the 1970s and ’80s, Koenig says. They have been protected since a ban on harvesting them went in place in 1990. Since the moratorium, goliath grouper in South Florida have thrived. “If there’s a wreck, reef or any kind of structure in the right depths — either on the Gulf side or in the Atlantic — goliaths will be there,” says Capt. R.T. Trosset, who has been guiding in the Florida Keys for 46 years. “If a client wants to catch a goliath grouper, we’ll typically use an 80-pound outfit with 100-pound braid and a 20-foot length of No. 9 wire leader. The fish go straight for the structure when hooked, so the wire leader is essential. A large one will bend an 80-pound outfit nearly in half.
“The best bait I have ever used for them is a live lobster; there’s not a goliath that can resist one,” he adds. “More typically, we’ll send down a half a bonita or mackerel on a huge circle hook. It doesn’t take long to get a response. Some guys hand-line for them.”
Trosset says some clients target goliaths to experience hooking a really big fish, but goliath grouper are more often considered marauders that will steal your catch if you don’t get it to the boat quickly. “If you’re over a wreck or reef and have a permit, snapper, cobia or pretty much anything else on the line, the larger goliaths will go straight after it,” says Capt. Randy Towe, a Keys guide who has been putting anglers on fish for 38 years. “They are aggressive and generally want something of size if they are going to make a move on it. Sharks and stingrays seem to really get them charged up. …I’ve seen [goliaths] vomit up rays, sharks and even a cormorant.”
Trosset and Towe agree that the wrecks and reefs on the Gulf side of the Keys hold more goliath grouper than the Atlantic side. “One hundred percent, we find more fish on the Gulf side,” Towe says. “I’ve fished wrecks there where we caught 20 fish in an afternoon, and sometimes we catch the same fish twice.”
Trosset’s experiences correspond. “I’ve got some nice structure on the Atlantic side where I know there are goliaths,” he says, “but the Gulf side is where I go if a client specifically wants to catch one.”
“The Atlantic goliath grouper is found on shallow-water [15- to 150-foot] wrecks and reefs from South Florida through the Bahamas, and also in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and along the Brazilian coast,” Koenig says.
It’s easy to paint goliath grouper as indiscriminate eating machines, but Koenig says it’s more accurate to describe them as opportunistic. “We’ve examined the contents of countless goliath grouper stomachs, and it’s crystal clear that their preferred diet consists of crustaceans like box and stone crabs,” he says. “They tend to poke around structure and in the sand, and use their huge mouths to vacuum them up.”
Photographer Pat Ford has years of experience diving with goliath grouper, particularly off Florida’s Jupiter Inlet. He says that beneath the surface they are generally shy and subdued. “You won’t have one come up to you, and they usually will just swim away when you get too close,” Ford says. “When July, August and September come around and they start aggregating to spawn, they are very approachable. Sometimes they’ll make a loud drumming sound when they want you to back off, but I’ve never had one confront me.”
The goliath’s life cycle is complicated, and the fish rely on robust and healthy habitats to thrive, Koenig says. “The fish begin to gather on the wrecks and reefs in July and August, and spawn at night on a new moon,” he says. “They are often surrounded by egg-eating fish such as Spanish sardines, small jacks and cigar minnows, so the dark of the night helps cut down on egg loss due to predation. Goliaths often will make drumming sounds to locate mates and then rise to the surface where females broadcast eggs and males fertilize them.”
Koenig says the eggs drift for about a day and a half before hatching. The larvae then ride currents for 30 to 80 days, holding their development until they come into contact with a suitable nursery environment. For goliath grouper, that’s the root systems of red mangroves. The fish stay there for five to six years, then head for reefs and wrecks when they are about 3 feet long.
Unfortunately for goliaths and other fish that depend on red mangroves, Koenig says, 80 to 90 percent of the trees have been destroyed or impounded. Still, many anglers say goliath populations are out of control and are decimating wreck and reef environments.
“There are a lot of different opinions on goliaths,” Trosset says. “From where I stand, the population looks robust. There are so many of them on some wrecks that it becomes impossible to catch the target species without losing them to goliaths. It can be a real pain in the ass trying to catch a snapper or gag grouper with goliaths around.”
Capt. Jamie Connell, who has been guiding out of Key West since 2015, says the fish are plentiful. “I take people out who specifically want to catch goliaths, and I can always guarantee we will hook them because they are so plentiful,” Connell says. “But I can’t guarantee we’ll land one. They will drag and scrape the leader all along the structure and often break off. I’ve caught plenty of them with hooks, sinkers and leaders in their mouths.”
The idea that goliath populations are robust and inflicting damage to other reef fish and habitat has some calling for a harvest in Florida. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2017 considered a 100-fish-per-season harvest that would have lasted for four years. The idea was shot down in 2018, according to published reports, after contentious public hearings that pitted anglers, charter skippers and fisheries commissioners against divers and scientists.
Koenig says the idea of harvesting goliaths is foolish. “Goliaths are inedible because of the toxic amounts of methyl mercury we’ve found in their flesh,” he says. “The crustaceans they eat acquire methyl mercury contamination naturally from the filter feeders they eat.” Koenig adds that ecotourism has thrived among divers who want to swim with the giants.
Additionally, Koenig explains, goliaths have historically low reproduction rates, and their nursery, wreck and reef habitats are being destroyed. “Eighty to 90 percent of the red mangroves in [Florida] have been eradicated or impounded,” he says. “The only place I know that provides a solid nursery habitat for goliaths is the Ten Thousand Islands. There’s virtually no nursery habitat left on the east coast of Florida.”
Koenig also points out the importance of the relationship between goliaths and their fellow reef inhabitants, such as snapper, grouper, lobsters and crabs. “They excavate the bottom extensively searching for crabs, which renders the habitat more complex and available to other species of crustaceans,” he says. “They’re a natural part of that ecosystem; they belong there.”
Still, Koenig says he runs into vehement opposition when he pitches conservation to fishery commissioners and recreational anglers. “The loudest voices usually are folks who have no historical perspective of the fishery — folks who don’t remember when there were no goliath groupers to be found,” he says. “Now they see them as pests. There’s usually a more receptive attitude from anglers and captains who have been around for a while and remember the fish nearly being eradicated.”
Trosset is among those who remember vast goliath grouper populations. “They were everywhere at one time,” he says. “Then they disappeared. Now they’re back and seem plentiful. I remember eating them about 40 years ago. The flesh has some gristle in it, but if you pound it with a tenderizing mallet and then pan-fry it, the meat is hard to beat — really delicious.”
An older subject of debate has to do with the goliath grouper’s given name, which still appears on nautical charts. Explore the channels, cuts and bays of the Keys, and you’ll find such spots as Jewfish Bush Banks, Jewfish Basin and Jewfish Channel, all named before the goliath’s politically incorrect moniker was changed in 2000. “They went from being called jewfish to goliaths overnight,” Connell says.
Trosset also has been around long enough to remember goliaths being called jewfish. “There are all sorts of ideas out there, but none of them made any sense to me as far as the name goes,” he says. “That’s what we called them back then. Now it’s goliaths.”
I don’t have a fishing bucket list, but I’m anxious to land a goliath grouper on rod and reel. Heck, I might be willing to abandon my next permit trip in the Keys to haul in and release one.