June 16, 2022
By Joe Richard
With so many grouper species prowling off Florida’s 1,350 miles of coastline, there is lots of room for misidentification. I was reminded of this several years ago when a stubborn fisherman kept targeting goliath grouper at the Fort Pierce jetties, catching and then attempting to haul them home. When nearby anglers pointed out that it was a goliath (and protected from harvest), the old man would shout, “Grouper! Not goliath!” His efforts to drag the fish to his car sometimes yielded phone calls to law enforcement.
Fortunately, thanks to the wonders of cell phones, one can usually find an app that will help identify fish—Fish Rules is the one recommended by Florida state and federal fisheries authorities. To the man’s credit, it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that a keeper-size gag might be landed from shore. Groupers comprise a wide-ranging clan of fish. Some, like the goliath, thrive in water shallow enough to use mangrove tree roots for structure, while others prefer the frigid depths of 1,000 feet. Gag— whose square tail immediately distinguishes it from the rounded-tail goliath—is sort of an in-betweener.
As for shallow water grouper, keep in mind that term is nowadays used by fisheries managers as a regulatory collective describing a particular set of grouper species, depending on the coast.
For Atlantic waters, there is a “shallow water grouper” season closure from January 1 through April 30, and it applies to gag, red, black, yellowfin, yellowmouth, scamp, rock hind, red hind, coney and graysby.
In Gulf waters, there is a February 1 through March 31 closure beyond the 20-fathom curve for red, black, scamp, yellowfin and yellowmouth; this spawning season closure overlies a longer, Gulf-wide seasonal closure for gag.
Becoming familiar with the more common groupers is a good idea before leaving the dock. With this in mind, I’ve assembled a brief overview of 17 of the most important species, organized into three categories and ranked by preferred water depth though there is some crossover. Again, my categories may or may not align with those of the fisheries managers.
Three of these—black, gag and red—are among the most popular eating fish in Florida. Goliath and Nassau were similarly favored, until designated no-harvest (1990 and ‘92, respectively).
BLACK GROUPER: Smaller specimens grow up on the shallow coral reefs of Florida, The Bahamas and Caribbean, and then move into deeper water. This is a big, aggressive, opportunistic fish that is known to follow boats and strike trolled baits on the surface in 100 feet of water. Also known for carrying ciguatera poisoning, because of its affinity for eating smaller fish in the coral reefs where this toxin is produced. Each winter, these fish move inshore near coral reefs, where they will readily attack trolled, diving plugs. Daily bag limit in the Gulf is four per person, with a 24-inch minimum size. In the Atlantic, it’s same size and one fish per day. State record is 113 pounds from the Dry Tortugas. Last year a specimen of 134 pounds was bang-sticked in over 200 feet of water off Florida by a commercial fisherman, but not registered as a record.
GAG GROUPER: Despite its name, the gag has a fine reputation on the table. This guy loves to follow and chase deep-diving plugs, notably the many descendants of the Mann’s Stretch-30, a scoop-lipped plug sold by the many thousands to boat crews 20 years ago along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Gags begin life in very shallow water, hiding in grass flats, then gradually ease offshore. Once bigger, they’re suckers for live pinfish and blue runners. Caught in bays, jetties, mangrove trees, piers and artificial reefs, this is the only grouper species I’ve caught from a canoe. This popular fish is tightly regulated with long, annual closures during its spawning season. The state record is 80 pounds, caught off Destin. In the Gulf, the bag limit is two per day at least 24 inches long. Charter captains and crew can no longer contribute to the day’s catch of gags. In the Atlantic, it’s one gag per angler each day.
GOLIATH GROUPER: Protected from harvest since 1990, this biggest of all groupers now thrives in shallow water. Formerly called “jewfish” or (even earlier) “junefish”, these guys grow to at least 800 pounds, yet may inhabit depths of only 12 feet or so. We’ve caught them under shady mangrove trees in southwest Florida, where Naples and its artificial reefs are the center of the goliath grouper world. Goliaths are now numerous enough to attack hooked fish around the wrecks in 30 to 50 feet, separating fishermen from their hard-earned snook, permit, snapper, grouper, even blacktip sharks. It takes a mean grouper to eat sharks or chase down cownose rays. And they’re especially fond of stingrays. Someone on YouTube coaxed a half dozen of these monster grouper near the surface using a large, plucked turkey for bait. And got hooked up, too. The state record caught years ago is 680 pounds from Fernandina Beach.
RED GROUPER: Extremely common off the middle Gulf Coast of Florida. Reds are called “garbage mouths” because they’ll eat just about any cut bait. Also nicknamed “fire truck” because of their bright red color. Common in depths of 50 to 100 feet around flat, rocky bottom with holes. Really big reds are caught by anglers jigging or bottom-dropping in depths of 200 feet and more. Daily bag limit in the Gulf is two with a minimum size of 20 inches. In the Atlantic, it’s three fish. The state record is 42 pounds off St. Augustine.
NASSAU GROUPER: Once caught in the Florida Keys, this coral grouper is now fully protected in U.S. waters and listed as endangered even in The Bahamas. Old-timers in the Keys used to say the Nassau’s aggressiveness was its undoing before they were wiped out, and were replaced by the next apex predator in line, the black grouper. (I’ve always thought it would be an interesting project, reintroducing small Nassau grouper to marine sanctuaries in the Keys, but now even the Bahamas is running short of these fish). What may have contributed heavily to the Nassau’s near-disappearance in the Keys, is that they’re slow breeders—easily over-harvested because they congregate for mass spawning rituals at known breeding sites only during the full moons of December and January, where they also feed aggressively. A breeding school can be almost wiped out by a few anchored boats.
In tropical waters, Bahamas for example, some of these groupers will range into shallow depths. Gulf of Mexico anglers tend to find them beyond 100 feet.
GRAYSBY: This is a smallish, nocturnal feeder on coral bottoms that stakes out a half-acre or so of prime bottom, and patrols it for small fish and shrimp. The world record is 2.31 pounds, but I could swear I watched a graysby three times that size, about 100 feet down in a western Gulf oil rig growing coral, parked in 900 feet of water where the water is always blue. There, many of the fish were out-size; even the gray triggerfish were the biggest we’d ever seen, and we weighed an 8-pounder. The graysby is similar to the far more common rock hind, though the graysby’s head and coloration is slightly different.
MARBLED GROUPER: This one always reminds one of a tripletail; its body shape is quite different from the rest of the grouper clan. The marble can change color in dramatic fashion, and prefers depths of around 200 feet or so. We’ve caught them at night using cut bait on 30-fathom rocks in the Western Gulf, and I photographed one at 155 feet at the same 900-foot oil rig off Texas. Often found around seamounts with coral outcroppings. They’re said to be caught in the Bahamas and Florida around deeper seamounts in 500 feet. The world record is 30 pounds from the Flower Gardens, a coral-topped seamount off Galveston.
RED HIND GROUPER: This is mostly a coral reef visitor from the Caribbean, but we’ve caught them off Texas on 30-fathom rocks, using cut bait at night. A large specimen I caught off Louisiana may have been a world record at the time. It was certainly a fish worthy of taxidermy. Small red hinds are thick in The Bahamas and fierce enough to hit trolled plugs as large as themselves.
ROCK HIND GROUPER: Very common in coral reefs or at most Gulf platforms. Living in vertical pilings only 20 feet from the surface, they range from a half-pound up to perhaps three pounds. The world record is said to be nine pounds. I hope that one wasn’t eaten, because the older the fish, the more likely they’ve accumulated ciguatera. A friend in Texas cooked a threepounder and was sick for several weeks. But many are caught and cooked with no consequences.
SCAMP GROUPER: Said to be the tastiest of grouper, with the whitest meat. That means they don’t fight as hard as some species, but they’re a serious bonus on any reef trip. They frequent offshore rocks in 100 to 200 feet and mix freely with red snapper. They’re chocolate brown with “kiss marks” like the black grouper, but have a distinctive broom tail. To target them, try dropping a metal jig down for that bonus catch. The state record is 28 pounds, caught off Mayport.
YELLOWFIN GROUPER: Another middepth coral visitor to Florida that is way more plentiful in The Bahamas. These guys have two color phases, sometimes a mild brown with yellow markings, other times a vivid red. Found in 100 to 200 feet in the Gulf over rock bottom with coral outcrops. A memorable fish I caught hit around midnight on a 30-fathom rock, about 90 miles off Louisiana. (In the Bahamas, they can be caught only a few hundred yards from land).
Yellowfins favor reefs so much, they’re guilty of eating too many tropical reef fish, and have been implicated in ciguatera poisoning. The Florida record is 34 pounds, caught off Key Largo.
YELLOWMOUTH GROUPER: Almost identical to the scamp, the yellowmouth’s tail is not so extravagant. Those I have seen were observed while scuba diving. They were halfway down on Gulf platforms parked in 180 feet or so. Deep divers report spearing sizeable yellowmouths off South Carolina. The IGFA world record is 22 pounds from that state, though divers there reported one at 30 pounds.
Specialized gear and tactics are employed by anglers seeking these groupers, some of which can attain impressive sizes. Some populations are stressed, particularly Atlantic waters.
WARSAW GROUPER: Big Warsaw can exceed 400 pounds. However, their populations are stressed. Only one is now allowed per boat in Gulf waters, and they are fully protected in Atlantic federal waters. Smaller specimens can be caught as shallow as 70 feet, mixed in with red snapper, but the really big boys move offshore into depths of at least 1,000 feet and probably deeper. Years ago they were more numerous and commonly landed by partyboat snapper crews on the 80- to 200-foot offshore rocks during late winter and early spring.
Today, they’re pressured all year because anglers now fish with specialized, electric equipment in much deeper water. This is a slow-growing species, living to at least 41 years. A repeating, batch spawner from April through November (which is a good thing). They range widely from Massachusetts to Brazil. The Florida record is 436 pounds, caught off Destin.
MISTY GROUPER: More commonly found in deeper waters of The Bahamas and Caribbean. I haven’t heard of any in the Gulf, but don’t count them out. Easily identified by their vertical stripes. Their common depth is from 600 to 800 feet, according to anglers I’ve talked to. Catching them is fatal at those depths, so there is no minimum size; just count toward the grouper aggregate bag limit. Like all deepwater grouper in this section, the misty is caught “deep dropping” around structure with a weight of eight pounds or so, and multiple circle hooks, often with a light attached to the leader. World record is 80 pounds, so this is one of the bigger grouper.
SNOWY GROUPER: Another deepwater species. Those we’ve caught all came from about 900 feet around oil rigs in the Western Gulf. That meant cranking up a lot of line, but a 40- or 50-pound “snowy” is always welcome in the fish box. I’ve talked to Florida’s Atlantic anglers who have never heard of snowies of that size, but in the western Gulf and the canyons off Virginia, where the world record of 70 pounds was caught, they certainly grow larger. An angler out of Mobile, Alabama, almost beat the record with a snowy of 68 pounds, 9 ounces. We always caught ours on entire fillets from a big blue runner, on a big circle hook. Our snowys were manually reeled in on standard billfish tackle—we didn’t use electrics. As these deepwater grouper rise in the water column, they become more buoyant, which is usually fatal to the fish, making them more easy to reel in for the last hundred feet or so. The gas inside each grouper doubles every 33 feet it ascends, rendering these deepwater species helpless, so there is no catch-and-release. Atlantic limits for snowy grouper are tight: 1 per boat, and the season often closes early if the annual catch limit is projected to be met.
SPECKLED HIND GROUPER: This interesting fish, said to be critically endangered, was perhaps never numerous. They’re caught in depths of 500 feet or so, and carry several nicknames, including calico grouper and, memorably, Kitty Mitchell. Apparently the fish was dedicated long ago to a favorite lady among Pensacola’s commercial fishermen, back in the days (centered around 1900-1920) when that town was the epicenter of America’s red snapper harvest, when millions of pounds were landed. The Kitty Mitchell grouper was their bonus fish even back then. Considered highly stressed, only one speckled hind is allowed per boat trip—and no harvest at all in Atlantic federal waters. The newest Florida record was caught in 2017, in 575 feet of water off Destin, and weighed 47 pounds.
YELLOWEDGE GROUPER: The most common and widespread of deepwater grouper, this one is apparently numerous enough (for now, at least) to support a commercial fishery. They’re caught over mud, sand, any kind of flat bottom where the hooks won’t get snagged, in 400 to 900 feet. Thirty years ago, we caught the first state record for Texas, a 23-pounder, while using whole frozen croaker for bait (we were tied up, once again, to an oil rig in 900 feet).
This is among the easiest grouper to catch for billfish boats returning with nothing for the table. They can slow down, mark bottom, get a show of fish, stop and drop baits deep, and often reel in three of these grouper at one shot, all weighing from 10 to 20 pounds. A big continental shelf offers more productive bottom and less fishing pressure, and it’s the long, long rides that yield more bottom fish. Last year a potential world record of 48.5 pounds was caught off Alabama.
Grouper Fishing Must-Haves
CIRCLE HOOKS: If you’re fishing natural bait, fisheries managers require you to use circle hooks if groupers are among your target species. Non-stainless models are specified, and they must be in-line (non-offset) unless you are fishing in Gulf federal waters (beyond 9 miles from shore), where offset circles are also permitted. Elsewhere, use in-line. One other exception: In Atlantic waters south of 28 degrees latitude, J-hooks may be used with natural bait when reef fishing.
DESCENDING DEVICE: SeaQualizer, Shelton, Fishsaverpro or other instrument designed to carry a grouper back to its native depth/atmospheric pressure. One of these must be on the boat in Atlantic waters, per regulations, and should be on the boat in the Gulf, too. Have it rigged up with an appropriate weight and ready to use—and use it!
FLORIDA STATE REEF FISH SURVEY PERMIT: This one’s easy—it’s just a free add-on to your recreational fishing license. Ask or look it up where you buy your license.
DEHOOKING TOOL: Fisheries managers continue to emphasize this, but it’s almost laughable to imagine heading out without a pair of pliers on the boat. Still…
FISH RULES APP: Nowadays we can’t emphasize this enough. Download this app and carefully study the ID features and regulations. There’s no law saying you have to use it, but it’s a day-saver when you catch that grouper whose identity you’re unsure of— or when an unexpected season closure is suddenly announced. FS
Published Florida Sportsman Magazine May 2021