Beach Fishing For Goliath Grouper
What is our attraction to monsters, the prospect of danger, and those unseen things that go ‘bump in the night’? We’ll gladly spend our hard-earned dollars to view a horror flick at the risk of a sleepless night, or climb aboard the most acrophobia-inducing rollercoaster…. but why?
I think there is a primal desire deeply woven into our DNA that finds interest in large creatures, beasts, or ‘monsters’. A healthy fear coupled with inquisition we as humans feel that stops us in our tracks and demands our attention. As anglers, this manifests itself clearly in our pursuits – and draws us to the water’s edge… where deploying a bait or plug into dark and unknown waters may mean a chance encounter with the physical embodiment of those monstrous potentials.
Reaching up to 800 pounds with a proclivity for dark, cavernous dwellings, the Goliath Grouper checks all the boxes that stimulate the fear and excitement we crave as anglers. One would assume a sea creature growing to this size would be inaccessible, miles offshore, and unattainable to those ill-equipped to venture that far out – not so. Goliath grouper, under the right conditions, can be caught while your feet are firmly planted on the sand. This provides the greatest adrenaline-inducing prospect for the land-based angler.
I think there is a primal desire deeply woven into our DNA that finds interest in large creatures, beasts, or ‘monsters’.
Reaching up to 800 pounds with a proclivity for dark, cavernous dwellings, the Goliath Grouper checks all the boxes that stimulate the fear and excitement we crave as anglers. One would assume a sea creature growing to this size would be inaccessible, miles offshore and unattainable to those ill-equipped to venture that far out – not so.
Goliath groupers are primarily found in the more tropical climate regions of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico where they prefer to reside on natural and/or artificial reefs. Anglers in these regions should seek safe and legal stretches of beach or land near high relief structures in the form of bridges/pilings, docks, piers, barge docking stations, etc. Where these structures traverse waters 20 feet or more in depth there’s fair chance goliath groupers lie below. I personally favor river and/or inlet mouths with navigable channels. These often have causeways and bridges over deeper water. It is a reasonable assumption that areas of Southwest and South Florida host populations of goliaths on every major causeway crossing 20 or more feet of water.
The angler desiring to bait these waters will need a very stout rod, reel, and terminal tackle arsenal suitable to extract a VERY powerful fish from certain snags. A heavy, conventional reel with high max drag capacity will be more important than line capacity. A goliath isn’t going to rip off in a blistering hundred-yard run, rather, maximum drag pressure will be essential in the first 30-60 seconds of the fight where maneuvering them away from underwater structure is key. I use a custom 7’6 80-120lb rod fitted with an Avet T-RX 50W reel. The reel is spooled with 200lb braid – and a 200lb mono topshot. My rig consists of a 15-20 foot section of 800-1000lb monofilament leader. I will either run the leader straight to an 18/0 Mustad Demon Perfect circle hook or link the monofilament to two, 5ft~ twisted strands of Malin Hardwire leader using a heavy duty snap swivel I can change out for custom sized leaders. The purpose of the heavy monofilament leader is resistance to the abrasive structures favored by goliaths. 1000lb mono can rub against the jagged edges of pilings and rocks and withstand a major beating in the areas in which the goliaths hide.
Bait selection isn’t overly important; the goliath grouper is a notoriously opportunistic feeder that will seldom pass up an easy meal. Dead, cut, or live baits will all entice a hungry goliath. Large mullet, rays, jacks, even hardhead and sailfin cats are good choices, but the fresher the better. I’ve learned that older, ‘stinky’ bait isn’t the best choice with goliaths of any size.
A quality ocean purposed ‘sit-on-top’ style kayak is an essential tool for bait deployment from the beach. In most cases an angler won’t be able to ‘cast’ a bait and rig to the go-to spot. A kayak allows the angler to tow a bait out, then drop it precisely in the targeted area. To secure a bait and rig to the bottom I use a ‘breakaway’ weight, usually a brick, rock, stone, or concrete slab up to 20 pounds. The ‘weight’ is tied to the hook shank or eye using a 3-5 ft. section of 10-20lb test monofilament line. The intention is that once the fish takes the bait, the pressure it carries off with will break the stone from the rig. This will allow a more streamlined connection from the rod and reel to the fish. A spider style weight or lead secured to the rig is much more likely to become snagged in the jagged bottom substrate the goliath calls home.
On a light tide I prefer to place my baits ‘up-current’ from the structure so that moving water will gently sweep the bait and its scent into the goliath’s cavernous home to draw them out. On a heavier tide, however, goliaths will often use the backside of the structure as a current break – and it will be easier to maintain a rig in the slack provided by the structure. Baits should be deployed at about a 45 degree angle from the shore to structure – meaning the distance the bait is from shore should be approximately the same distance the rod is stationed away from the structure. You should NOT take baits out in-line with the structure. Keeping the bait as close to the structure as possible is key.
Rods positioned vertically in sand spikes should have the bait-clicker just sensitive enough to let a fish pull out line. The goliath, despite its massive size, will often offer a surprisingly subdued bite. Even the largest specimens often simply ‘thump’ the line giving only a slight indication that the bait is taken, but there is no time to waste once the clicker begins going. There is a razor-thin margin of error since the goliath needs only a few pulses of its massive tail to drag a rig into columns, rocks, or other structure. When the fish swallows, the drag should be maxed out and the angler must exert dexterity in the effort to move the fish away from the structure with ‘zero give.’
At night I use battery powered glowsticks fixed to my main line with tuna clips. In a bind the line can be reeled through the clip even when reeled against the rod tip. This glow light tactic provides a major visual aid to the bite in the darkness. A fish moving away with a bait will result in the glowstick visibly moving out to sea, and while bringing a bait in, creates slack making the glowstick visibly drop.
It is critical that the angler, upon landing a goliath, never try to prolong the fight. All tools and equipment used to subdue the fish and remove the hook should be staged and ready at a well kept landing site. I keep an arc dehooker, plyers, bolt cutters, and a sturdy set of gloves beside my sand spikes in a ‘landing bag’. This fish, by law, must remain in the water during the entire process. Anglers must be cognizant of their own safety as well as that of the fish. A 300 pound goliath in waist-deep water is nearly impossible to control and creates risk of becoming entangled in the line and leader to a giant mass of muscle. Photos should be taken quickly and not impede the process of seamlessly unhooking and releasing the fish.
The goliath grouper remains a fish species full of controversy. Their predictable tendency to prefer wrecks and structures makes them especially vulnerable. These same locations appeal to anglers in pursuit of more popular reef fish, therefore negative encounters are almost inevitable. Popular wrecks and reefs are typically fished repeatedly by the same anglers, and over time goliath groupers have come to associate recreational fishing boats with an opportunistic meal. I have fished for goliaths over wrecks off Port St. Lucie where these fish simply wait below the boat ominously staring up at you. It is easy to understand why the angling community might conclude that goliaths are overpopulated and are consuming the other ‘reef fish’. Science does not, however, support the notion that goliaths are indiscriminately consuming all the fish. Evidence straight from the goliaths’ stomachs as well as highly precise stable isotope analysis of muscle tissues indicate that popular reef fish and fast-moving species hardly account for more than 10% of goliath grouper’s diet. They are not efficient predators equipped to chase down fast-moving prey. The vast majority of their diet is actually crab, lobster, slow moving fish and rays. Goliaths at popular wreck sites simply avail themselves of the easy meal provided by a fish on a line.
Today the goliath is a true conservation success story. Between the 1950’s and 1980’s, commercial and recreational pressure on the species had severely decreased their populations. By the early 1990s, FWC had closed Florida’s fishery for harvest, and it was determined their population had been depleted by 95% at season’s close. It appears today, though, that populations have increased enough to raise the possibility of easing back into harvest seasons. In the absence of regular harvest during the past 30 years, stock assessments at ramps couldn’t be taken, making accurate population data collection difficult.
Today, season is opening with 200 fish to be taken statewide with a size limit of 24-36 inches. For now, larger spawning, aged adults will be preserved. There is also concern over the mercury levels present in larger/older specimens. Fees associated with attaining permits for goliath grouper harvest will be instrumental in funding necessary data analysis that can determine yearly changes to season limits over time, likely on an annual basis. At this time additional data is needed before a more scientific decision can be made on whether to harvest more or less.
About The Author
David Graham is a multi-species angling enthusiast based out of Southwest Florida. His fishing exploits have taken him around the country in pursuit of unique angling opportunities in both fresh and saltwater.