Fishing for Goliath Grouper in Key West
The giant Goliath Grouper is king of the reef, and large mature specimens have no natural predators.
Goliath Grouper (Epinephelus itajara) Introduction
(Florida Record 680lbs.) The giant Goliath Grouper is arguably the most dramatic member of the Grouper family, and large mature specimens are kings of the reef, with no natural predators. The Goliath Grouper is the largest member of the sea bass family found in the western Atlantic, reaching weights of 800 lbs. and lengths of more than 8 feet.
Its body is elongated but robust, with the widest point measuring more than half the fish’s total length. The pectoral fins are rounded and noticeably larger than the pelvic fins. The head is broad, with small eyes and a huge mouth. There are three to five rows of teeth in the lower jaw, including a number of short, weakly-developed canine teeth that distinguish this species from other North Atlantic Groupers. Goliaths are generally brownish yellow, gray, or olive-colored, with small dark spots on head, body, and fins. Goliaths less than three feet in length display 3 or 4 irregular faint vertical bars on their sides, and juveniles are patterned with a series of dark vertical bands and blotches.
Goliath Grouper Habitat and Behavior
Goliath Groupers range the shallow, inshore tropical waters of the western Atlantic Ocean from Florida through the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, and south along nearly the entire Brazilian coastline. Goliaths are occasionally caught as far north as the New England coast off Maine and Massachusetts. The species is also found in the eastern Atlantic on the African coast from Senegal to Congo and in the eastern Pacific Ocean from the Gulf of California to Peru.
Goliath Groupers typically inhabit natural and artificial reefs in water depths of 16 to 160 feet. They prefer areas that have rock, coral, and mud bottoms along with high-relief features such as ledges, caves, and holes that can provide refuge. The Goliath is one of the few groupers that inhabit brackish waters, with juveniles commonly found around mangroves and in estuaries, especially near oyster bars.
Goliath Groupers are solitary fish and adults are territorial near their areas of refuge, displaying an open mouth and quivering body to intruders and sometimes producing an audible rumbling sound via muscular contractions of the swim bladder. This sound travels long distances underwater and is also used to locate other Goliath Groupers.
Goliath Groupers are ambush feeders that prey mostly on crustaceans such as spiny lobsters, shrimps, and crabs. They also take barracudas, stingrays, parrotfish, octopus, and young sea turtles. Goliaths engulf their food with a quick snap of their jaws, and most prey is swallowed whole. A large Goliath Grouper will likely eat nearly anything that comes within its reach, and they have been known to stalk and attempt to ambush divers.
Goliath Grouper can live a long time, with the oldest verified age on record being 37 years. Male Goliath Groupers are sexually mature at four to six years of age and lengths of 43-45 inches, females at six to seven years of age and 47-53 inches. Like many other Groupers, Goliaths are thought to be protogynous hermaphrodites, with individuals first maturing as females and later becoming males. Spawning is strongly influenced by the lunar cycle and occurs during July, August, and September. Goliath Groupers form offshore spawning aggregations that may include100 or more individuals, with isolated patch reefs, shipwrecks, and rock ledges being their preferred spawning habitats. Females release eggs while the males release sperm into open offshore waters, and the eggs are dispersed by currents after fertilization.
Fishing for Goliath Grouper
These huge fish are more abundant in southern Florida than in the state’s northern waters, and around Key West, Goliath Grouper can be found on nearly any type of wreck or other structure that has enough relief to provide shelter for a fish this size. It is easy to find juveniles along ledges and drop-offs near mangrove islands. They are fished like any other Grouper, with large baits dropped near the bottom. The difference with the Goliath is that specialized ultra-heavy tackle will be needed if there is to be any chance of bringing a fish boat side. A Goliath will often snap up a hooked smaller fish before the surprised fisherman manages to get it reeled in.
Goliath Groupers are completely protected with a ban on all harvest, so most fishermen jump into the water for a picture with their trophy before cutting the leader and releasing the Goliath back to its home.