Grouper are the Gulf's Prize Catch

By: Terry Tomalin

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Few Florida fish provide both fight and fine dining in one package. Some might argue the snapper rules supreme, others the mighty cobia. But survey the state’s top charter boat captains and you’ll surely receive the same response – grouper.

These thick-bodied bottom dwellers make for some of the best Florida fishing. You’ll find the various members of the grouper family in shallow water during the cooler months and deeper water during the warmer months.

Grouper fishing, a mainstay for Gulf of Mexico’s charter fleet, is as much of an art as it is a science. These voracious feeders are usually found around structure – reefs and wrecks – so most captains try to anchor up and fish in one stop.

Good grouper spots can be found just a few miles from shore. Some captains will even hit a grouper spot on the way back in from a blackfin tuna or dolphin fishing trip.

There are nearly a dozen different species of grouper found in Florida waters, but most charter boats fishing in the Gulf target the big three – gag, red and black grouper.

The black grouper, Mycteroperca bonaci, has markings similar to those of its smaller cousin, Mycteroperca microlepis, the gag grouper, and as a result, the two are often confused.

Deep-water black grouper are common to 40 pounds but can weigh as much as 100. Gag grouper are common to 25 pounds and may weigh as much as 71 pounds, 3 ounces, Florida's record. The red grouper, Epinephelus morio, yet another grouper species found off the Gulf Coast can weigh up to 40 pounds. While all three species fish pull hard, the battle with grouper is won or lost in the first few seconds after the strike.

The Goliath grouper, Epinephelus itajara, is the largest member of the grouper family and a times, the bane of offshore anglers and spearfishing divers because of its affinity for eating hooked fish. Protected since 1990, these massive bottom dwellers can grow to be more than 7 feet long and weigh more than 800 pounds and provide quite a battle when hooked. But these fish must be left in the water and released unharmed.

Conservation-minded grouper fishermen use circle hooks, which are more likely to hook a fish in the mouth instead of the throat or stomach. Nonstainless steel hooks are preferred because they rust out in a matter of days if they have to be left in a fish.

Grouper regulations are constantly evolving and very from season to season and region to region. Check the latest rules before you head out.

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