Little Giants: Chasing Big Fish in Small Places
By David Graham 8-23-21
When I moved to Florida some 3 years ago I had a short list of tall tasks in the pursuit of a few bucket list fish. Sitting squarely at the top of that list may have been the goliath grouper.
The goliath grouper may be largest bony fish in Florida - growing in excess of 400 pounds, its name precedes it. The goliath is synonymous with submerged wrecks, reefs, caves and other structure. An ever-present inhabitant underwater structures casting a foreboding silhouette of a car sized monster just waiting to inhale its unsuspecting prey.
What drew my immediate interest was clearly the shear size and strength of the species - but its propensity to set up shop along bridges 'near shore' also meant there was a reasonable chance I could even capture one from land. In 2019 just a year after moving to Florida I linked up with my friend Pat Halko to chase goliaths from the beach. Using heavy terminal tackle and conventional reels - we deployed baits (whole mullet) by kayak, dropping our rigs below the pilings of a bridge roughly 200 yards out and secured to the bottom with cinder blocks as 'breakaway weights'. Under the guidance of Halko I landed what may be my biggest land based fish to date.
The element of finding this species with my feet planted squarely on dry land made it all the more appealing for whatever reason...
Still, more commonly the mature fish growing in the hundreds of pounds find themselves beyond the reach of a lesser equipped angler. The experience of catching the goliath inspired me to up my gear. I reached out to my friend Zach Miller who has a ton of experience in the land based realm catching sharks and goliaths. Zach, who runs Throwdown Fishing Charters - is also skilled at rod building.
A meeting to pick up a rod he built for me was also an opportunity to catch some enormous goliaths from the boat. We did some really cool food chain fishing - catching herring from over a wreck, then using the herring to catch bonita, then transferring the bonita to a handline rig for goliaths. Handlining for goliath grouper is pretty eye opening.,. you have a direct line connection to the fish where you feel every bit of their raw power.
But the journey for these giants starts small... the goliath grouper is a slow growing fish with a life expectancy of over 40 years. Juvenile fish not ready for the rough life on the reefs often spend their formative years inshore tucked away in various forms of concealment like mangrove shorelines.
The subtropical coastal zones of the Florida peninsula and Keys are populated by 4 different species of mangrove. The complex root systems of the mangroves provide critical habitat and nursery zones for many juvenile species of fish and forage creatures. In some areas, thick mangrove clusters form cavernous 'cuts' below the waters surface, extending deep under the embankment... an ideal safe-haven for young goliath grouper.
Within the inshore mangrove creeks - sharp bends where strong tidal pushes cut deep holes, young goliath grouper hang tight to the mangrove lines where the feed on unsuspecting fish, crabs, shellfish and basically anything else that moves. In the everglades - these deeper holes at sharp bends are sometimes intermittently scattered between expansions of shallows - isolating the fish in great numbers in the same holes.
I have had plenty of success tossing cut chunks of mullet along the mangrove line where the water runs deep and current pushes hard. Here you can allow the tidal flow to slowly bounce the bait down the mangrove line where eventually a hungry goliath will emerge from the undercut and engulf it.
The challenge then becomes extracting the fish from all of the snags. Even small goliaths are very powerful fish. Their instinct is to seek cover and they will doggedly pursue the snags and tangles to hang you up. Its important even with the smaller fish to use heavy gear sufficient enough to quickly pull them away from the snags.
A young goliath will hardly turn away a fresh bait - but they can and will grab artificials pitched into the mangroves as well. On many occasions I have reeled in a small goliath only to have it puke up crab claws, partially digested catfish, or chunks of other fish. They don't seem to discriminate on what they eat so long as its fresh.
On a typical day of chasing young goliaths in mangrove creeks I will come equipped with 1 or 2 heavy boat style rods... something short and stalky... I like braided line - because as bulky and powerful as these fish may be, their bite is often a subtle 'thump'... and you need to detect that before they make their way back into the snags. A heavy flouro or even steal leader will help minimize stretch to quickly pull the fish away from cover. Abrasion resistance will be key in leader selection. Even a young goliath's mouth is lined with sharp abrasive sandpapery teeth - and the snags below the surface can be covered in sharp barnacles or oysters. A weight to keep the bait secured in the current is optional - and circle hooks will ensure the fish does not become gut hooked... goliaths have the habit of quickly engulfing baits DEEP.
Make no mistake - a 10 pound goliath fished out of tight spaces will give you everything you can handle and more. For a 'baby' fish, these things come to fight on day one. Anyone seeking a first rate fight by rod and reel should consider the pursuit of juvenile goliaths - if nothing more than to fully appreciate what they can truly become at full potential.