All About Gulf Grouper

Whether or not you're targeting these tough customers, hooking one provides a rugged battle. Here's a look at which species of these fish you may encounter in the northern Gulf of Mexico. (April 2008)

Black grouper is a species that you're likely to find in the shallower near-shore waters of the Gulf.
Photo by Polly Dean.

Offshore fishing in the Gulf of Mexico often holds some surprises. In fact, that is one of the attractions of the angling -- you never can be sure what will take the bait next.

When it comes to bottom-fishing, that situation holds especially true.

While red snappers and their close relatives in the snapper clan have traditionally been the main target of Gulf bottom fishermen, anglers often encounter members of another family of fish on those trips. But when a grouper takes the bait, that fish could hardly be called an unwelcome guest!

Regardless of the exact species of grouper you've hooked, you can expect a rugged fight, the possibility of a truly big fish and -- if it's of legal harvest size -- an excellent meal at the end of the day.

More than a few anglers dangling a line off the side of a party or charter boat, expecting the tap of a snapper taking the bait, have been rudely greeted by a sudden, sharp downward thrust of the rod. Instead of the weight of hooked snapper, the line seems attached to a Mack truck. In truth, the other end of the rig is attached to a grouper that has emerged from a crevice in the hard bottom or some hiding place in a wreck below.

After grabbing the bait, the fish immediately heads back for its "safe house" in the structure.

If you're lucky enough to turn such a fish and keep it from tangling or cutting your line on the cover, a tug-o'-war is next in order. Because several species of grouper routinely reach 30-pound or greater weights, battling them can be brutal warfare.

If you want to specifically target grouper on such a bottom-fishing excursion, a change in bait is needed. Rather than cut squid or baitfish that attracts the snappers, you are better served by dropping down a live minnow. Cigar minnows, croakers, pinfish and finger mullet are some of the more popular of those forage fish. Such a lively offering is a better bet for luring a grouper out of its hiding place. And, of course, you can also jig a soft plastic imitation of a minnow or even a jigging spoon.

So, if you chose to target grouper in the northern Gulf of Mexico, what are you likely to hook? Let's have a look at the most likely suspects.

BLACK GROUPER
Black grouper are found throughout the Gulf of Mexico, usually in water from 20 to 110 feet deep. In the northern Gulf, these fish ordinarily stay around rock bottom formations.

Olive to gray on their sides, they also have brassy-colored splotches. They grow to 52 inches in length, and their weights push 180 pounds.

GAG GROUPER
Gags are often confused with the black groupers due to their similar appearance. The gag is brownish-gray to light gray in color, with marbled splotches on its side. The gag's tail, however, is more rounded than the black's more square caudal fin. Also, the gag has white trim on its tail.

Gag groupers sometimes appear in schools of five to 50 fish, but also travel as loners. They have been found as deep as 500 feet, but may also venture up onto rocks or grassflats.

The species reaches lengths of almost 5 feet and weights exceeding 80 pounds.

RED GROUPER
As their name implies, red grouper are reddish brown in color, with lighter spots along their sides. They commonly grow to 33 inches and reach weights exceeding 25 pounds.

Reds are fond of hiding in crevices and holes in rocky limestone bottoms and favor water 10 to 40 feet deep.

SCAMP
One of the smaller groupers in the northern Gulf, the scamp can still reach lengths of 35 inches and weights of more than 20 pounds. The fish has a speckled look to its sides, with brown coloration and a yellow tint near the mouth. Scamp are found in waters from 75 to 250 feet down, particularly around low-profile reefs.

SNOWY GROUPER
Snowy grouper tend to be dark brown in color with a slight hint of copper, but with a sprinkling of white specks that gives them their name. These fish reach 3 feet and more than 70 pounds.

As with most groupers, the snowy prefers hard-rock bottom. Adults tend to be offshore fish. They have been recorded at depths of down to 800 feet.

WARSAW GROUPER
Second in size only to the Goliath grouper (formerly known as the jewfish, Epinephelus itajara), the Warsaw grouper is the behemoth of the Gulf fishery. The Goliath is a protected species, leaving the Warsaw as the largest of the family that can be harvested.

An offshore species, the Warsaw prefers depths of 250 to 650 feet, and is usually found around irregular bottoms or dropoffs.

These fish are grayish to dark reddish-brown all over, and their dorsal fin has a very long second spine sticking up. Warsaw grouper reach lengths of six feet and weights of more than 550 pounds.

SUMMING IT UP
Whether you're heading out for a day of snapper fishing or are targeting grouper specifically, you stand a good chance of tangling this spring and summer with one of these "bulldogs" of the reefs.

Either way, hang on tight to your rod -- that is, if you plan to take both it and the fish home at the end of the day!

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