Game & Fish gear editor John Geiger was asked to find something extreme for a fishing video. How about hand-lining a goliath grouper from a kayak?
By John Geiger
“You have anything shiny on you?” asked the captain as I started to push my kayak off from his 23-foot Hanson sportfisher 6 miles off St. Petersburg, Fla., in the Gulf of Mexico.
I handed him my fishing pliers, knife and a necklace.
“Just in case you go in, and you know … sharks and all,” Capt. Jason Stock said.
The kayak floated toward a spot over a wreck in 40 feet of water. I was just about to drop a dead bonito on a hand-line to a giant grouper when some interesting thoughts came to mind.
I wished I did have my knife with me, just in case something went wrong, like the 1/2-inch rope wrapping around my foot while an 800-pound fish dives with me in tow. Or the kayak pedal getting caught on the thick aircraft cable that was my leader. Or that giant 20/0 hook going where it wasn’t supposed to. Or I catch one of those nasty, toothy bull sharks or hammerheads that we all know live among the Gulf wrecks.
Did I mention I was on a kayak?
A ‘Nantucket sleigh ride’
Somehow I shrugged off the start of fear and pushed off from the boat toward the blue water and the wreck.
I had asked a friend, Jose Chavez of 13 Fishing, to paddle with me and hold the opposite gunnel if a big fish sounded. In a few moments, I would be very glad he was there.
I dropped the bloody bonito into the Gulf, and it spiraled down into the dark water. It’s legal to catch a Goliath grouper as long as you use a lure or non-game fish as bait, and you don’t take the large ones from the water.
I checked. It was legal. But was it sane?
I didn’t have time to think about that, because almost immediately, a big tug nearly pulled my shoulders from their sockets. Chavez grabbed my kayak and leaned opposite to counter the violence. Then another snapping pull. I let some line slide through my gloves and then started hauling up on it.
As the guys on the boat yelled, “Stick ’em! Don’t stop!” they laughed and whooped as they watched a bit of a Nantucket sleigh ride. I struggled to keep the grouper’s head coming toward me and away from the wreck.
Footage courtesy of @davis_bennett_ @captgamble, and firstname.lastname@example.org
Please, don’t let it be a shark!
I wondered if I had hooked a shark instead, and that was a bad feeling being so close to the water as it sloshed over my legs and Chavez struggled to keep me from capsizing.
What would happen if I got this grouper up and its only water-borne enemy — sharks — decided to attack while it was floundering by my kayak? I’d seen tarpon devoured by bulls not far from where I was now. It was unsettling.
I shook those thoughts, and pulled harder.
Soon, the big grouper showed as a thrashing brown flash from below. The 100-plus-pounder gave mighty yanks, and I thought he’d win the battle. A Goliath this size is likely about four years old.
Then I gained hope and I was astounded we had pulled him from his wreck, and now he was actually breaking the surface! As the shackle-and-wire leader came aboard the kayak, and raked across my lap, his 2-foot wide tail slapped the gunnel. As groupers do, the fish rolled to show his belly.
Not your everyday Gulf fishing experience
If a Goliath comes up from deeper water — more than about 50 feet —rapid decompression is common. It’s also called barotrauma, and it can expand and damage their swim bladder and other organs effectively killing it unless vented. If you plan on catching and releasing any fish in more than about 50 feet, Google how to vent them.
But this Goliath rolled and swung its huge caudal drenching us and pushing off toward the bottom. Once under control, we — Capt. Stock, Chavez, friends Travis Gessley of Under Armour and Scott Goodwin, cameraman Davis Bennett — all yelled and were all smiles. We knew we’d done something extremely different from your everyday Gulf fishing excursion.
This is not the first time a Goliath grouper had been documented caught from a kayak by hand line. Jim Van Pelt caught a Goliath off Southwest Florida from a kayak attached to a sportfisher. The bait was throw into the water by the boat captain.
But this recent catch could be the first time anyone has caught it independent of a boat. Even the bonito bait was caught on the kayak.
We pushed out the barbless hook from the creature’s 2 1/2-foot mouth and let it go. With another slap of the tail, it turned back toward the wreck.
More about Goliath Grouper
Goliaths range from Texas in the Gulf up around Florida and into Georgia on the Atlantic. They exist in the eastern Atlantic off Africa from Congo to Senegal in the Indian Ocran. In the US, they had been taken by anglers and spearfishermen for years and were protected from harvest in 1990. Currently, all Goliaths must be released after being caught, and only small ones can be taken out of the water in order to quickly remove a hook.
But all that may soon change. The Florida Wildlife Commission has been studying changing the regualtions to allow limited harvest of Goliath grouper. The FWC is now taking comment from anyone who has an interest — whether to continue the ban or open the fishery to harvest — at myfwc.org.
In some areas of the Gulf, wreck anglers complain of too many Goliaths.
Stock and others welcomed a limited, well-managed and monitored season in the future.
“They keep catching Goliaths,” said Capt. Stock. “We can’t get our bait to other fish, like gag grouper and snapper, because there are so many Goliaths.”
One option talked about among captains is creating a take tag, like the tarpon tag, in which an angler pays $50 to kill a tarpon. Funds go to the FWC to pay for the benefit of the conservation of the species around the state.
Catching a massive grouper on a kayak is not the most efficient or safest way to catch these awesome marine creatures. But it’s memorable and sure levels the playing field by putting the anglers at the edge of the water and creating a serious offshore tug of war.