Crossing off bucket-list fish requires huge hooks, big bait — not stones

Keith Sutton/Contributing Writer Published August 10, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Courtesy of Keith Sutton

Fishing guide Ryan Rowan, left, helps Keith Sutton lift a 450-pound goliath grouper for a photograph. It’s the biggest fish Sutton has ever caught.

When I was a teenager fishing Arkansas farm ponds and rivers, I started keeping a list of fish I dreamed of catching someday. Call it my “bucket list” if you will — a list of fish I want to catch before I “kick the bucket.”

In the 45 years since I started keeping this list, I’ve caught and crossed off many species, including the piranha, payara, peacock bass, white sturgeon, king salmon, paddlefish and saltwater species such as roosterfish, tuna, lingcod, sharks, halibut, cobia and dorado. Until recently, however, one species listed since day 1 has eluded me: the jewfish, or as it’s now known, the goliath grouper.

Imagine a steer-sized largemouth bass with mottled brown colors, and you’ll know what this brute looks like. When I was young, I often saw photos of these big groupers in fishing magazines. All were similar — a jewfish hanging above a dock with a triumphant angler standing beside it. The angler was always puny by comparison, a fact that fueled my desire to catch these incredible giants.

Fast forward to June 2009. My friend Mark Davis, host of the Penn’s Big Water Adventures television show on the Outdoor Channel, posts photos on his Facebook page of a 700-pound jewfish, one of several monsters he caught while filming at Boca Grande in southwest Florida. I’m intrigued.

“How did you manage to land them?” I ask.

“Let me set you up a trip, and you can find out yourself,” he says.

Plans are laid. My wife, Theresa, and I will be in nearby Punta Gorda, Florida, for a conference. Davis will attend, too. While we’re there, we’ll go grouper fishing with Capt. Ryan Rowan, an experienced, 38-year-old North Port resident Davis describes as “one of the best guides I’ve ever shared a boat with.”

On the appointed day, Rowan motors us to the goliath grouper hot spot where Mark caught his 700-pounder — the remains of an old pier just 200 yards off a beautiful beach. We’ll fish for these monsters in just 10- to 40-foot depths.

Ryan runs a hook the size of a small anchor through a foot-long jackfish bait and explains the setup.

“We’ve spent years perfecting our technique for catching these big groupers,” he says. “They feed around the clock year-round, but we fish during slack tide because it’s easier than to position the boat beside the pilings where they live and feed. Mark will be in the tower maneuvering the boat. I’ll stay here and help you get your bait in the right spot. When a fish takes the bait, it’ll yank the rod down hard. Don’t set the hook or start reeling when that happens. Just hold on tight, and Mark will back the boat out. That will hook the fish and pull it away from the pilings. When the fish is in open water, then you’ll start fighting it.”

Ryan tosses the bait beside a piling, I release it to the bottom, and, instantly, the rod nosedives.

“Hold on!” Mark and Ryan shout simultaneously. Mark revs the outboard, and back we go.

I feel Ryan’s hands squeezing my shoulders. “Don’t want you going anywhere,” he says, smiling. A scene from Real TV flashes through my mind: an old dude snatched overboard while battling a monster fish. I reach back to be sure my knife is still on my belt.

When the boat is away from the pilings, Mark chortles. “Now, it’s up to you, Sutton. Reel it in.”

Easier said than done. The huge fish surges away, peeling line against the drag. But using a stand-up rod and 600-pound-test line soon gains me the upper hand. I pull and reel, and inch by inch, the goliath grouper comes my way.

“I see color,” Mark shouts.

Then there it is, the fish I’ve dreamed of catching for more than four decades. This time, though, there will be no photograph of the angler standing on a dock beside his catch. These slow-growing giants, delicious on the table, were overexploited for years. Harvesting them in federal waters of the Southeastern U.S. has been prohibited since 1990. I bring the fish alongside the boat, and while Ryan removes the hook, Theresa climbs into the boat tower and snaps photos.

“A 200-pounder or thereabouts,” Ryan estimates. And with a flip of its tail, the goliath is gone.

Thirty minutes later, I bring a bigger grouper boatside, this one around 250 pounds. It, too, is released unharmed.

Theresa now takes a turn in the chair. The biggest fish she has caught is a 30-pound catfish. But that’s about to change. She hooks up as soon as the bait hits bottom, and 10 minutes later, she lands an 80-pound jewfish.

“Now it’s time to catch a big one,” Ryan says, grinning.

Theresa looks puzzled but understands when Ryan drags a big stingray from the baitwell. He hooks the ray, tosses it by one of the pilings, then moves behind Theresa so he can grab her — “just in case.”

“I’m not sure I’m ready for this,” Theresa says just before the next fish strikes and lifts her from the chair. Ryan grimaces as he struggles to keep Theresa in the boat. The two strain against the rod as Mark backs the boat away.

Theresa will never forget the 15-minute battle that follows. Nor will I. The 275-pound grouper puts up a dramatic fight, but it is no match for my determined wife.

I climb the tower and shoot photos as Theresa reaches out and touches the gentle giant, a fish more than twice her size and nearly 10 times larger than her biggest fish ever. That moment is a highlight of the day.

The day isn’t over yet, though. Theresa passes the rod, and soon I hook another grouper. I know immediately this fish is bigger than the others. Its power is incredible. I worry it might escape in the pilings, but somehow we pull it to open water.

Could this be my biggest fish ever? When it comes topside, I know it is. It’s 8 feet long and as big around as a grizzly.

“It’s 450 pounds minimum,” Ryan proclaims.

By the time I subdue it, the jewfish has pulled the boat into the shallows. Ryan and I jump in the water with it, and Theresa and Mark shoot photos as we unhook the huge fish and release it. I am ecstatic when this truly goliath grouper swims powerfully away — another fish crossed off my bucket list.

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