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Revenge of the sandwich

Grouper, along with tartar sauce and cheddar, are usually below humans on the food chain. Usually, that is.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published September 2, 2003

photo
[Times files: Stefanie Boyar]

Dan MacMahon has been spearfishing since he was a teen. He recently added a new scar to his collection.

[Photos courtesy of Dan MacMahon]

  photo
photo
[Courtesy of Heritage Village]
Four anglers display a 355-pound goliath grouper caught from the downtown St. Petersburg Pier in 1901. Photo albums of the day show many catches of giants like this one.
Kevin Matheny, 45, fillets a black grouper next to Dockside Dave’s restaurant in Madeira Beach. He says he cut up 65,000 pounds of grouper last year.

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]

  photo

If Johnny Cash were a fish he would be a goliath grouper. Goliath grouper are very macho. They like their colors dark and have baritone voices.

The biggest kid on the grouper block, goliaths grow up to 800 pounds. They lurk in the deep shadows of fishing piers, bridges and reefs. When disturbed, or when they're just feeling their oats, they sing. The rumbling sound, which originates in their swim bladders, can be heard a long way off.

When Dan MacMahon was skin diving off Sarasota recently, he hoped to spear something for dinner. He wasn't going to spear a goliath grouper. That's illegal. He wanted to spear a corpulent black grouper or hogfish or something equally delicious.

"I ended up spearing a nice cobia," said the Pasco County resident.

When he heard rumbling emanating from the reef, he didn't mistake it for I Walk the Line. He was pretty sure a goliath grouper was warning him to keep his distance.

Not for an instant did he think the goliath was singing a different tune, one that could have been called Hand Over That Cobia Or I'm Going to Make a Sandwich Out of You, Hotshot.

"Things happen out there"

Don MacMahon's hands and legs and toes and fingers are still in one piece. Oh, he can show you a few old scars from encounters with marine life or boat propellers. He also can show you those new scars and relate the story that accompanies them.

"Things happen out there," he said the other day.

Dip your toe into the gulf and you've entered a wilderness where something might bite, pinch, sting or even swallow you. Pugnacious blue crabs dream of well-turned ankles. Sea lice the size of pinheads burrow under bathing suits and soon have their itching victims begging for Benadryl.

Go deeper and watch out for stingrays and jellyfish. They hurt, but at least they won't eat you. Bull sharks, tiger sharks and lemon sharks occasionally demonstrate an appetite for human flesh.

Only the most paranoid bather fears a grouper.

"They're pretty docile," said Lew Bullock, who studies grouper for the Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg. "The only exception I can think of is this pet goliath I had in a tank for a while. I caught him when he was 3 inches long. Called him Big Otis. Eventually he got to be about 3 pounds. One day I was feeding him by hand to impress a secretary. I guess I was paying more attention to the secretary than I was to Otis. Suddenly his mouth was around my arm. They don't have big teeth, they have lots of tiny teeth, but it hurt. Big Otis raked my arm pretty bad. It doesn't pay to try and impress a secretary."

Score one for Big Otis. But most of his ilk usually end up on a bun with onion, tomato, cheddar cheese and maybe a pickle on the side.

Next time you enjoy a grouper sandwich, thank a frequent provider of restaurant feasts, Dan MacMahon. He is among the most experienced commercial spearfishers in west Florida. He was born in Atlanta in 1959 but raised in Port Richey close to the gulf. He started diving when he was 8 and began spearfishing as a teen. For decades he managed a grocery store while dreaming of the weekend and the fish. Five years ago, he quit the grocery business to spear fish for the market all the time.

"I love what I do," he said recently. "When I'm down at the bottom, I'm as comfortable as most people are in their living rooms. Oh, I've had a few bad moments, with hammerheads and one time with a great white. But I'm still alive."

You name it and he has tangled with it. He has speared large mutton and mangrove snapper, amberjack, cobia and the delicious hogfish. But grouper are his specialty. He has brought to port black grouper, red grouper and speckled hind grouper. Years ago, when it was allowed, he regularly speared goliath grouper.

Back then, they were known as jewfish. Nobody knows exactly how the name jewfish came to be. A few Bible scholars suspect that the leviathan of Jonah's Old Testament tale was in fact a hungry grouper of enormous proportions. Others believe the grouper derived its name from a Jewish law that prohibited the eating of shellfish or "unclean" fish. The Oxford English Dictionary credits the name to an outdoors writer, somebody named Dampier, in the 16th century. "The Jew Fish is a very good fish," he wrote, his quill pen on fire with muse, "because it hath scales and fins and is therefore a clean fish, according to Levitical Law."

Perhaps if the fisheth in question had been sleek and beautiful, nobody would have brought up the possibility of anti-Semitism. But the giant grouper is rather homely, with beady eyes and a maw of a mouth, brown and mottled to better blend in among among the rocks and the barnacles. It's a toad with fins. The jewfish became the goliath grouper in 2001.

What do they eat? They eat whatever happens by. Scientists who have conducted stomach-content studies say they eat mostly lobster and crabs. But fish too. Dan MacMahon once was cleaning one when a small hammerhead shark tumbled from its gut.

Their numbers dwindled

St. Petersburg's juiciest goliath grouper story involved a Boo Radley-type character called Slim. Hands frequently dripping with fish slime, Slim prowled the downtown waterfront usually armed with a spear in the 1950s and 1960s. Nobody who is alive today seems to recall his last name, but they remember him. Slim, who had one leg shorter than the other, towered almost 7 feet. He liked whiskey, poetry and was quick with a knife. He often fished for goliath grouper at the downtown pier.

"Slim was sitting on a piling dangling his legs in the water," remembered Jimmy Kelley, a retired shrimper whose dad used to run a tackle store on the pier. "Suddenly, Slim screamed. The grouper had him by one leg."

"Sure, I remember that," said Dale Mastry, who owns a tackle store in St. Petersburg now. "When he jumped up he was bleeding like a stuck pig."

Photographs of huge goliath grouper once were staples of Florida newspapers. Tackle often included ropes, chains and hooks the size of a small anchor. If the goliath were large enough, in excess of 400 pounds or more, often a tow truck was employed to haul the monster from the sea.

"I grew up eating them with beans and rice," said Capt. Eddie Toomer, a 58-year-old commercial fisherman raised in Key West.

Now Toomer fishes out of Sarasota County with line or spear. He used to catch and spear goliath grouper by the hundreds. When they started disappearing in the 1970s and 1980s, he and most other fishers refused to take any responsibility. But now he believes fishers like himself were at least partly to blame. In 1990, goliath grouper received government protection. On Florida's east coast, they're still rare. In southwest Florida, the population seems to be increasing.

Down at Summerland Key in Monroe County, spearfisherman Don DeMaria used to be a fearsome predator of goliath grouper. Now he studies them on behalf of the federal government. He dives deep, gets close and fires a dart into a goliath's thick hide. The dart contains a numbered tag that helps scientists track them.

He seldom is nervous around a big one - unless he has just speared his lunch. Then a goliath might be interested. "I've had to wrestle them for my spear a time or two. But it's part of doing business down there. If you wave a hunk of steak around a pack of wild dogs, they'd go after you, too."

A too-close encounter

Dan MacMahon doesn't scare easily. When he fishes, he goes for days at a time a hundred miles from land. Big seas don't bother him. Lightning comes with the job.

He goes with a small crew. One man always stays on deck while the others do the spearfishing. Dive. Approach a fish. Fire the spear. Put the fish on a stringer. Look for another fish. When the stringer is full, return to the surface. But be careful. A bleeding fish in the middle of the ocean is an invitation to mayhem.

Once or twice he's had a bad moment with a hammerhead that tried to take fish from his spear. Another time a great white made a pass at him and a friend. But that didn't keep him out of the water long.

Last month, MacMahon went on a recreational dive trip to South Florida with friends. On the way back, MacMahon decided to show them an offshore spring known as the Green Banana. It's about 50 miles west of Sarasota.

Ordinarily he wouldn't dive there. Too much competition from recreational divers. But it's an interesting place, a deep hole on the bottom about 165 feet down. He dove with Ken LaCasse. "Goliath grouper were all over the place," MacMahon said. They heard them before they saw them. Boom! Boom! The huge fish were doing their best Johnny Cash imitations.

MacMahon had speared a cobia. Then an enormous goliath - MacMahon guessed 500 pounds - swam out from beneath a rocky ledge. Like a gorilla pounding on its chest, it boomed. As MacMahon grabbed the cobia, the grouper swam uncomfortably close.

"It came up from below me. It wanted that cobia. Pretty soon its huge head was between my fins. I pushed it away with my spear gun."

Annoyed, the goliath boomed again.

"Suddenly, he grabbed me in the middle of my right leg. You know how a dog will shake a rag? That's what he did to me. He shook me like I was a rag."

The goliath spit out MacMahon.

Then it came again.

MacMahon had reloaded his spear gun. It's against the law to shoot goliath grouper, but MacMahon felt like the lowest link in the food chain. "I'm 165 feet down, a little too deep to be messing around with this."

He shot the grouper. As it quivered and spiraled into the great hole on the bottom, MacMahon headed in the opposite direction.

He bled all over the boat. When he stopped bleeding, his friends took photographs of his leg, scraped from ankle to above the knee, the diameter of the goliath's maw.

Nobody said, "Revenge of the Grouper Sandwich." They didn't have to.

Out of the fryer, onto a bun

On a recent morning, the sun baked the parking lot at Dockside Dave's Restaurant in Madeira Beach. It was also close enough to lunch to be thinking about a grouper sandwich. Every stool at the counter was taken.

Out back, co-owner Kevin Matheny, 45, opened a bin. Inside the bin, among hundreds of pounds of ice, were the corpses of freshly caught black and red grouper. He filleted a nice black. Last year, he cut 65,000 pounds of grouper.

He walked into the restaurant with two fillets and handed them to Scott Lusco, 35, the cook. "The secret is fresh fish, spices and keeping the peanut oil at just the right temperature," Lusco said. Into the fryer went the grouper. Even in the noisy restaurant you could hear sizzling.

A few minutes later, he put the plates on the counter with a bunch of napkins. The grouper overwhelmed the buns. It was hard for a human mouth to get around the girth of the sandwiches, but jaws up and down the counter managed nicely.

- Contact Jeff Klinkenberg at 727 893-8727. His email is klink@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 29, 2003, 14:08:07]


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