Little pond, really big grouper

With bigger gear, a fisherman returns to tackle a goliath in the city.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 22, 2008

It lacks the carnal drama of a python-alligator showdown in the Everglades, or the body-slamming potential of a leaping Suwannee sturgeon. But given its staid urban habitat, this quirk of nature bears telling.

A large goliath grouper lives in a stormwater retention pond in mid Pinellas County.

It probably came from the bay through an outlet pipe when it was young - perhaps more than a decade ago. A fisherman who recently hooked it thinks it approaches 180 pounds, still modest for a species that can top 800.

Now it may be landlocked - too fat to squeeze back through the pipe to a more natural setting.

"That's the first time I ever heard about" a goliath living in a retention pond, says Jim Colvocoresses, biologist for Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. "But I could see how it could happen. For the first six years of their lives, they are pretty much an inshore, shallow-water animal."

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Goliath grouper, once known as jewfish, have been protected since 1990, when federal scientists worried that they were being hunted out of existence.

In recent years, commercial and recreational anglers have complained that goliath are once again dominating reefs and wrecks from Key West to Crystal River. Goliath usually eat lobster, crab and shrimp, the marine world's easy pickings, but they are also opportunistic.

Anglers sometimes hook a tasty, legal fish, but before they can bring it to the boat, a goliath appears from deep and inhales it.

"You can go out to the Skyway on any given day and catch a jewfish. It's nothing to catch 10," says Brian Spaeth, a 22-year-old Madeira Beach resident. "They are huge. Three of us can put three rods with 100-pound test line on one hook, and still we can't pull them up."

Spaeth knows fish. His father owns a seafood house. As a youngster, he kept posters on his bedroom wall to identify species.

One of his favorite fishing holes is a retention pond, several hundred yards across, that connects to the bay. Saltwater flushes back and forth with the tide, as do marine species like snook, redfish and mullet.

Private homes and commercial property surround the pond, which has no public access. Spaeth knows a few property owners, who let him cross to the pond.

When he was 10 or 11, he says, he was casting an artificial lure on 10- or 12-pound line.

"I was just passing time when this huge fish comes up and eats the Mirrolure. I was stunned. I froze. I tried to set the bait and it flies out of his mouth."

A fish on his species poster had the same buggy eyes, same coloring and same rounded back fin. It looked like a goliath grouper and to a young boy, it felt like about 50 pounds.

Spaeth says he has fished the pond for snook probably 150 times since that first sighting. Three or four times something really big hit his line and snapped it. He often would see telltale wakes of a huge fish cruising near the top.

"It was not a typical wake. It was like a small watercraft."

Mike Dunsizer, a veteran fisherman who frequents a retail store along the pond, says he has seen a goliath near the store several times. It used to park under an overhanging tree until someone chopped the tree down.

"He would sit right under that tree," Dunsizer says. "We thought he was looking at us."

The fish was similar in size to a wall-mounted, stuffed grouper in the store, and that fish weighed about 125 pounds, Dunsizer says.

In November, Spaeth and his friend Brad Marinec went fishing in the pond. The Times is not identifying the exact location of the pond to protect the fish. They used mullet for bait, 400 yards of 50-pound test line and a 4/0 hook - big gear for big fish.

It is legal to hook a goliath as long as you release it as quickly as possible, preferably by cutting the line, said Lee Schlesinger, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

But don't delay the release.

Last year, Max Mayfield, former director of the National Hurricane Center, was fined after he caught a 200-pound goliath in the Keys, because the charter captain brought it onto the boat just long enough to snap a souvenir photo.

Spaeth says he did not target the goliath while snook fishing, but acknowledged that he used heavy enough gear - just in case.

He was sitting on the grass when his reel began clicking, just like the scene in Jaws, where Robert Shaw quietly dons his fighting harness just before the shark takes off.

When Spaeth tightened the line, the fish took off for the center of the lake, maybe 200 yards away, where it tired itself by swimming back and forth. After about 10 minutes, Spaeth reeled it next to shore.

"I was putting as much pressure on him as I could without breaking the line," Spaeth said. "When I got him close, he made a huge boil. About the size of a car.

"We realized at that point it wasn't a snook."

Marinec jumped in the water, knee-deep, to remove the hook. He tried to wrap his arms around the fish, but it was too fat to encircle. So he cut the line as Spaeth snapped a photo with a cell phone.

If the fish is the one Spaeth first hooked as a youngster, it would now be at least 10 to 12 years old. A wild goliath in the gulf that age could easily weigh 200 to 300 pounds, according to a 1999 federal synopsis of goliath literature.

Of course, the pond grouper may be skinnier if it lacks lobster and has to chase mullet for its dinner.

"This fish may not be typical of the natural growth rates," says Luiz Barbieri, a supervising marine biologist with the research institute.

"Either this guy can't figure the way out or that connection to the ocean is blocked. It's been there for a while and it has learned to get food. It may not be doing too bad."


About the protected species

Goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara)

-Largest of the western north Atlantic groupers.

-Can grow up to 8 feet long and weigh as much as 800 pounds.

-Relatively long-lived, with a documented case of 37 years old.

-The Florida record is 680 pounds, caught off Fernandina Beach in 1961.

-For their first five years or so they prefer to live along mangrove shorelines, after which they join the adults offshore among ledges, caves and shipwrecks.

-Overfishing led to a population decline by the 1980s; species has been protected since 1990.

-Called jewfish until a name change in May 2001.

Sources: Times wires, FSU