State Groupers

Tasty predators patrol the depths

John Russo

Among groupers that frequent the northern Gulf of Mexico, red groupers most often land on restaurant plates. The massive goliath grouper is not currently subject to harvest, but Florida is considering a limited open season.   

They lie in wait along underwater highways, and whenever prey fish fail to maintain a minimum speed, they have their lunch. Like a gator lazing on a bank or a largemouth bass slowly finning to maintain its position beneath a stand of lily pads, groupers can appear lethargic, but they explode from their hiding places with maws wide open as soon as opportunity presents itself. 

Groupers inhabit waters off the whole of Florida, but in the northern gulf, three species — gag (or black), red and scamp predominate. Area waters grow giant goliath grouper, too, fat boys that frequently hang out near jetties or sunken bridge spans. 

Bottom fishermen often favor red snapper to groupers, but that’s a matter of color, not taste. (When is the last time you saw a blackened snapper sandwich on a menu?) The delicate, flaky flesh of groupers is almost too good to fry. It doesn’t require much. Salt, pepper, butter and a little Cavender’s will do. 

Bert Davis, a manager at Water Street Seafood in Apalachicola, said red groupers are more abundant than gags or scamp, making them less expensive. And he said, reds have “more of a bloodline,” which can make their flesh a bit darker. Davis most prefers a yellow-edge grouper, a deepwater species harvested by longliners, and, in his estimation, the sweetest of them all.        

The goliath grouper doesn’t figure in the dinner-table conversation; it is protected from harvest in both state and federal waters and ranges in size to more than 700 pounds. Bold is the fisherman who sends a large, frisky live bait to the bottom; he just might tie into more than he bargained for. 

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