Giant 350-lb Warsaw grouper caught off Southwest Florida coast a rare research opportunity
Abby Kelly said her arms were spent after hauling in this Goliath grouper Nashville Tennessean
We’ve all heard a fish tale or two, but one man’s catch in late December off Southwest Florida’s coast is one for the books.
Jason Boyll of Sarasota caught a 350-pound Warsaw grouper Dec. 29 in about 600 feet of water, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Research Institute confirmed on its Facebook page.
“Catching one can feel like a freight train hit your rod,” said Bryan Gagnon, charter captain and owner of Reel Revenge in Cape Coral.
Grouper species can be found at different depths in the Gulf, and the Warsaw variety can be found anywhere between depths of 180 – 1,700 feet. Because of the depth, boats will have to travel out quite far and that can get costly.
“Typically most people doing that are recreational,” Gagnon said. “I even might want to do that on my days off.”
Gagnon and the Reel Revenge guides don’t typically go out for Warsaw, but if a client asks, the crew is game. He said his charters run between eight and 14 hours but a Warsaw trip could take up to 24 hours.
Tournament anglers with four-engine boats might be the most active fisher folk seeking out these large groupers found in deep waters, he said.
The 350-pounder Boyll reeled in was a hook-and-line catch.
Fishing in such deep waters requires some specialized gear. Gagnon said it’s likely Boyll used an electric reel. Getting a hook down to 600 feet isn’t as quick or easy as tossing in a worm at the nearest canal.
“You could go to the front of the boat, make a sandwich, eat it and come back and (the line) still wouldn’t be down there,” Gagnon said. “Everything changes at 200 feet: you go from 8 ounces of weight to 2 pounds of weight (in deeper waters).”
Once a Warsaw is on the line, “it’s almost not physically possible (to reel it in) in the first 60 to 90 seconds.” Gagnon said it’s like that with most grouper species until the fish’s air bladder starts to expand.
“You’re pulling them up from such a deep pressure that they start to float up. That’s about 90% of the time. In some cases, with Warsaw or Goliath (groupers), they get stuck and you’re pulling up to an hour,” he said.
Katie Laakkonen shared this underwater video of a goliath grouper at the Naples 2 artificial reef site that is 17 miles offshore. (Archive video from July 19, 2015)
After Boyll’s catch, FWC's Research Institute was able to obtain an otolith from the fish and concluded that it was probably about 50 years old. An otolith is a calcium-based piece of the fish’s inner ear and helps it sense gravity and movement. The National Marine Fisheries Service in Panama City recorded the oldest known Warsaw at 61 years old.
The heaviest Warsaw grouper on record pulled from the Gulf came in at 436 pounds. It was captured off Destin in 1985, Michelle Kerr, a spokeswoman for FWC’s Research Institute wrote in an email. There was no otolith collected from that fish, making Boyll’s catch an exceptional find for the institute.
“Acquiring the otolith from this fish was extremely valuable as samples from larger and older fish are rare,” the original Facebook post says.
Warsaw groupers are a bit of a mystery, and FWC researchers are collaborating with different organizations to get a better idea of the fish.
“Basic biological information on their life history and population structure is currently unavailable, which makes their management difficult,” Kerr wrote.
FWC’s Facebook post said it does not encourage anglers to target Warsaw groupers “since the status of the population is unknown.” But if an angler does pull in a Warsaw, the otoliths would be beneficial to the Research Institute’s work on the species.
Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @karlstartswithk, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org