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Minnesota youth lands extraordinary goliath grouper in Marco waters

Paul Hartman
Special to the Eagle
Reegan Werner reels in a massive goliath grouper with a calculated weight of 583 pounds.

When Reegan Werner left the dock for a day of deep sea fishing on May 31, she said a silent prayer that she would get a big one. Six hours later she landed her first big fish of the day, a goliath grouper that was 83” long and had a 75” girth with a calculated weight of 583 pounds.

This 16-year old Minnesota girl’s first large ocean fish is most likely the heaviest grouper to have ever been landed out of the Marco Island area on a rod and reel.

More:On the Hook: Fishing from the ‘git go’

There are stories of old commercial fishermen getting fish near this size and there are also a few of this this caliber that have been hooked by hand line on the Atlantic side, but this catch was special. The entire battle was incredible, but it lasted just 15 minutes. The fish was quickly released after getting unhooked. As it swam away, Reegan said, “what a sick fight; I want to get another one of those!”

Reegan, her brother Owen, their mother Kimberly and step father Paul Hartman had left Minneapolis on Friday and made a 29-hour drive straight down to Marco Island to buy a used 22’ Pathfinder from local Captain Ben Olsen. When they arrived Saturday evening, Olsen warned them that stormy weather was going to impact their fishing later in the week and suggested they do any offshore fishing in the first couple of days.

The family stopped and caught thread fins to use for bait as they worked their way out to spots 40 to 50 miles off shore. They were trying to catch some Amberjack, but the barracuda keep biting off their hooks. Kimberly landed several barracuda, so they decided to cut one up and put a couple rods out with cuda chunks on the hooks in hopes of finding an active shark or goliath grouper.

Reegan Werner reels in a massive goliath grouper with a calculated weight of 583 pounds.

Paul fishes the Gulf seven to 10 days each year with Captain Ben Olsen, but this was his first time out on these waters without the guide. They tied a balloon on the first line out to keep the bait up by the surface. The second line was clipped to an underwater camera called an Aqua View and the camera was slowly lowered down- watching on the screen in the boat as the bait descended toward the bottom. Owen shouted that a giant fish had just eaten the bait in a single gulp! Kimberly quickly started backing the boat away from the structure while Paul gently towed the unsuspecting fish to smooth bottom. Reegan scrambled to get the fishing belt on tight, grabbed the rod and the battle began.

Reegan is an athlete, playing hockey, lacrosse and is the Captain of the Farmington Tennis team. She has spirit and she is very competitive but weighing only 115 pounds created a serious challenge since she was connected to a fish weighing five times what she does.

Once the fish realized it was hooked it began thrashing and surging and Reegan took a seat on the cooler to keep from being pulled overboard. The reel was a big Penn International loaded with #250 Berkley Braid line the drag was locked down tight. Owen stayed close, offering an extra hand each time things got too chaotic. After just 10 minutes this massive fish was coming into view 40 foot down in the clear blue Gulf waters. All the family were offering words of encouragement and the 90 degree sunny calm day seemed to be getting hooter by the minute!

Reegan knew the fish was massive the second she started fighting it, but she was confident she would eventually win the battle … “I had the confidence” she said. Beating big fish is as much a mental game as it is a physical one, there is no room for mistakes.

Reegan worked the fish hard for another five minutes. Each exchange of line between the angler and the fish was slowly bringing the fish closer and closer to the boat. After just 15 minutes of fighting, Paul was able to grab the #400 cable leader and the battle was over.

The fish was carefully measured, and a few photos were taken before the fish was unhooked and released. As the fish drenched them all on its way out, Paul had a funny feeling that they had just caught “My Lord.” This was the name given to a massive grouper they had encountered on this spot several times prior because each time it showed up all anyone can say is “My Lord” look at that.

Paul’s friend, Mark Stock caught that fish with Captain Olsen on April 25, 2019 in the same spot with the same bait. Its length was 80” and girth was 73” making it a 533 pound fish; now just 14 months later – if it was the same fish – it is was 50 pounds heavier. Back on shore, photos were compared, and the fish was believed to be “My Lord.”

It is so cool knowing all these fish by name, but it makes Paul nervous that if these are ever opened back up to harvest that the few goliath groupers that are out in the Gulf waters will quickly become another story about the “good old days” as they are all killed off.