If you’ve fished in the waters of Key West, you’ve more than likely encountered your share of grouper during your adventures. As a family, they’re one of the most popular targets in the area. As a service to our readers, we’ve compiled this handy to the grouper species you’re likely to find in Key West.

Black Grouper

Because of its mild, delicious flavor and the strong appeal it has as a game fish, the Black Grouper (Mycteroperca bonaci) is one of the most popular targets to fish for in the Key West Area. Though tiny compared to the Goliath Grouper we’ll discuss in a bit, the black grouper is the largest of the Mycteroperca you’ll find in the waters around Key West. While the average size is much smaller, the black grouper can grow up to almost five feet long and weigh up to and over 100 pounds.

The Black Grouper has a distinctively beautiful appearance, ranging in color from olive to a blotchy gray and displaying unique patterns that radiate from the eye and zigzag towards the rear of the fish in intricate lines. The Black Grouper can occasionally be found in the North Atlantic, they’re much more common further south in the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean.

Fishing for Black Grouper in Key West

Because of its size and its tendency to dart back into the rocks once hooked, the Black Grouper can be a bit of a challenge to land. Initially you need to fight the fish hard to keep it from rocking up.  Besides, the fight a Black Grouper puts up is one of the reasons they’re such a popular target!

The keys are knowing where to fish and the proper bait to use. The Black Grouper likes to linger near coral reefs and other rocky structures, but they’re often found in more open waters but always around structure, usually at depths from 20 to 200 feet. They’re easiest to catch if your boat is drifting and they’re more likely to hit live bait like Blue Runners, Pinfish, and Pilchards, but they’ll go after dead bait too if they’re hungry enough.

Red Grouper

Next up is the Red Grouper (Epinephelus Morio), another prominent fish the Key West Area. An important commercial fish as well as a popular target for leisure fishing, the red grouper makes for excellent table fare and has hundreds of intriguing recipes that feature it.

Appearance

Averaging between one and two feet in length and weighing anywhere from 2-15 or so pounds, the red grouper is a moderately sized fish. True to its name, this fish displays a light brown or reddish hint and are commonly marked with a number of white spots. The red grouper also has distinctively large eyes that make easy to identify and have become their trademark.

Interestingly, the coloration of the red grouper can change very quickly when they’re excited or aggravated, especially when they’re spawning or protecting their territory. At these times (which occur fairly often because of the red grouper’s aggressiveness), the red or brown tint on some parts of the body turns white and the spots become much more pronounced.

Where to Find Them?

The red grouper is a bottom dwelling fish and is distributed throughout the western and southern hemispheres. Here in Key West, the red grouper is extremely common, with the younger fish preferring seagrass habitats but moving to rocky or reef waters as they mature.

Lures and Tackle

Because of their aggressive nature, you can typically hook a red grouper using either live or dead bait. Shrimp and crab are always good bets with the red grouper, but they’re almost as quick to go after jigs and lures as well. Remember that schools of red grouper tend to congregate near the sea floor, so heavier tackle will get you the best results.

Rules and Regulations

Regulations for the red grouper are a bit complex, but there’s a 20″ minimum for keeping them and it’s open season year round in state waters. Ask your charter captain for more details on regulations for this fish.

Gag Grouper

The Gag Grouper (Mycteroperca microlepis), or gag, is a prize catch all over the Florida Keys and elsewhere. One of the reasons they’re so highly sought after is that they’re generally regarded as the best-tasting fish in the grouper family. But they’re also one of the most highly regulated fish in the region, another fact that might have something to do with their popularity.

Appearance

With its drab gray color and mottled look, the gag’s appearance is nowhere near as distinctive as the rest of the grouper family, but it does occasionally present markings that are similar to the Black Grouper’s. Though they can grow as large as about 60 pounds, they weigh closer to 10-15 pounds on average.

Where to Find Them?

The Gag Grouper prefers warmer waters and is most commonly found in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. A bottom feeding fish, the gag prefers to live near structures like coral reefs, rock formations, and ledges. They’re also fond of hanging around shipwrecks and sunken barges.

Lures and Tackle

Lures tend to be very appealing to the gag grouper, but expect to have a fight on your hands once you hook one. Because gags tend to congregate near the sea bottom, you’ll maximize your chances if you use heavier tackle and bottom bouncers when fishing for them. They’re not easy to catch, but with proper guidance and patience, you can land a few on a good day.

Rules and Regulations

Like we said earlier, the gag is one of the most regulated fish in the area. For complete information on gag grouper rules and regulations, ask your charter captain or click right here.

Goliath Grouper

Although there has been some talk of reducing it of late, there is currently a federal ban on keeping the incredible Goliath Grouper (Epinephelus itajara). This ban has been in place since 1990, but the Goliath grouper population has slowly been increasing since that time and grouper lovers have high hopes for the near future. But until the ban is lifted, it’s catch (if you can) and release only.

Appearance

With a name like the Goliath Grouper, it shouldn’t be surprising that this fish is huge. Though adults average about 400 pounds, this beautiful monster has been known to grow up to 8 feet long and weigh as much as 700-800 pounds. The Goliath Grouper is an extremely broad fish, with its width equal to almost half its length near the middle of its body.

Where to Find Them?

The habitat of the Goliath Grouper ranges from the Florida Keys to the Bahamas and the Brazilian coast. They’re typically found in shallow waters less than 150 feet deep and tend to gather near rock and coral formations, as well as near shipwrecks. The Goliath Grouper is extremely territorial and has been known to attack divers on occasion.

Lures and Tackle

If you’re brave enough to try and land one of these huge fish, the first thing you need to bring is your lunch and a lot of endurance. Their size alone is enough to scare off even the toughest would-be fishermen, but they’ll also fight tooth and nail to stay in the water.

That being said, we recommend, um, heavy tackle and up to 500 lb test line if you do wish to take your chances. As far as bait goes, you can use any legal live bait fish up to 15 pounds, but lures and jigs are almost never effective with this grouper.

Rules and Regulations

As we said earlier, there is currently a federal ban on all harvesting of the Goliath Grouper.

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