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Goliath!

11/13/2009

ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Christmas features the "must do" saltwater fishing excursions along the coasts of the United States. Between now and year's end, we'll present a bucket list of fishing trips any angler would love to receive.

Back when I was a teenager fishing Arkansas farm ponds and rivers, I started keeping a list of fish I dreamed of catching someday. Call it my "Bucket List" if you will — a list of fish I want to catch before I "kick the bucket."

In the 40 years since I started keeping this list, I've caught and crossed off many species, including the piranha, payara, peacock bass, white sturgeon, king salmon, paddlefish and saltwater species such as roosterfish, tuna, lingcod, sharks, halibut, cobia and dorado. Until recently, however, one species listed since day one has eluded me: the goliath grouper.

Imagine a steer-sized largemouth bass with mottled brown colors and you'll know what this brute looks like. When I was young, I often saw photos of these big groupers in fishing books and magazines. All were similar — a goliath grouper hanging above a dock with a triumphant angler standing beside it. The angler always was puny by comparison, a fact that fueled my desire to catch these incredible giants.

In 1988, I had my first chance. A guide in Marco Island, Fla., motored me to a sunken wreck miles offshore, shoved a stand-up rod in my hand, baited the hook with a live pinfish and instructed me to lower it to the bottom 150 feet below.

"They live in the wreck," he said. "They'll come out, grab the bait and go right back inside. To catch one, you must keep it out of the wreck. Set the hook hard and reel like hell."

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Launch Gallery

This should be a cinch, I thought, looking at the winch-sized reel, thick mono line and broomstick rod I was using. But when the first fish struck, I was unprepared for its power. It slammed me against the transom so hard I had bruises for weeks. In an instant, the fish was back in the wreck and wouldn't budge. Game over.

This happened 20 times that day. A fish struck. I held on for dear life. The fish swam back in the wreck. Game over.

I left Marco Island frustrated. I hooked some enormous grouper, but they seemed impossible to catch. The species dropped a few places on my bucket list but remained there, nevertheless.

Fast forward to June 2009. My friend Mark Davis, host of Penn's Big Water Adventures television show on the Outdoor Channel, posts photos on his Facebook page of a 700-pound goliath grouper, one of several monsters he caught while filming at Boca Grande in southwest Florida. I'm intrigued.

"How the hell did you manage to land them?" I ask.

"Let me set you up a trip and you can find out yourself," he says.

Plans are laid. Wife Theresa and I will be in nearby Punta Gorda, Fla., for conference in October. Davis will attend, too. He arranges an Oct. 6 outing with Captain Ryan Rowan (www.tarponcaptain.com), an experienced, 38-year-old North Port resident he describes as "one of the best guides I've ever shared a boat with."

I encourage Theresa to accompany us, but having heard stories of my previous grouper outing — long boat ride, heavy tackle, zero landings — she has reservations. "I don't think I have a chance of landing one," she says.

Davis says otherwise. "I promise you'll catch the biggest fish you've ever seen," he tells her. And although he was with me when I landed my biggest ever — a 7-1/2 foot, 250-pound-plus white sturgeon — he assures me I'll have no trouble exceeding my big-fish mark, too.

"I guarantee it," he says.

On the morning of Oct. 6, Ryan Rowan motors Theresa, Mark and me to the goliath grouper hotspot where Mark caught his 700-pounder. The scene differs greatly from my Marco Island excursion. Instead of a wreck, Ryan takes us to a half-acre spread of wooden pilings, the remains of an old pier. Instead of 150 feet of water, we'll fish 10- to 40- foot depths. And instead of traveling 20 miles offshore, we set up just 200 yards off a beautiful beach.

After I'm seated at the boat's bow, Ryan runs a hook the size of a small anchor through the snout of a foot-long jack and explains the set-up.

"We've spent several years perfecting our technique for catching these big groupers," he says. "They feed around the clock year-round, but we fish during slack tide because it's easier then to position the boat beside the pilings where they live and feed.

"Mark will be in the tower maneuvering the boat. I'll stay here and help you get your bait in the right spot. When a fish takes the bait, it'll yank the rod down hard. Don't set the hook or start reeling when that happens. Just hold on tight and Mark will back the boat out. That will hook the fish and pull it away from the pilings. When the fish is in open water, then you'll start fighting it."

Ryan tosses the bait beside a piling, I release it to the bottom, and, instantly, the rod nosedives.

"Hold on!" Mark and Ryan shout simultaneously. Mark revs the outboard and back we go.

Boca Grande fishing

The waters around Boca Grande, Fla., are home to an incredible variety of popular sportfish. Capt. Ryan Rowan regularly puts clients on 100- to 200-pound tarpon and heavyweight snook, redfish, cobia, speckled trout and other species. Goliath groupers weighing 100 to 500 pounds are common catches year-round, and much larger fish always are possible.

Huge sharks also roam these waters, as evidenced by two gigantic Boca Grande hammerheads landed with Rowan's assistance: a 1,060-pounder caught earlier this year and the 1,280-pound, IGFA all-tackle world record caught in 2006.

For more information or to book a trip, visit Rowan's website, www.tarponcaptain.com, or phone him at 941-706-5061.

For information on local accommodations, restaurants, attractions and more, contact the Charlotte Harbor Visitor and Convention Bureau, www.charlotteharbortravel.com, 800-652-6090.

I feel Ryan's hands squeezing my shoulders. "Don't want you going anywhere," he says, smiling. A scene from Real TV flashes through my mind: an old dude snatched overboard while battling a monster fish. I reach back to be sure my knife is still on my belt.

When the boat is away from the pilings, Mark chortles. "Now, it's up to you, Sutton. Reel it in."

Easier said than done. The huge fish surges away, peeling line against the drag. But having the right tools for the job — a big Fin-Nor Santiago 50-wide reel, 80-pound-class Fin-Nor stand-up rod and 600-pound-test line — soon gains me the upper hand. I pull and reel, and inch by inch, the goliath grouper comes my way.

"I see color," Mark shouts. Then there it is, the goliath I've dreamed of catching more than four decades. This time, though, there will be no photograph of the angler standing on a dock beside his catch. These slow-growing giants, delicious on the table, were overexploited for years. Harvesting them in federal waters of the southeastern U.S. has been prohibited since 1990. I bring the fish alongside the boat, and while Ryan removes the hook, Theresa climbs into the tower and snaps some photos.

"A 200-pounder or thereabouts," Ryan estimates. And with a flip of its tail, the goliath is gone.

Thirty minutes later, I bring a bigger grouper boatside, this one around 250 pounds. It, too, is released unharmed.

Theresa now takes a turn in the chair. The biggest fish she has caught is a 30-pound catfish. ("Bait," Mark says.) But that's about to change. She hooks up as soon as the bait hits bottom, and 10 minutes later, with hardly a struggle, she lands an 80-pounder.

"Now it's time to catch a big one," Ryan says, grinning. Theresa looks puzzled but understands when Ryan drags a big stingray from the baitwell. He hooks the ray, tosses it by one of the pilings, then moves behind Theresa so he can grab her —"just in case."

"I'm not sure I'm ready for this," Theresa says just before the next fish strikes and lifts her from the chair. Ryan grimaces as he struggles to keep Theresa in the boat. The two strain against the rod as Mark backs away.

Theresa will never forget the 15-minute battle that follows. Nor will I. The 275-pound grouper puts up a hell of a fight, but it is no match for my determined wife.

I climb the tower and shoot photos as Theresa reaches out and touches the gentle giant, a fish more than twice her size and nearly 10 times larger than her biggest ever. That moment is a highlight of the day.

The day isn't over yet, though. Theresa passes the rod, and soon I hook another grouper. I know immediately this fish is bigger than the others. Its power is incredible. I worry it might escape in the pilings, but somehow we pull it to open water.

Could this be my biggest fish ever? When it comes topside, I know it is. It's 8 feet long and as big around as a grizzly. "450 pounds minimum," Ryan proclaims.

By the time I subdue it, the fish has pulled the boat into the shallows. Ryan and I jump in the water with it, and Theresa and Mark shoot photos as we unhook the huge fish and release it. I am ecstatic when this truly goliath grouper swims powerfully away.

There are high fives all around. Ryan is obviously happy our half-day fishing trip had proven successful. Mark is happy he was able to plan and execute an unforgettable outing for us. Theresa and I are ecstatic because we've caught our biggest fish ever, an experience we always remember.

I've never been on a fishing trip I've enjoyed more. And if you have a strong desire to catch several 100- to 500-pound fish in a single day, I recommend you contact Ryan Rowan and book a trip with all haste. News about Rowan and the extraordinary Boca Grande goliath grouper fishery is spreading like wildfire. And with Rowan slated to appear in no less than five TV fishing shows in early 2010, I'm betting he'll be booked up in no time.

As for me, I'm already planning another trip. My sons and I will fish with the incomparable Capt. Rowan next summer. I have no doubt they, too, will catch their biggest fish ever. And I want to be there to see the surprise, the grimaces and the smiles on their faces when it happens.