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The Groupers

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

" You strange, astonished-looking, angle-faced, Dreary-mouthed, gaping wretches of the sea, Gulping salt water everlastingly, Cold-blooded, though with red your blood be graced, And mute, though dwellers in the roaring waste."

LEIGH HUNT. The Man to the Fish.

IN visiting different fishing-grounds, hunting for new fields to conquer in the sea, or along-shore, the sea angler instinctively contrasts or compares the various fishes he catches with those of other regions which he has known, and frequently finds many points of resemblance. The bluefish is represented on the Pacific coast by the yellowtail, the latter completely filling its place to the sportsman but not to the epicure. In Florida, where the cod is not found, it has a representative in a number of serranoid fishes, the groupers, which as food-fishes are almost equal to, and as sport rank much higher than, the cod.

The angler who visits the outer Florida reef and wanders from Biscayne Bay down the islands as far as Loggerhead will find at Key West and all alongshore smacks fitted with wells which are often filled with groupers, principally the red grouper, caught in fairly deep water. When the well is full, the smack squares away for Havana, where the catch is disposed of to the Cubans. The red grouper is a large ungainly fish, ranging up to seventy pounds in weight, this being the largest fish of the kind I have seen, its length being about three and a half feet. It is an omnivorous biter, living near the bottom, in water from twenty to one hundred feet deep, preferring the bases of the great coral reefs, where an abundant supply of food is assured. As a hand-line fish at such localities, it affords some sport. The grounds north of Sand, Middle, and East keys of the Tortugas group may always be counted upon, winter and summer, while other fishing-grounds are common all over the Gulf, the fish having a wide range, from Rio Janeiro to Maryland, individuals wandering still farther north. The tackle used is a stout cod-line; the hook (I used a 10/0 Kirby Limerick) is gauged a foot or more above the sinker, the theory being that the latter may sink into the branch coral or a grove of gorgonias, while the hook or bait would in this way swing clear. Again, the strike, or bite, is felt much quicker when the hook is above the sinker. The bait most in vogue at this particular point is crayfish or conch, the latter being hard and almost indestructible ; at other places fish bait is employed.

If the right ground is found, excellent sport may be enjoyed, the red grouper being the chief attraction ; but the pleasure is intensified by the remarkable variety of fishes taken, of which the big porcupine-fish, which fills itself with air when reaching the surface and sails along on the water like a balloon, is not least. The red grouper when at forty or fifty pounds is, so far as its game qualities are concerned, like the cod, there being more than a suspicion of laziness, though some big fellows will give fair play; but the fish should not be wholly condemned. Hauling the best of fishes from a great depth is not the most exciting of pastimes, but such fishes, given other conditions, often prove worthy the term " game." So with the red grouper; I found that while a deep-water fish, a companion of the red snapper and a bottom lover, it came inshore in June to spawn and at certain places could be found and fished for from the reef. Such a locality was at Bush Key in the Tortugas group, where I caught red groupers weighing thirty pounds with a rod in twenty feet of water. They could not sulk, and the rushes away and around the boat made me a convert to the despised grouper if found under the conditions described. The fish spawns in May and June on the reef, but as I often found spawn in specimens taken miles offshore in deep water, I assumed that this is not a rule with all groupers. Probably those near the shore move in to spawn, while those living in deep water, away from land, spawn in deep water; in other words, I should not consider the fish a migratory one. I frequently caught small individuals two or three inches in length, with fly-hooks and crayfish bait, around the mangrove roots in the lagoon, where they consorted with young grunts, gray snappers, and angel-fishes. As a table fish, when properly cooked, the red grouper is unexcelled in the South. Boiled, served with shrimp or crayfish sauce, is a very acceptable method of serving.

The red grouper, Epinephelus mono, belongs to the family Serranidce, which includes many of the most valuable food and game fishes, many of which are noted for their size. It has a large head, with wide buckler-like gill-covers, very large or deep where its neck should be, grading off gradually; not what would be termed a handsome or comely fish, yet with its red coat, bright and prominent eyes, long and full dorsal, it makes a brave showing. The young, especially when they weigh about ten pounds, are particularly attractive.

There are fascinations in angling in tropical seas not experienced elsewhere. The fishing is excellent all the year round. Sir Henry Wotton, the good friend of Izaak Walton, once said that " he would rather live five Mays than forty Decembers," and every angler will agree with him, as where is there good fishing in December? It is the season in the North for story-telling. The angler takes out his rods, his fly-book, or his trolling lure, large and small, and tells to some patient and loyal friend, who has heard the same tale fifty times, of the colossus that escaped on a certain day; and the friend, with the camaraderie of the true angler, smiles, expresses wonder, and enjoys it, and fails to note how the monster grows with passing seasons. But there is a region where every month is May, where life is a constant angling fiesta.

"A heavenly Paradise is that place," far down on the outer reef. Any day in the year I could row out beyond the lagoon, watch my chance, and run through the narrow five-foot channel that breaks the great barrier, and float over groves of coral and gorgonias whose grace and beauty defied description. Mounds of olive-green coral, patches of lavender and gold gorgonias fanned by the current, with their reticulated surfaces, some like ostrich plumes in red or brown; seaweeds of varied hues, delicate vines, living cloths of green covering the dead coral rocks, all forming the home of scores of fishes, any one of which was game to the not too critical angler.

It was over such a region that I met another member of this family. I had been fishing for the captivating yellowtail, and was reeling in, when there came a swirl of waters, a vision of a mighty fish, and my yellowtail line and tip were gone. I could see that it was not a shark. Chief, the boatman, expressed the opinion that it was a jewfish ; but the robber was blacker, trimmer, swifter than the huge jewfish, so I baited a suit-able line with a living yellowtail and cast it over into one of the " gulfs enchanted " which I could plainly see. The bait was very active, and made a brave showing with its vivid gold and silver tints, and as it sank slowly, struggling, something like a great shadow came out of the depths, and the next instant I was dragged down flat into the stern, and the line was hissing, leaping over the rail like a living thing. So fierce was the rush, so vigorous the onslaught, that for a few seconds I lost the line, and when I did grasp it, Chief had cast off the buoyed anchor and we were away behind as lively a steed as one would wish.

" Man-eater shark, sa'," grunted the Seminole, sententiously, but he had not seen it. I had, and it was either a jewfish or some fish new in my experience.

But no jewfish ever looked so dark and black as did this mystery that turned and towed us directly out to sea. And as the water deepened rapidly, we were shortly off bottom with the fish directly beneath us, towing the clinker-built boat so swiftly that she had not one, but two bones in her teeth. It was only after much exertion that I lifted the fish to within twenty feet of the surface ; then it turned and towed us directly in toward the reef, where a high sea was breaking. Chief now took the oars and pulled against the fish, while I labored strenuously, gaining a foot or two, then lying back and holding hard, while the fish made desperate rushes, displaying an indomitable spirit, making me suspicious that I had caught a tartar. From early youth having had a penchant for taking impossible fishes in various ways, it had often occurred to me that anglers were strange creatures, undergoing great fatigue, working, straining, being jerked this way and that, to conquer a big fish. Under the banner of sport, this was pleasure ; but if one was rewarded like the ordinary daily fisherman, how prosaic, how monotonous, how hard the labor would be. It all depends upon the point of view, and as I controlled my fish after a particularly heavy rush, Chief stopped rowing, and gazing at my face, contorted with emotion, remarked, " Ef yo' had to do it, sa', it would be mighty hard work!" Chief could never understand why I insisted upon doing all the hauling while he was paid to do it. Chief was plainly not a sportsman ; he had never experienced the thrill of joy of the angler at the supreme moment of vantage gained ; and so it is worse than useless to argue with the man who does not care for angling ; he cannot understand that the angler is, as a rule, born, not bred.

One cannot philosophize with a wild unknown, battering and hammering at your arms, plunging, then rising to the surface with convulsive bound to turn and plunge again. There is a "second wind " in sea angling, and if the fish secures it, it is a sorry day for the fisherman, and seeing that the fish must be fought without cessation, I played it, hauling 'and giving with all my power, and in a few moments had the pleasure of sighting a magnificent fish at the surface, where it turned and beat the blue water into foam, tossed the Portuguese men-of-war into pearly fragments, and ground up scores of delicate jellyfishes which swarmed the warm waters of the Gulf. I held the game while Chief cleverly inserted his big gaff-hook beneath the head, and we held the monster hard and fast and rested our eyes upon the beauties of the black grouper, Garrupa nigrita, which, when towed in and hauled upon the beach at Long Key, was estimated to weigh three hundred and fifty pounds.

This grouper attains a weight of six hundred pounds, possibly more. It is found in Brazil, Cuba, Porto Rico, and the islands of the Caribbean Sea, ranging as far north as Pensacola and the mouth of the St. Johns River; on the western Gulf coast it has various names. The large individuals are called the black jewfish down the reef; smaller ones of one hundred and forty or fifty pounds, by some fishermen, black groupers. The term "black " is to some extent a misnomer, as, while the fish appears black as it rises, its real color, at least in specimens I have observed, is a deep grayish or orange brown, or olive. Along this reef, and particularly near an old wreck a mile from Bird Key in the Tortugas group, where the barrier reef deepened, I took numbers of a smaller black grouper, Mycteroperca bonaci (Poey), a fish ranging from twenty to forty-five pounds, and found them very gamy. Crayfish bait was the most alluring. The tail of a crayfish, which I grained on the open reef early in the morning, was crushed on the side, which splits the shell down the back and renders it easy to open. This was cut into two long baits. The line used was a number twenty-one, attached to a three-foot, slender, copper-wire leader or snood. A large bait was necessary, as it was at once attacked by parrot-fishes, angel, and other beautiful bait destroyers, whose actions attracted the groupers, which darted at it and made a fine play, invariably poising for a second, with dorsals erect with excitement, then feeling the hook, charged to the sounding of the reel.

Another really beautiful grouper which can be commended to the angler is the hamlet, cherna criolla, or Nassau grouper, called by my boatman the white grouper. It is Epinephelus striatus (Bloch) of science. Its color is at times almost white, more properly a pale gray, but its normal tint is a light olive-green most beautifully barred with white or pearl-gray, while the head is striped horizontally, giving it a dashing appearance. The eye is a rich blue, and all together this fish is one of the most attactive of the tropical game fishes. I have taken it at Key West and all along the reef to the west, and it is a common fish in West Indian waters, where it attains a weight of fifty or seventy-five pounds. The large size of many of these fishes is unsuspected, as the giants are not desirable for market and often cannot be transported. I never saw a black grouper, a " white grouper," or a red grouper in the market at Key West which weighed over ten or fifteen pounds. The largest fishes were often rejected, as they could not be conveniently disposed of ; hence few except reef fishermen know that many of the groupers attain such large dimensions or are endowed with game qualities.

Another fine and attractive grouper, the spotted grouper, Epinephelus drumnond--hayi, may be classed with the large game fishes, specimens of which have been caught which weighed forty and fifty pounds ; but the average weight of the species caught by me off East Key was but twenty-five pounds. The young fish of ten or fifteen pounds, often taken about large coral heads, afforded good sport. There are numerous small groupers, snappers, and grunts, belonging to the Florida fishing-grounds, which while comparatively unknown, would repay the angler who spends the winter and spring along the Florida reef.

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