The flat summer sea off Loreto, Baja California Sur, offered a fine opportunity to try our luck with the local baya, or gulf grouper that inhabit the rocky pinnacles and caves that dominate the bottom at Punta Lobos at the northeast side of Isla Carmen. We approached the area with a sense of excitement and respect because we knew big grouper are some of the toughest adversaries any angler can encounter. Setting out some bonito feathers we trolled in slow circles until we had a triple strike with black skipjack in the ten-pound size. We quickly doubled-hooked these live baits on 80-pound bottom rigs and dropped all three overboard. We spread ourselves from bow to stern to avoid tangles. Before my bait reached bottom my rod was yanked to the gunwale and I set the hook. Line ripped off the spool in huge amounts as I struggled just to stay on my feet. Soon there were three radically bent rods being pulled down by grouper which took all of us by surprise. We were expecting a long wait to get a hook-up. Instead we had a school of these powerful fish cruising the mid-water column seemingly looking for a handout from us.
The scorching sun and humid air of July punished us almost as much as the brutes tugging below. With the fish finally coming my way I could almost see color when my rod suddenly recoiled to a lifeless posture. In an instant my grouper was gone. Soon a second one was lost. We examined our terminal tackle in a sweaty daze trying to figure out what went wrong. It didn’t take long. The double 10/0 hook I used as a stinger (a trailing hook attached to the rear of the bait) was bent nearly straight. The other outfit, which was rigged with 200-pound monofilament leader instead of wire, was severed. It revealed a foot of deep abrasions above the cut where the groupers’ cavernous, toothy jaws eventually wore through leader that had withstood marlin and other pelagies. Luckily, the third grouper held on but saying we saw “color” doesn’t do it justice since it looked bigger than a SUV. We estimated its weight at 140 pounds which is well below the maximum recorded weight for this species.
This grouper episode was a good lesson taught to us by one of the most challenging fish in Baja. If you have any weakness in terminal tackle, rod, reel or technique a big grouper will find it. Landing one fish out of three, as we did, is actually not a bad ratio as we rationalized later. Even when well prepared with flawless equipment grouper frequently power-dive into their caves or rocky crevasses and will cut you off. The opportunity we wasted was hooking them in open water where they couldn’t reach their sanctuary and we still lost two out of three.
THE GROUPER GANG The baya (a.k.a. gulf) grouper and broomtail grouper are the most commonly-encountered large groupers in Baja. The giant (black) sea bass and jewfish are grouper-like in appearance but are considered distant family members. Leopard grouper and golden grouper are color phases of the same species and rarely exceed 50 pounds, although Larry Burson of Jig Stop Tours in Dana Point has reported leopards exceeding 100 pounds in the Gorda Bank region of Los Cabos. Some reference books list olive grouper, gulf coney, sawtail and snowy grouper as distinct species. When young, almost all grouper may be confused with members of the smaller bass family such as spotted cabrilla, leather bass, flag cabrilla and enjambre.
BAYA (GULF) GROUPER: When adults these grouper are usually solid brown with a lighter tan belly. They can exceed six-feet and 200 pounds. They were very common in the upper and mid Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) but are becoming more scarce. Like most large grouper, they are especially vulnerable to spearfishing due to their curiosity. Bayas prefer rugged underwater topography with caves where they will set up a territorial habitat from which to ambush prey. At times, these grouper will hunt cooperatively and have been seen balling up schools of yellowtail on the surface at Isla Carmen, Loreto, while taking turns feeding. As with most grouper, juveniles may be found in shallow water but will migrate to deeper water when adults. Although most gulf grouper reside in the Sea of Cortez the current IGFA world record came from the Uncle Sam Bank on the Pacific side and weighed 100 pounds 14 ounces.
BROOMTAIL GROUPER: This is known as a tropical species and historically have been found from Magdalena Bay to the Galapagos Islands. Broomtails will show occasionally over the banks in the Los Cabos region. It reaches four-feet and 100 pounds and unlike some other large groupers will readily take metal jigs worked near the bottom. Broomtails are easily identified due to their squared, serrated tail that resembles a crudely-constructed “broom”. They have a beautiful skin pattern, even when adults, with circular blotches and scrawls on the back and sides ranging from light tan to dark brown or black.
SAWTAIL GROUPER: It was previously thought that broomtails were the only eastern Pacific grouper with a serrated tail and dark spots but in 1967 Rosenblatt and Zahuranec identified the sawtail as a distinct species. The sawtail reaches a length of four-feet and prefers deeper water than the broomtail or gulf grouper. The sawtail can be distinguished from the broomtail since it has small spots scattered among its large body markings and its tail grooves are more uniform than the random serration’s found on the broomtail. Its range is the Sea of Cortez midriff to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (mainland).
LEOPARD GROUPER: This fish is often confused with the spotted cabrilla and they are caught in similar habitat and range. Leopards typically reach a maximum size of three-feet and 40 pounds but larger fish have been documented in Los Cabos waters. A beautiful fish, leopards have small reddish-brown spots encircled by silver-gray lines that give a leopard like appearance. About one percent of the leopards change into a golden phase which, legend tells, also makes them leaders when they school-up and attack prey. Their range is from Magdalena Bay to mainland Mexico.
SNOWY GROUPER: These fish are found offshore in 400-feet depths or more and not commonly encountered by sportfishermen. It reaches a length of three-feet. Unlike its name, the adult snowy has a black or dark brown body with lighter marks on the tail and caudal fins. Juveniles have white spots which give the snowy its name. They have been found from central California to Peru.
GULF CONEY: Also known as baqueta, this is the only grouper with a bright red body and can be confused with the many species of red snapper or pargo. It reaches a length of over three-feet and has high, deeply notched dorsal spines and a bold, dark line following its upper jaw groove. The gulf coney was thought to be rare because anglers didn’t often encounter it, however, it has become a commercial species and is taken by set lines over reef and sand bottoms in deep water. It is found from most of the Sea of Cortez to Peru.
GIANT SEA BASS: Also known as black sea bass, they share the same genetic family names with grouper. A big species, they reach a length of seven feet and can weigh 600 pounds or more. They are found from the Channel Islands, California to the Sea of Cortez where they have been encountered in the midriff islands but are frequently lost to the rocky bottom and caves. As with many grouper, these adults can live 70 years or more and anglers must release them in California waters since they are a protected species. Even though they attain great size, even adult fish can be found in relatively shallow water from 40-to 150 feet in depth, especially around kelp beds and island structure.
JEWFISH: This monster grouper grows to over eight feet and can exceed 700 pounds. It has probably scared more divers than all the other grouper combined because it has a habit of replacing normal curiosity with bold approaches that appear to be a feeding maneuver. Some divers have had to fend off huge jewfish with a blow on the snout while retreating to safety. This is another large fish that inhabits fairly shallow water. It is common to find them in 15-to 100-feet of water in areas where they still exist. They inhabit both coasts of tropical America and historically ranged from the midriff in the Sea of Cortez to Peru on the eastern Pacific. Jewfish were reportedly encountered in the Rio Rosalia in Mulege and offshore at Isla Santa Inez. Now rare in Baja, they are still found in Panama in good numbers. In May 1999 we boated a 200-pound specimen from a panga along the Tuna Coast of Panama in only 50-feet of water. Jewfish seem to go wherever they want and may be found in mangrove shallows, shipwrecks, rocky areas with cave structure, reefs and man-made attractions such as bridge pilings. Juvenile jewfish are almost identical to spotted cabrilla. When they reach adulthood they lose their spots and blotches and become a more uniform olive-brown in color.
TIPS TO KNOW Grouper gear needs to withstand heavy line pressure on the reel and the rod must be able to exert a strong pull to turn a big fish from its lair. A stand-up marlin outfit with a lever drag, two-speed reel that will drop into the 2:1 gear ratio range will help greatly in a grouper battle. Even moderate-size grouper will test an angler. Larry Burson tells of his personal-best 85-pound leopard grouper caught at the Iman Bank, Los Cabos, that went repeatedly into holes and had to be pulled off the rocks with the boat in gear. Grouper in the 50-pound range can usually be handled with conventional medium tackle intended for yellowtail.
Terminal rigs should feature strong, forged hooks. Stay away from wire hooks which can be straightened by these powerful fish. Grouper don’t have keen eyesight and don’t seem to be leader or hook shy so use at least 200-pound hard mono or fluorocarbon leader and 10/0 to 12/0 hook sizes. Larry Burson prefers mono over wire because wire will get caught in coral and rocks. Metal jigs also work well, especially with broomtail grouper, such as the Ironman 5, Braid Slammers, Salas and Tady 9.
Large live baits such as bonito, black skipjack and yellowfin tuna work well. Some anglers use a “stinger” for second trailing hook with large baits so that they can be fished with the reel in gear for an immediate hookset. There is no need to feed line in freespool when using a two-hook rig. Barracuda are an excellent choice in the Midriff Islands. From the Thetis Bank off Magdalena Bay to the Gorda Banks the chihuil over 12 inches is a top bait for baya grouper. Dead bait and cut bait can also be effective but will also attract smaller scavengers and sharks. One of our biggest problems while fishing grouper off Loreto was hooking large hammerhead sharks, however, extensive commercial shark fishing has reduced their population throughout Baja that they no longer pose the same problem. Grouper also like to eat cabrilla and will sometimes attack an anglers hooked cabrilla while struggling on the line.
Grouper are usually available year-round, fight like a truck and taste great with firm, white meat. However, release these fish, especially the big adults, whenever possible and be aware of special regulations that may apply.