Welcome to our “How to Catch Florida Grouper Fishing Guide” where we tell you everything we know about catching this delicious and hard fighting fish. Grouper are often targeted because their flesh has an amazing texture and consistency that people love on sandwiches, blackened on a plate, or in a salad. If you haven’t had a grilled-grouper sandwich, you’re missing one of life’s true pleasures. These are heavy and strong fish that immediately try to wrap your line around structure or sharp stuff, so they’re fun to catch because you’ll need to use all your strength to get a big one up to the boat or pier. If you haven’t caught one yet, learn all about it here and get out there on the water as soon as possible!
[Page Updated – 21 July 2021. Bookmark this page (Windows CNTRL+D, MAC CMD+D) so you don’t lose it.]
How To Catch Grouper—Guide
- Size: 7/10 stars
- Fight: 8/10 stars
- Difficulty to Catch: 8/10 stars
- Taste: 10/10 stars
INDEX to Sections in this Guide:
- WHY catch them?
- WHERE found?
- Diet – What do they EAT?
- HOW to catch Grouper?
- WHEN is best time?
- GEAR! (our recommendations)
- LAWS in Your State
- How to COOK them?
PRO TIP – There are more than a dozen different species of this fish in Florida waters. Regulation is different for each. Know the law and keep your money in your pocket, fines are steep!
17 Species in Florida
Most anglers don’t realize it, but there are actually 17 different species of Grouper swimming in the waters of Florida. Only three species cannot be caught and eaten, you can see in the black cells in the chart below. These fish reach 180 lbs. and up to four feet long at full adulthood. Black Grouper feed on fish and squid in their natural habitat, and they’ll take cut bait strips and whole fish – live or dead when fished on the bottom. You’ll find the adult fish around 60 feet deep and more.
Black Grouper (Mycteroperca berosi)
- Olive, and grey coloration
- Similar to Gag Grouper
Coney Grouper (Cephalopholis Fulva) – Also known by a variety of names like yellowfish, butterfish, Cod, Coney Grouper, Deady, and rockfish. These small fish grow to around 30 cm. and stay at the bottom (3 to 230 feet deep) eating crustaceans and smaller fish. They prefer to eat around sunset. They have a deepwater red coloration phase as well as a bi-color phase where the top will be darker than the bottom. They have been found down in Brazil and Trinidad and all the way up to the US Carolinas. These fish also find their way into the aquarium pet fish trade.
- Range of color hues – don’t use coloration to identify this Grouper.
- Body with many small blue spots unless in bright yellow phase coloration.
- 2 black spots on jaw and 2 spots on base of tail.
- Tail is rounded.
- 9 dorsal fin spines.
Gag Grouper (Mycteroperca microlepis) – Also known as just gag, gagger, charcoal belly, and I heard it called “Velvet Rockfish” one time by an old-timer. Gag Groupers are found near structure – any wreck or rocks, drop offs and steep walls around 50-60 feet deep are great places to find them. Sub-adults are often found in beds of seagrass in the shallows.
- Grey to light brown in color.
- Marble pattern, almost like lipstick kisses.
- Straight tail.
- 11 dorsal fin spines.
- camouflage phase has 5 dark brown saddles separated by short white bars below the dorsal fin
Goliath Grouper (Epinephelus itajara) – Listed as VULNERABLE and Numbers Decreasing at IUCNRedlist.org. No harvesting permitted of these gentle giants. They have been restricted for three decades and scientists are not certain if the populations have recovered enough to open a fishing season for them. Found in water from 16 to 160+ feet deep. These massive fish can eat anything smaller than themselves including sharks, turtles, fish, crabs, octopus, squid, and attempts have been made to munch on divers too!
Common names: Jewfish, Black Bass, Giant Seabass, Hamlet, Southern or Spotted Jewfish.
- Can grow to 8 feet in length and over 800 lbs.
- Brownish yellow, grey or green hued body color.
- Head and dorsal part of body and fins with small black spots.
- Juveniles have irregular dark bands. Adults are more developed.
Graysby Grouper (Cephalopholis cruentata) – Very small fish species considering its cousins, with a maximum length around 17 inches and weight of 2.4 lbs. Reef and ledge fish, they eat smaller fish and crustaceans, as do most grouper (all grouper). They prefer depths greater than 89 feet.
- Found below 27m.
- Opercle with 3 flat spines (by anus)
- 4 dark or white spots at base of dorsal fin.
Nassau Grouper (Epinephelus striatus) – CRITICALLY ENDANGERED. A slow growing and delicious fish that has been overfished and taken by spears, decimating the population. Strict regulations are in place to attempt to bring back a healthy Florida population of these fish.
- These beautiful fish can change color from nearly white to dark brown in minutes.
- W shaped pattern on dorsal side near back of dorsal fin.
- Slightly rounded tail.
Misty Grouper (Hyporthodus mystacinus) – Also known as the 8-bar-grouper, mustache-grouper, and the convict. This one eats fish, crabs, and squid and can grow to around 5 feet in length and over 200 lbs. This is a deepwater fish that prefers depths greater than 300 feet, even down to 1,200 feet. Got enough line on that reel?
- Easily recognizable by 8-11 dark bands, similar to Sheepshead fish but the mouth is noticeably different.
- The caudal fin is rounded.
Red Grouper (Epinephelus morio) – a slow growing fish that can reach close to five feet long and over fifty pounds. These big ones spawn more than twenty times between February and June each year. Reds are opportunistic feeders and will eat just about anything smaller including crabs, shrimp, fish, octopus, and squid. These fish can reach 50 lbs. and about 42 inches in length when fully grown. They are common around 20 inches and 15 lbs. Reds can live at least 25 years.
- Head and body are shades of red and brown or pink. White spots on lateral (sides) and black spots above jaw.
- Second spine on the dorsal fin (top fin) is long compared to first one.
Red Hind Grouper (Epinephelus guttatus) – This stunning fish ranges from North Carolina down to Venezuela (unconfirmed reports) and grows to a maximum length of about 30 inches and weight of nearly 50 lbs.
- Convex tail (not dramatic)
- Reddish brown or orange/red spots covering body, head, and into the fins.
- Five darker bands on the dorsum.
Rock Hind Grouper (Epinephelus adscensionis) – Found in varying depth of water from 3 to 360 feet, this is an attractive fish with a variety of colorations depending on habitat and geolocation. Lives on rocky reefs and feeds on crabs mostly and fish secondarily. Has been found to eat small sea turtles. Found from Massachusetts to Portugal.
- Coloration varies, but overall tan color with large oval/circular spots of reddish brown, red, and dark gray and black that get larger toward the ventral side (belly).
- Pelvic fins shorter than pectoral fins.
- Covered with scales and thick skin at base of dorsal fins and anal fins.
- 2 – 3 dark blotches at base of dorsal fin.
Scamp Grouper (Mycteroperca phenax) – The Florida State record for Scamps is only 28 lbs. 6 oz. and it was caught near Mayport. Scamp is delicious eating, just like all the others.
- Brown or reddish body, sometimes it is light gray in color
- Lateral (sides) are covered with dark spots, sometimes in small groups.
- Upper and lower caudal fin rays are long in a spot, giving appearance of an oriental style fish.
- Tail is also unique in shape with top and bottom having lengthy spines.
Snowy Grouper (Hyporthodus niveatus) – Snowy grouper have been found all the way up the east coast of the United States and reaching into Canada, down to South America around Trinidad and Tobaggo Islands. These fish reach 4 feet in length and yet the maximum recorded weight for one is only less than 70 lbs. Found at depths of 100 to 1,700+ feet and seem to prefer the 300-600 feet range.
- Color of brown to dark brown with black spines on the top portion of dorsal fin.
- Sub-adults are dark brown and have white spots in vertical rows on head and body.
- Pattern is unremarkable, some small spots.
Speckled Hind Grouper (Epinephelus drummondhayi) – These fish live for up to 45 years and prefer water depths of 80 to 600 feet. They range from Bermuda and the Carolinas down to the Florida Keys. No harvesting of this species allowed in Federal waters.
- Adults (15 inches +) are dark reddish brown and covered all over by small bright white spots.
- Juveniles (10 inches) are bright yellow and have blue spots.
Warsaw Grouper (Hyporthodus nigritus) – Noted as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Redlish, this species cannot be harvested in Federal waters, though for some odd reason, can be harvested in Florida waters. Maybe a glitch in the info on FFWCC website.
- Dark brown and brown body.
- Slightly lighter on ventral.
- Slightly rounded caudal fin.
- 10 spines on dorsal fin.
Yellowedge Grouper (Epinephulus flavolimbatus) – Found across range from Massachusetts to the Caribbean to Cuba, Trinidad, and the West Indies. These grow to 7+ feet long and over 400 lbs.
- Yellow tips on caudal, pelvic, and other fins.
- Overall light brown color with some yellow. Ventral (belly) white/light tan.
- Rear fin with longer barbs on top and bottom.
Yellowfin Grouper (Mycteroperca venenosa) – The species name means “venomous” – alluding to the fact that this fish more than others is frequently a carrier of Ciguatera poisoning, like Barracuda and some other reef fish. Yellowfin don’t get that big, the biggest one caught in Florida was caught in Key Largo and was only 34 lbs. 6 oz. These are beautiful fish to see in real life, the illustration isn’t bad either.
- The outer one-third of the pectoral fins are bright yellow. The pectoral fins are those on the sides.
- Covered with dark red/pink blotches that appear to be in a disorganized pattern.
- Flat tail
Yellowmouth Grouper (Mycteroperca interstitialis) – Range is limited to southern Florida. They are found offshore. Maximum weight around 20 lbs. and common at 10 lbs.
- Inside of mouth is yellow.
- Similar fin shape to Scamp.
- 4-6 dark bands laterally
Similar Species: These fish are rather unique in body shape and patterns, I can’t think of anything that reminds me of a grouper that isn’t one.
IUCN Redlist Status: The Goliath Grouper is listed as Vulnerable and populations declining. The Nassau Grouper is “Critically Endangered.” Neither can be caught anywhere within the USA. Other of their species in Florida State waters are plentiful and not in danger of being overfished.
Appearance: Thicker body than some other fish with respect to length. They can weigh more than 100 lbs. and there are some massive fish lurking in the deep water you can find sometimes when deep sea fishing. They have a very wide jaw and a big head. They’re quite distinctive, even without some of the cool patterns and colors they possess. This is a strong fish with a lot of muscle.
Length: Varying lengths with the largest, the Goliath, reaching over 8 feet long.
Weight: 30+ lbs. for adult and even sub-adult is common in most species.
Range/Distribution: Distribution is wide. The Snowy Grouper has been found in Canadian waters! They reach all the way down to the tip of the keys, and around to Mexico. Some are found in the Caribbean, Cuba, Portugal, Trinidad, Brazil, and the West Indies.
Habitat: They prefer deeper water around structure, rocks, and reef, but can be found around fishing piers in Florida if you’re fishing with mullet or pinfish, or some other medium-sized fish.
Diet: Pinfish, mullet, other baitfish, crabs, squid, octopus, lobster.
Florida and World Records
This section was easy to write because all three grouper world records were caught in Florida, so they’re the same.
The Biggest Gag was caught in 1993 in the waters off Destin, Florida and the big fish was 80 pounds, 6 ounces.
With the average adult Goliath weighing in at around 400 lbs., you know the biggest one recorded is going to be huge right? The biggest one was caught on hook and line in 1961 at Fernandina Beach, Florida. The big Goliath Grouper was 680 lbs. I remember talking to some people who’d seen a massive Goliath at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge that they named Hitler.
The Biggest Red was a 42 pound, 4 ounce fish that was caught on hook and line off St. Augustine, in the Atlantic side of Florida in 1997.
Why Catch this Fish?
Grouper is one of the most often targeted species of fish by anglers all over the USA for a couple of reasons. Number one, they are great eating! If you’ve never had a blackened grouper sandwich at a restaurant along the coast in Florida, you’re missing an incredible experience. The flesh is thick and juicy and has an odd texture that most fish don’t possess.
Besides being great for a meal, they take your bait and immediately pull hard when they realize they’re attached to your line. It’s a real fight to get a big one up off the bottom of the sea, especially if it’s down 100 feet or more. They’re heavy, strong, and tough fighting fish that will give you a workout. A half-day of catching them on rod and reel will tire you out!
Where To Find Grouper Fish?
Small fish can be found generally inshore, and in water 15 feet deep or more usually. I’ve caught small black, red, and gags in shallow areas near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in south Pinellas county. Not too much fun catching them that small when you can’t keep them and eat them!
To find adults you’ll need to take a charter off the coast and ride out for a while to reach deeper water. Around 60 feet deep is a good starting point, and any structure, wrecks, or rocks will probably hold at least one or two fish, but bigger areas will hold dozens, possibly hundreds. Don’t get me wrong, you CAN find them in shallower water when it’s cooler, and I’ve seen them pull 12 lb. Gags out of 10 feet of water off the Gulf Coast. It’s possible if you know where they are. Any rockpile is a good place to try.
What Do they Eat?
When I think about what these fish eat and how to catch them, I think LIVE BAIT. I think big pinfish and medium-sized mullet. Unless I’m going after a real lunker, then I like BIG mullet. You basically drop your pinfish down to the bottom and hold on for dear life. It doesn’t really matter how much weight you use to get your bait down there, you’ll certainly feel it when any Grouper inhales your baitfish!
If you’re fishing with artificials, you can get some of the larger Yozuri Minnows with 2 treble hooks and try those retrieved at a fast (but not blinding) rate.
How to Catch—Techniques
From a Small Boat – Kayak, Canoe
Hit the piers, wrecks, rocks, and fallen trees to try to find some Grouper in the shallows if you are in a Kayak fishing or other small boat. Every year there are some good size gamefish pulled in at most of the big piers in Florida. You just need to do the work and have the right heavy-weight gear to land them. You’re not landing a thirty pound fish with a ‘medium-light’ rod. It’s too risky that might lose it. Go with heavier gear.
When Is the Best Time to Fish?
They prefer water temperatures in the 66°F to 77°F range. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas is prime time in Florida.
Best Rod for Grouper
If you’re targeting them, you’re going to need some heavy-duty tackle. You could be fighting a fish that weighs over 100 lbs. and is down in 70 to 150 feet of water or more. That requires very heavy gear that isn’t cheap because it isn’t going to break as you’re reeling in what may be the biggest fish of your life.
The Fiblink rods are good, but often unavailable in the 80-100 lb. class you need. See if any are available here.
Best Reel for these Big Fish?
Baitcasting / Trolling Reels
This PENN REEL (at Amazon) for Inshore Fishing and Made in America (Philadelphia, PA.)
Don’t Forget the Leader – we use this one.
This Mustad Hook is recommended. The size 8/0 covers smaller and bigger fish. Of course if you get in the middle of huge fish, you should increase the size of your hook.
Best Fishing Rigs?
The easiest way to setup a Grouper Rig is to use a simple egg sinker, swivel, and leader on the end of your braided line. I like 80-100 lb. braided followed by 8 feet of 100 lb. mono with an 8/0 Circle Hook holding live bait like a Pinfish, Pilchard, or other similarly sized fish. Most hook the live bait through the nose area. When fishing for these fish in the Gulf of Mexico, you must use circle hooks. You don’t set a circle hook, you’ll likely just pull it free of the mouth before it has a chance to work itself into the jaw of the fish.
You can Troll for them in the Gulf, and that works well for people who feel like they have to be on the move and want to fish shallow water. I’ve honestly never done it. I prefer to park over a wreck or ledge. There are almost always nice sized grouper in the deeper water.
Fishing Laws in Florida
Grouper fishing doesn’t require a separate permit or tag, so once you get your Florida Saltwater Fishing License if fishing from a boat, you’ll be ready to go! If you’re fishing from the shore, a pier, a dock, or a bridge, you won’t need a Florida fishing license if you are a Florida Resident. If you are NOT a resident, you’ll need at least a $17 three day saltwater fishing license. There are also 7 days for $30 and 1 year for $47 options for no-residents.
Here’s our EASY-TO-UNDERSTAND page about Florida Fishing License Requirements.
Legal Gear for Harvesting Fish
Hook and line, and spearfishing are legal options for harvesting most Grouper Species. Check the table below.
Fishing Laws (Gulf & Atlantic Florida State Waters and Federal Waters)
All the different species on this page are regulated differently, and it’s quite daunting to try to comb through the official website and figure out what you can and can’t catch, when and where. We’ve combined all the relevant laws into this graphic to make it easier, but to be honest, it’s a bit easier, but you still need to read a lot to understand how to take the fish legally in Florida and in International Waters.
If you also want to know about which fishing license and permits you need in Florida, we just created a new page for that HERE which easily explains it.
Florida Grouper Fishing Chart for Gulf Coast, East Coast, State, and Federal Waters
NOTE – a full list of rules for fishing for all fish in Florida can be found at the Florida Rules website here.
Get the Fishing App
If fishing from 3 to 200 nautical miles off the coast of Florida, Georgia, South or North Carolina, you can use this mobile application to stay up to date on the fishing rules on the Atlantic Coast.
They are farm raised in some areas of the world, primarily Asia. Here’s an interesting and informative article about some of the challenges Grouper farmers faced in Thailand.
Most grouper are currently farmed in Asia. Among the top producing countries are China (61 percent), Taiwan (14 percent) and Indonesia (13 percent), followed by Malaysia (9 percent).https://www.aquaculturealliance.org/advocate/search-for-sustainable-grouper-farming/#:~:text=Most%20grouper%20are%20currently%20farmed,by%20Malaysia%20(9%20percent).
How to Prepare and Eat these Amazing Tasting Fish?
The best way to cook these fish is to blacken it with some Cajun spices or something that adds some spiciness or other flavor to it. You can eat it plain or put it on a sandwich. I LOVE it on a sandwich, so that’s what I’m going to share with you today. Blackened Grouper Sandwich!
I always bleed the grouper immediately after catching by cutting the gills with scissors or a knife after I’ve put him out of his misery. Turn the fish upside down and let it bleed out before putting it on ice. Trying to bleed a fish after icing, is an exercise in futility as not all the blood comes out easily. Do it while he’s warm.
Vern’s Blackened Grouper Sandwiches
- Grouper – kill, bleed, gut, and fillet them off the skin. I rarely fillet ANY fish, but grouper I always do because I’m always making blackened grouper sandwiches.
- Butter – I mean good butter. Whole fat. Salted!
- Garlic – minced.
- Cut Maui onions if you can get them. Vidalia? otherwise.
- Cut tomato
- Smashed avocado or guacamole (preferred).
- Black pepper – very finely ground.
- Chili water (this is like Louisiana hot sauce watered down a lot). It’s the perfect topper for people who like spicey food. If you don’t, no worries. Don’t use that Lousiana hot sauce, it’s too flavorful and will take away from the flavor of the fish and other seasonings. Use Tobasco sauce if you must, the flavor is less harsh.
- Cajun Seasoning or Paul Prudhomme’s Blackening Season. I use this one most often (when I can find it or just order it from Amazon –
- Loaf of Italian Bread from your local Italian Bakery. Go the extra mile to do this step and you’ll be so glad you did. Especially if serving guests. Forget about store-bought buns or other inferior bread.
- Flavorful, aromatic cold-pressed olive oil.
- Preheat a cast-iron skillet (for best results) to 500°F.
- Sprinkle (pour?) Paul Prudhomme’s blackening seasoning on both sides of the fillets. I also coat each side in some finely ground black pepper because I love the taste.
- You’ll know it’s hot enough when you pour a bit of olive oil on the skillet – the oil will smoke quickly. Let the oil heat up for 20-30 seconds.
- Put the Grouper Fillets in the pan and cover, leaving room for the steam to gather, and escape. Use a too small lid to cover the fish, don’t cover the pan with a lid that fits.
- Cook for 3-4 minutes then flip the fillets with a spatula. As you do, squeeze lemon and butter on top of the browned fish. Lastly, plop a slice of mozzarella on top of each fillet. I prefer PROVOLONE actually, but to each his own.
- Cut your Italian bread into sandwich-sized portions and smear butter and minced garlic pieces on them. Put in oven on top shelf on Broil until lightly brown, remove quickly.
- Check the Grouper flesh to see if flaky and cooked through. Even thick Grouper should cook through in 3-4 minutes per side.
- Throw your fillets on your sandwich, cover with guacamole, tomatoes, chili water, onions, and smush it all together with another piece of garlic bread on top.
- Eat it like you’ll never throw another sandwich down your throat.
This is one of my favorite meals, ever. Mahi-mahi sandwiches are also hard to beat!
Note – for thick fillets, they’ll cook more evenly if you make cuts of 1/2 to 1-inch down into the flesh. Cut in a checkerboard pattern with 2 inches between parallel cuts.
PRO TIP – just about any fish can have parasites, worms, etc – usually near the tail area, but they can be anywhere in the flesh. Have a look at your fish as you fillet it or gut it and cut out anything suspicious. You can still eat your fish as long as it’s cooked well. When you have a choice, always choose to eat the smaller (younger) fish because they have less toxins and parasites. That’s true for all species!
- MYFWC – Grouper page. Goliath page.
- Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council Recreational Grouper Fishing Regulations (PDF)
- IUCN Redlist – The International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Image credits: Top of page – Most species illustrations are from Florida’s Fish Commission website and ©Diane Peebles.
More Fishing Guides with All You Need to Know
Fishing Tacklebox Essentials
Fish Scale (Digital and up to 110 lbs.)
Florida Fishing Identification Booklet – 5×7″ Laminated (Waterproof)