Catches-of-a-lifetime don’t come that often. In fact, I’ve only enjoyed a rare few during my years of angling and chasing these scaly rascals all over the Southeast. For 15-year-old Joah Plumley, he now has one to mark off his bucket list. The Morgan County student recently brought boat side an estimated 200 pound Goliath Grouper while fishing with my son, “Captain” Brett Richardson of Rutledge, and me.
When I purchased (borrowed money) my dream fishing boat in 2004, I had no idea the memories that would be made on the “Reef Donkey”, as she later was named. The little 18 footer, made by Scout, sports a 100 hp Yamaha four-stroke. She’s been coddled, rode hard, and enjoyed some of the finest fishing, destinations, and people a man could desire. The photos on my website (www.ga-fl-fishingreport.vpweb.com) tell the story of catches beyond my imagination. They may not be world or even state records, but to me I wouldn’t trade those memories for any amount of money. They’re priceless.
This latest memory for Joah is just the latest in a long line. He is the son of Chuck and Kathy Plumley of Fairplay and is an avid freshwater and kayak fisherman. He was recently pictured in our paper in an article about the new reservoir in Walton County while catching largemouth from his kayak.
The funny part is he almost wasn’t invited. When a crew member had to cancel at the last moment, the youngster came along on the trip to Carrabelle, Florida with his older brother Logan to fill out the four man crew on the Reef Donkey. They joined my son, Brett, and I on the four-day journey to fish the barrier island called Dog Island that lies just East of St. George Island and its sister reef, Dog Island Reef in the Big Bend Area. We also ventured out to some local natural bottom areas and a shipwreck reef known as One More Time in about 40 feet of water where the beast was taken. Carrabelle is nothing more than a sleepy little fishing town with little to no commercialization. However, if you want some of the finest locally fresh-caught seafood, you can wander into one of the locally-owned seafood restaurants to get a taste of what real seafood is like at a price well below that of a tourist destination. Make sure you bring a big appetite and a doggie bag. If you’re ever in the area, I would highly recommend “The Fisherman’s Wife”. The fried grouper is scrumptious.
A 200 pound Goliath Grouper is not big as these fish go. The Florida state record was caught in 1961 and will probably never be broken. The species is now highly protected and landing one or killing it is illegal. That fish weighed 680 pounds! It was 85.5 inches in length and had a girth of 66 inches. The angler was using 108 pound test fishing line baited with a whole Spanish mackerel and was caught at Fernandina Beach while stillfishing. Look it up. This is one gigantic fish.
You’re not supposed to catch this size or kind of fish using the tackle Plumley was using that day. Nope, the reel, an H2O Express, was purchased for $20 at a nearby outlet store in Covington. The rod, a Shakespeare Ugly Stik, certainly isn’t top of the line either. The spinning outfit he was using has a little backbone, but not for a beast this size. It’s not like we don’t have top-of-the-line outfits. We do carry heavy equipment out that is more suited for handling big fish, but the youngster was looking to tangle with much smaller species on this outing and wanted a fight. Well, he got his money’s worth, that’s for sure.
The reel was spooled with 50 pound braid tied (By Captain Brett Richardson) with a J-knot to 60 pound fluorocarbon leader. That knot is known for its line-to-line holding strength and is in no way easy to learn. It allows the fisherman to fish without a swivel and is advantageous in many ways. Attached to the leader was a 5/0 Owner circle hook and baited with two three inch whole squid. Again, folks you aren’t supposed to catch a fish of this magnitude using dead squid. They are much more prone to hitting a live bait.
There were many other catches that also made the trip worthwhile. Spanish mackerel, speckled seatrout, gag grouper, spiny dogfish sharks, trigger fish, spade fish, a five foot lemon shark, tasty white grunts, black seabass, and other species were all taken. Some of these, like gag grouper, are in-season in the county we were fishing, but have a minimum length of 24” for keeper size. All of ours measured up a little short; some by less than an inch. We did manage enough keepers to stink up some gravy.
On the second day of the trip before he caught his record fish, Plumley was heard saying, “This is the best fishing trip I’ve ever been on.” Little did he know that only a few hours later he would be hauling in the biggest fish of his young life and the record fish on my boat. After the trip he had these words, “It was just so much fun. I’ve fished with a guide before with my dad, and they seemed so picky about their boat and equipment that it took all the fun out of it. They don’t even let you hook your own fish; just hand you the rod after the fish is on. On this trip, there were no rules. I went with a group of guys that I loved being around. I’ve got to thank “Captain” Brett. He made the whole trip. He was doing everything for us to help us out, especially since I broke my toe the day before on my dirt bike and almost didn’t make the trip. His knowledge of saltwater fishing is extremely high from using the GPS to his anchoring ability out there and helping me with the Goliath grouper when it wanted to tangle in the anchor rope. He’s very good. I’d also like to thank Coach Richardson for getting the whole trip together and inviting us.”
He then talked about the other memorable parts of the trip. “The views in the morning and the sky going out were drop dead gorgeous. The markings and coloration of all the different fish were beautiful, too.”
Plumley seemed impressed with the differences between saltwater and freshwater fishing when he said, “It was very different, but hard to explain. The sheer power of a saltwater fish simply overpowers that of a similar sized largemouth. A 22 inch gag grouper is so much stronger than any bass you’ll ever catch. I also liked it that you never know what you’re going to catch whether we were jigging, bottom fishing, or trolling.”
When the big fish was first hooked, this old angler had greater amberjack in my mind. They are prone to staying close to vertical structure like we were, and it acted much like one. We had been broken off a number of times prior to his hooking of the grouper and they acted like amberjack. About 20 minutes into the fight, I’m changing my mind to a big shark the way it was circling the boat. I’ve seen a gazillion big sharks, so I was thinking, “Hurry up and boat this fish so I can start fishing again.” When first color was seen through the somewhat murky water, the Captain immediately identified it as a Goliath grouper. That got my attention. Asked how he felt when the fish breached the water the first time, Plumley said, “I couldn’t even think. My brain was in a scramble. It was something that people would say is impossible. I had just tied my own uniknot to a hook onto some bigger 60 pound leader and it actually worked well. I was surprised.”
Not only did Joah come away with his catch-of-a-liftetime, but I came away with another memory-of-a-lifetime. To see the look on his face after the fish came alongside was certainly worth the price of admission. That’s why I fish. That’s why I am addicted to taking others to the big muddy. And, that’s why I’ll continue doing it until my body will no longer take it. I hope that’s many years from now. I’m ready to make some new ones. Anybody up for a fishing trip?