You don’t hear about goliath grouper being caught on a fly rod often. And a 300-pounder on fly tackle is unheard of. But a group of anglers fishing off the coast of Clearwater, Florida, in late March accomplished the not-quite-impossible—hauling a goliath estimated at about 300 pounds up from the depths with a fly rod.
“I was completely stunned,” said Christian Graham, a 26-year-old from Johnstown, Colorado, that landed the giant grouper. “It was quite the experience.”
Chance Meeting at a Fly Fishing Show
Graham was fishing with friends David Danforth and Mitch Bainter on a trip that had its roots at the Denver Fly Fishing show several years ago. In addition to his day job — he and his brother-in-law own a “pooper scooper” yard clean-up business — Graham is a professional photographer who does lifestyle, outdoors and even some studio work, but who specializes in fishing and hunting, particularly fly-fishing. “I started fly fishing about nine years ago and then got into photography a few years later,” said Graham. “I thought I would join the two passions.”
Danforth is also an artist, but his focus is on painting — mostly saltwater fish. “We hit it off immediately,” Graham recalled. After that first show, Graham invited Danforth to go fish for wild trout in the Colorado mountains.
“He showed me his fishing world, so I wanted to show him mine,” said Danforth, a 38-year-old who lives in the Tampa area. A couple weeks later, after a show in Florida, it was Danforth’s time to play host. The pair did some nearshore and offshore fishing around the Clearwater area and then headed to the Florida Keys for some more fun.
“I was like, ‘This is awesome,’” Graham said. “It ruined me. Bigger fish. Better weather. More water. We’ve been getting together to fish ever since and have made Florida fishing a yearly trip.”
Fly Rod Mixed Bag Off the Florida Coast
On the recent outing they connected with Danforth’s longtime friend, Mike Wilhite, and headed out in Wilhite’s Parker to fish some structure about 40 miles off the coast. Graham was eager to try out a new 12-weight fly rod he’d recently built on a Blue Halo fiberglass blank. The reel was a moderately priced Postfly Pelican reel.
“I just love the feel of glass,” Graham said of the slow action of fiberglass rods. “It’s what my grandfather always fished with so there’s also some nostalgia about it.”
The group eventually ended up in a school of surface-feeding amberjack. “I was at the back of the boat and there were a ton of amberjack just snapping at my fly,” said Graham, who had tied a 3-inch-long streamer similar to a Clouser minnow to a 60-pound fluorocarbon leader. “It was exciting.”
Graham soon hooked up with a fish he estimated to weigh about 30 pounds. Danforth and Wilhite grabbed fly rods, too, and were soon hooked up while Bainter shot pictures. “Those guys got their fish in,” Graham said, “but mine went straight to the bottom.” And that’s where it stayed. “It just wouldn’t move. Mike said a grouper probably ate it.”
Danforth was not surprised. “They are a nuisance,” he said of the huge predators. “Anything struggles on a line, they’ve learned to come up and eat it.”
Wilhite suggested Graham break the big fish off so he could go back to having fun. But Graham had other plans. “I went to the back of the boat and just held on while the other guys stayed up front catching fish,” he said. “I could gain a little line sometimes, but as soon as I got all my backing in the fish would go for another short run.” After an hour and 15 minutes, Graham started making progress.
“It finally came up on the surface about 30 yards behind the boat,” Graham said. “We all just started screaming.” A few minutes later the fish was next to the boat. Now what? Goliath grouper are protected — they weren’t going to haul a fish the size of a refrigerator into the boat.
“Mike said, ‘You should jump in with it,’” Graham said. “So I did.” A picture of Graham with the fish, his fly rod clenched in his teeth, was a hit on Danforth’s Instagram. After pictures, Danforth reached over the side and carefully vented the fish’s swim bladder. The amberjack was deep in the grouper’s gullet so they cut the leader.
“Mike gave it a nudge and it swam off,” Graham said. “It was incredible.” Not ready to head home, the men went back to fishing. Except Graham. “I was wiped out,” he said. “I just sat down for an hour and a half.”
Eventually he went back to fishing, joining his friends as they put a few more fish, including a blackfin tuna and some snapper, in the boat. They got back to shore about 6 p.m. but they didn’t exactly celebrate. Instead, they piled their gear into a car and drove to the Keys. There were more fish to be caught.