There’s a spiritual connection among men in moments like this, and maybe it’s right that only those who were there can tell the tale to anyone who will listen.
Take the heaviest rod and reel you have, wrap the line around the hitch of your truck, have your buddy (or better yet your wife) drive the truck away from you and try to stop it. They’ll get a kick out of it, and you’ll have experienced fighting a goliath grouper. However, I strongly recommend experiencing the real thing just as I did this past March.
The winter of 2014 hit northern Wisconsin hard, and the thought of our family vacation to Islamorada in the Florida Keys was about all that kept me going through endless snow storms and sub zero temperatures. An impossible personal schedule in 2013 had kept me away from the Keys for the first time in several years and what had become an annual event during our daughter’s spring break. Well it wasn’t going to happen two years in a row. LeeAnn, Morgan, and I had plane tickets and hotel reservations to what some consider fishing Nirvanna, and this Polar Vortex that wouldn’t let go of the upper Midwest had developed into the nastiest case of cabin fever I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. Long winters do strange things to a guy’s thinking…
Captain Jim Willcox and I have a history. I first fished with Jim out of Bud N’ Mary’s marina in 2010. Bud N’ Mary’s is home to a fleet of some of the best guides in the Keys, and Jim fits the bill. I saw him featured on a national television show when I was planning my first to trip the “The Sportfishing Capitol of the World” and new immediately he was my kind of guy. He’s got the kind of fire cracker personality and contagious enthusiasm that makes fishing fun, and he gives you everything he’s got on the water. Oh… and he knows how to catch big fish! Jim is well known for his adventurous back country trips in the Everglades National Park that produce consistent catches of snook, redfish, snapper, and any other creature that swims those waters. He’s also been known to produce some monster fish in the flats including an estimated 18′ sawfish that he and I landed together in 2012. That still stands as the largest fish I’ve ever landed or even seen up close for that matter. It’s also the first time I’ve had a fish try to take my leg off. And hopefully it’s the last!
During every trip to the Keys, I try to accomplish something new whether it be a fish caught or even an experience. Well two years away left me with a lot of time to think about it, and goliath grouper also known as jewfish captured my imagination. I’m not sure if it’s their resemblance to an overgrown smallmouth bass, notoriously aggressive nature, or pure enormity that’s kept my wheels turning, but I’m sure that I’ve found a new favorite fish! Heck… Maybe it’s just the name? Goliath… They’ve got to be awesome!
If you’re looking for adventure, Jim is your man. I texted him before our trip and asked if goliaths would be an option. His reply was perfect, “Of course!” Like I said, my kind of guy! When my dad and I hopped in the boat with him he explained that he knew of a few good candidates for us to tangle with. He had done some advanced scouting and located a couple of bruisers. Our first mission was to get bait, and we spent an hour catching ladyfish for the livewell. Using light tackle, catching bait is a blast in itself. Ladyfish are a long, slender silver sided fish with the build of a freshwater whitefish but the attitude of a tarpon. They’re generally cooperative biters, and it didn’t take long to have everything we’d need for the day. While working a channel edge, we also encountered two huge cruising sawfish that were accompanied by cobias. Probably the coolest thing about a backcountry trip with Jim is that you never know what’ll be around the corner. Heck… Four years ago we had a hungry crocodile ruin our fishing hole when he came within five feet of the boat to see what the fuss was all about. Close enough for me!
With a livewell full of bait, we were off to locate our first fish. As Jim backed off the motor, I let him in on part two of my objective. If possible, (without harming the fish of course) I wanted to get in the water for a picture with the fish should the opportunity present itself. He looked at me and smiled, “You’ve got it brother!” The winds were a bit higher than we liked which made boat positioning tricky. Goliaths like to live right in the middle of junk, whether it’s wood, rocks, metal, or whatever structure they can find, and precise bait presentation is the key. I’ve always been impressed with the keen vision that saltwater guides seem to possess, and once we stuck the boat where he wanted it Jim quickly announced, “I can see him down there.” No need to question the man. If Jim said he could see him, there was a fish there. Although we were using much heavier gear with large bait, the presentation resembled flipping for bass. Drop the bait in front of the fish and wait for a thud. Several attempts on our first spot only produced one quick strike and drop so we left to locate another fish. Spot number two produced quicker results. With his 18′ flats boat bobbing up and down in a stiff wind, I reeled down from the bow and set into a freight train.
This was really happening! The initial set surprises the heck out of you as you lean back, and it takes every muscle in your body to keep from being pulled in. Now this is where most goliaths are lost. Their first instinct is to wrap you up in every pole, rock, or piece of coral they can get into, and you really have no way of keeping them from doing it. Jim’s approach however is different than most. He refuses to get outsmarted and uses precise boat maneuvers along with timely coaching of his anglers on the rod to solve the puzzle so to speak. When you spend enough time on the water like Jim, you can tell what a fish is doing by the angle and tension of the line. With every move of the goliath, we would counter. After a few agonizing minutes, we had him unwrapped and swimming to open water with three grown men yelling, “We’ve got him! We’ve got him!” All I could do at this point was hold on, and we were along for the ride. The power of this fish was unstoppable and we were merely an inconvenience as he bulldogged away with Jim hot on his heels. Then the fight took a dramatic turn. This fish had its act together. They may not be able to reason like humans, but they know how to survive. This guy knew that his best chance was back in that mess he was living in. On a dime, it spun and headed right back to where the fight began. Everyone got quiet, and I could tell by the look on Jim’s face we were in trouble. “Don’t let him get back there!” he yelled. Easy for him to say! I put everything I had into keeping that fish from tangling us back in that mess, and he got to within 5 feet of it. Somehow, but I’m not sure how, we kept him from diving back into sure disaster and just like that he surrendered. Unlike tarpon, the end of a fight with a goliath is abrupt. Thankfully so, because I had nothing left. As we pulled him alongside the boat, the reality of the situation overcame me. We had actually done it. I reached down, grabbed his lower jaw and just admired him in amazement. I was so caught up in the moment, that I forgot part two of the quest. Thankfully Jim didn’t. He maneuvered the boat onto a nearby sand bar and I hopped in. Holding onto a fish you’ve battled that’s bigger than you while you’re in the water with it may be one of the most incredible feelings an angler can experience. As I looked up at my father and Jim snapping pictures and giving me the thumbs up, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in a dream that I didn’t want to end. Definitely one of those moments…
We sent our fish on it’s way and I hopped back in the boat. High fives and smiles all around. Now it was dad’s turn! My father had spent the previous day in a back street brawl with the local tarpon community, and I have to admit that I wasn’t sure how this was going to go. Well we’d soon find out. Spot number three produced an immediate hook up. Dad doesn’t have the mobility in a boat that he once did, and our game plan was this: He would set the hook. I would assist him in maneuvering out of the structure. He would finish it from there. Everything went as planned. Sort of… After setting the hook, I took the rod and immediately began trying to figure out what the fish was doing. This was different though. It was down in the structure, but unlike the previous fish it wasn’t moving. Jim positioned the boat right over the top of the fish and I gave it some pressure. Immediately, an estimated 3oo lb nurse shark exploded out of the water within inches of the boat. Holy…!!! Of course I had to state the obvious, “That’s not a grouper!” No it wasn’t, but it was a huge fish nonetheless. The rod went back in my father’s hands and he battled it to the side of the boat where Jim cut it loose.
After that, I expected dad had enough and would want to go after some smaller fish. I should’ve given him more credit. Absolutely not! The old football coach in him wasn’t going to settle for second place, and we headed back to spot number one where we had the first strike of the day. This time it was a different story. Jim figured we had spooked the fish that was there earlier by anchoring too closely. This time we backed off and it was a total team effort. Jim made the cast, dad set the hook, I unwrapped, and dad landed the fish. Talk about pure chaos! My only regret is that we didn’t have it on film because I can assure you it was one heck of a show! Then again, some things are best left in our memories. There’s a spiritual connection among men in moments like this, and maybe it’s right that only those who were there can tell the tale to anyone who will listen. My father and I have been in many boats and on many waters together, but that moment and time will stand still. After a few boat side pictures and release of the fish, the look of satisfaction on my father’s face and the grin on Jim’s were priceless. We did it!
The ride back to Bud N’ Mary’s was filled with emotion. Satisfaction that we’d accomplished our goal, pride in my father for his perseverence, respect for Jim and his incredible zest for life and fishing, and gratitude for the experience. I know that I’ll return to Islamorada to fish with Captain Jim, but I have no idea what he’ll have up his sleeve next? Quite possibly my next favorite fish!
If you’re an experienced angler looking for your next adventure or a novice in search of a complete backcountry and flats experience, you need to contact Captain Jim Willcox. He can be found on the web at Ultimate Keys Fishing, on his Facebook page, or contact Bud N’ Mary’s marina. You won’t be disappointed.