Go Goliath on the Florida Gulf Coast; Fish, Food, Fun in the Sun
Updated: Feb 24
If you’re looking for a total saltwater heaven destination check out the area around Charlotte Harbor, Florida, where three rivers converge to form a massive estuary funneling into the Gulf of Mexico. Anglers can target a variety of species including powerful, acrobatic tarpon, aggressive snook and redfish, and tasty varieties of grouper and snapper.
For my money, though, the bucket list fish to catch there is a sea giant called the Goliath Grouper. The goliaths used to be known as “jewfish.” The fish is the largest of the western north Atlantic groupers and can 800 pounds and measure more than 8 feet in length. The Florida record is a 680-pounder caught off Fernandina Beach in 1961. These apex predators often sit motionless, suspended in the water and ambush their food, rapidly opening their mouth and sucking in their snacks whole.
When it comes to catching these behemoths, no one does it better than Capt. Chris O’Neill, a retired Army first sergeant.
O’Neill uses live bait, typically fish in the 5-pound range, to entice goliaths. When that fish takes the bait, you usually feel a bump, bump and then WHAM! Try to stay in the boat because that fish is going to have its way with you when the fight begins. O’Neill calls the bigger fish “school buses.” Catch one; you’ll figure out why. I'm not sure it happened on the first or my second goliath grouper, but I left southwest Florida with an umbilical hernia. Make sure you have a good fishing platform and are securely in the boat because these fish can hurt you when they surge.
One of the extreme challenges is you're using incredibly strong tackle and the drag on the reel is totally locked down. You have to hook the fish and then get it away from whatever nearby structure it was lurking in. The fish can't be allowed to take line. It's a workout and often requires a team to work the massive fish to the surface. Both of my fish fought like hellcats when they were in the bottom two-thirds of the water column, but once they neared the surface, they peacefully surrendered. After a few photos, with the fish always in the water, it was released.
Note: O’Neill’s Tail Chaser Charter Services is now out of business. Plenty of other guides fish for goliath grouper in the area around Charlotte Harbor and Boca Grande.
A great base of operations during a visit is the Wanna B Inn in Englewood. These spacious, condo-style accommodations are perched right on a beautiful sandy beach. For an unforgettable meal in the area, check out Farlow’s on the Water, where owners Laurie and Keith Farlow blend Caribbean and Southern cuisine on the superb menu. Get an appetizer tower and a pitcher of sangria. Every menu item, from the fried green tomatoes to West Indian conch fritters appetizers to shrimp and grits and Jamaican jerk cobia entrees, is superb.
Three rivers converge in Charlotte Harbor. The tangle of small mangrove-choked channels and islands, oyster reefs and more make for excellent inshore fishing with snook, redfish and snapper popular. A short distance offshore and you can find red and gag grouper, mackerel, snapper and other species.
For more laid-back fishing and offshore excursions or casual Charlotte Harbor tours, check out King Fisher Fleet in nearby Punta Gorda. Military discounts are offered in May on some adventures.
For complete regional info, see www.PureFlorida.com or call (941) 743-1900.