They lie and wait along underwater highways, and whenever prey fish fail to maintain a minimum speed, they have their lunch. Like a gator lazing on a bank or a largemouth bass slowly finning to maintain its position beneath a stand of lily pads, groupers can appear lethargic, but they explode from their hiding places with maws wide open as soon as opportunity presents itself. Groupers inhabit waters off the whole of Florida, but in the northern gulf, three species — gag (or black), red and scamp predominate.
Area waters grow giant goliath grouper, too, fat boys that frequently hang at the jetties at the entrance to St. Andrew Bay or on nearshore sunken bridge spans. Bottom fishermen often favor red snapper to groupers, but that’s a matter of color, not taste. (When is the last time you saw a blackened snapper sandwich on a menu?) The delicate, flaky flesh of groupers is almost too good to fry. It doesn’t require much. Salt, pepper, butter and a little Cavender’s will do.
Chefs are divided about the relative merits of red and gag grouper — reds, which are sometimes called “buzzards” because of the odor that emanates from them when they are landed, are milder in flavor — but all can agree that scamp are primo; indeed, they are a signature dish at the perennial Golden Spoon Award-winning Capt. Anderson’s Restaurant on Grand Lagoon. The goliath grouper doesn’t figure in the dinner-table conversation; it is protected from harvest in both state and federal waters and ranges in size to more than 700 pounds. Bold is the fisherman who sends a large, frisky live bait to the bottom; he just might tie into more than he bargained for.