Fresh catch: Gag grouper
Now is the time to chase these fun-to-catch and great-to-eat fish.
Story by Bailey Gilliam
We’ve all seen grouper on the menu at local seafood restaurants, but did you know there are over 400 species out there? Chances are, the grouper you are ordering is one of these four: gag, scant, black or red. And while they are very similar, there are slight differences in flavor and texture, depending on size, species and location of harvest. So next time you order this delicious fish, ask your server what type you’re eating – you may come away with a new perspective on this vast fish. Our favorite (and most fishing experts’ favorite due to the challenge) is gag grouper, so we’ll focus on that. Gag grouper has a mild but distinct flavor, somewhere between bass and halibut, making it a favorite to catch. It’s the most widely distributed grouper in the region, with adults present from North Carolina to Brazil, and is a smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations. Though the name may be unappealing, we promise it’s worth the effort to catch.
The scientific name for gag grouper is mycteroperca microlepis. Mycteroperca is Greek for small-scaled nose perch, and microlepis is derived from the Greek words “micro” for small and “lepis” meaning scale, in reference to the small scales of this fish. They have long, compressed bodies and cheeks with strong, serrated spurs. Funnily enough, gag grouper are most identifiable by their lack of distinguishing features. Their overall coloring varies with their size. Large gag grouper are dark brownish-gray above and paler below, with traces of dark wavy markings on the sides. Smaller fish are much lighter and have dark brown or charcoal kiss-like marks along their sides. They grow slowly since they can reach 30 years in age; they can reach more than three feet in length and weigh up to 50 pounds.
Where to find them
Gag grouper are found in the western Atlantic, primarily from North Carolina to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, including the Gulf of Mexico. Grant Kaple, general manager of The Boathouse, says, “They are generally loners and occupy an area of the live bottom or ledge you’re fishing on.” Adults live offshore and prefer hard-bottom habitat including reefs and wrecks and live bottom (sponges, corals and sea squirts) and depressions and ledges. Younger gag grouper (juveniles) live in estuaries in structured habitats, including seagrass beds, oyster reefs and shipwrecks. “In our area you can catch gag grouper as close in as 45 feet deep,” Kaple says. “You can find them all around, from the Beaufort 45 reef to the 200-foot ledge at the deli and all places in between.”
How to catch them
According to Kaple, gag grouper are one of the hardest bottom fish to catch, making it all the more fun. “The challenge is that they usually bite when you are not ready, and you only have a few cranks to get them from returning to their hole or ledge,” he says. “If you can get him up 10 feet in a few cranks, you stand a chance – gags fight all the way to the boat, but those first few cranks are everything for success.”
There are many different choices for bait, but Kaple recommends a pin fish on a slip sinker rig. “I like a longer leader to allow him to swallow the bait before he feels any pressure from the line,” he says. As for the rod and reel, he recommends a fast taper 6-foot rod and a conventional reel with a 2:1 ratio. “This allows you to feel the bite but have enough backbone in the rod to keep pressure on him,” Kaple says. “As for the reel, if you can get all slack and a few feet taken up in a few cranks, you should win.”
State and world record
The state and world record is a 54-pound, 4-ounce gag grouper caught by James L. Lasher III, of Mt. Pleasant. The fish was caught in 2018 in the Isle of Palms marina.
Gag grouper has a very mild flavor, a light, sweet taste and large, chunky flakes, almost like lobster or crab. Due to its mild flavor profile, grouper is versatile and easy to cook. It can be grilled, baked, fried – you name it – and can be served alone, on a sandwich, in a soup – the list goes on and on. Here’s a quick breakdown of how to prepare this fish:
Grill: Heat grill to 400-450 degrees. Season or marinate fillets to your liking. Grill grouper directly on oiled grates for 4 minutes. Flip fillets, and grill until fish is opaque throughout and flakes easily with a fork, 3 to 4 minutes.
Bake: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place fillets in a single layer in a greased baking dish or a baking sheet. Sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides of the fillets. Season with additional seasonings or sauces. Bake for 15-20 minutes.
Deep fry: Batter and season the fish. Heat oil to 375 degrees. Fry one side for 2-3 minutes, flip and fry for 1-2 minutes.
Pan fry: Season grouper fillets. Heat a little oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Fry for 2-3 minutes on each side.
- Gag grouper are protogynous hermaphrodites – they begin life as females and sexually mature around age 4. As they grow older, they change to males, around age 8.
- They spawn from mid January to early May in the South Atlantic and from late January to mid April in the Gulf
- Gag grouper spawn in large groups along the continental shelf.
- Females spawn multiple times per season, releasing between 60,000 and 1.7 million eggs each time they spawn.
- They eat various fish, crabs, shrimp and squid. Adults even eat juvenile grouper.
Ingredients (blackened seasoning)
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon brown sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix well. Set aside.
1 1/2 pounds grouper fillets, skinless
5 tablespoons unsalted butter divided
 Melt two tablespoons of butter and use a pastry brush to coat both sides of the fillets.  Top each fillet with a tablespoon of the seasoning mix and rub it with your fingers. Turn the fillets over and repeat.  Add three tablespoons of butter to a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the fish and cook undisturbed for three minutes while the butter melts, and the skillet is hot. Turn the fish over and cook another 3-4 minutes. The fish is done when the flesh turns opaque and flakes easily when pierced with a fork.  Top each filet with a squeeze of lemon juice and serve immediately.
Grouper with ginger and coconut curry
4 grouper fillets, skin removed
Kosher salt and black pepper
4 teaspoons olive oil
1 spring onion, trimmed, cut into 2-inch segments, and julienned (about 1 cup)
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced fresh turmeric or 1 teaspoon dried turmeric
1 small carrot, peeled and julienned
1 small bell pepper, seeded and julienned
1/2 cup snow peas, julienned
1/2 cup fresh or frozen green peas
1 (13-ounce) can full-fat coconut milk
1 tablespoon red curry paste, plus more if needed
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, for garnish
1 lime, juice for garnish
 Heat oven to 225 degrees.  Season the fish generously with salt and pepper. Heat 2 teaspoons of oil in a large skillet over medium-high. When the oil is hot, add the fish and cook until browned on both sides, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer the fish to a baking sheet and place it in the oven to keep warm while you prepare the rest of the dish.  Add the remaining 2 teaspoons of oil to the skillet. Add the spring onion and cook, frequently stirring, until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the ginger and turmeric and cook for 1 minute. Add the carrot, bell pepper, snow peas and green peas and cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp-tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer the vegetables to a bowl and cover to keep warm.  Add the coconut milk and 1 tablespoon curry paste to the skillet, bring to a simmer over medium, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until liquid is reduced by about one-third, about 6 minutes. Whisk in more curry paste according to taste, if desired. Stir in the cooked vegetables and heat until warmed, about 1 minute.  Divide the fish among shallow bowls. Spoon the sauce and vegetables over the fish, garnish with cilantro and lime juice and serve.