Angler Fillets Potential Record Fish

A case of mistaken identity caused a potential state record grouper to go under the knife.

yellowmouth grouper
Yellowmouth grouper, like this one, are very similar in appearance to scamp. Gary Birdsall

Two brothers from Louisiana filleted and ate a fish that they later realized was close to a world record.

Gary Birdsall, his brother Andre, and four other anglers were aboard Gary’s 31-foot Contender, the Delayed Gratification, after midnight on September 10. They were jigging for yellowfin and blackfin tuna with diamond jigs alongside an enormous floating oil rig, 120 miles off the coast of Louisiana, when Andre connected with the grouper on a glow-in-the-dark diamond jig, 100 feet down.

“He said it hit very hard, and he knew it was something different,” Gary recalled. “He said, ‘I have a grouper,’ and everyone was like, ‘yeah, right.’ Then we looked down and it was a grouper. It was like a shocking experience.”

Yellowmouth grouper live along rocky reefs in the Caribbean and tropical parts of the western Atlantic, usually in water less than 200 feet deep. The Birdsalls’ yellowmouth was in 4,400 feet of water, near the huge chains that tether the rig to the ocean floor.

“It was totally lost in the middle of the ocean, basically,” Gary said. “That grouper would have had to travel across 70 miles or so of open ocean from where you normally expect to find them. I can only assume it was a juvenile grouper that found its way around this rig and lived there all its life.”

oil rig
The Birdsalls were fishing alongside an oil rig in 4,400 feet of water 120 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Gary Birdsall

Confusing Groupers

Gary initially misidentified Andre’s fish as a scamp, and thought it may have been in Louisiana’s Top 10 for the species. The state record is 25.6 pounds, caught in 1997 by an angler name Dean Blanchard.

On the home scale, the Birdsalls’ fish weighed about 19 pounds. “I thought, ‘Well, OK, it’s not a Top 10, so we’ll just clean it,’ and I did,” Gary said. Later, however, he showed a photo of the fish to a friend who knew better. It had the yellow lips common to scamp and yellowmouth, but did not have the scamp’s long tail rays. “He said, ‘I don’t think you realize what you’ve caught. You got a yellowmouth.’”

While both species have yellow on the corners and inside the mouth, it is more pronounced on the yellowmouth. Another distinguishing characteristic are the nostrils. In yellowmouth groupers, the front and rear nostrils are the same size. On scamp the rear nostril is larger than the front.

Louisiana doesn’t even have a state record for yellowmouth grouper, but there is a world record: 23 pounds, 3 ounces, caught on bait by Justin Quintal off Jacksonville, Florida, just last year.

“I started looking and I was like, ‘Oh man, this was definitely a yellowmouth,’” Birdsall said.
Needless to say, the yellowmouth was a chubby one, its flesh marbled with fat.

Actually, the yellowmouth wasn’t the only fish from that outing that may have set a new mark.

“I need to get better about keeping track of some of these records,” said Birdsall, 36, a lifelong Salt Water Sportsman reader. “I don’t have a picture of it, but I think we could have caught the world record bar jack on that same trip.” They estimated their jack at around seven pounds, very close to the world record fish caught in Brazil in 2012.

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