By Buck Davidson
There is no such thing as sea monsters, but there are indeed critters of monstrous proportions that live in the sea. We feature one such denizen of the deep here - easily the largest fish (other than sharks) regularly found in Florida Suncoast waters. Although jewfish have been closed to harvest for several years now, fishermen and divers still encounter them on a fairly regular basis.
Like all members of the grouper family, jewfish love structure - rocks, ledges, culverts, pipes, bridge pilings, shipwrecks and countless others all are potential home to these giants. In fact, jewfish are notorious for taking up residence very close to land - one such bridge in Clearwater was home to a triple-digit size beast, living a stones throw from the seawall. I always wondered how many "snags" encountered by bridge fishermen were actually the Big Fella slurping down their bait and simply sitting there in his rocky lair until the line broke from the strain.
Juvenile jewfish (20-80 pounds) are occasionally caught by bottom fishermen, and often are mistakenly identified as "nice grouper" and taken home to eat - very illegally. Please - if you fish or spearfish at all, learn to ID your quarry before you kill it. Ive seen quite a few dead and floating small jewfish that were likely a victim of temporary misidentification.
Big jewfish are usually quite friendly around divers. Theyre often curious and seem to be interested in what youre doing. Its very tempting to try to feed them, but please beware - that is a big mouth and it does have some teeth. Most wrecks have "resident" jewfish that regular visitors to the site become very attached to. Both diver and fish seem to learn to recognize one another after a few encounters. The really massive jewfish are usually content to lie in their grotto and peer out, content in their role as "biggest kid on the block".
What do jewfish eat? Annnnyyything they want... okay Ill spare you that old line. Mostly small fish, squid, crustaceans and such. Theyre not very picky eaters, and whenever you combine fishermen, divers and "sea monsters", tall tales of digestive excesses are bound to pop up. I know of one reliable report that tells of finding a cormorant, which is a type of diving bird, inside a jewfishs stomach. This happened in the days when jewfish were legal to keep.
Just how big do they get? At least 750 documented, scale-weighed pounds. Thats the biggest I know of thats actually been caught (Again, many years ago). I remember this critter being about 7-7 1/2 feet long. How big can they get? This question will trigger a lot of stories and tall tales among the locals, but theres no set answer to it. Theres no way to weigh a fish underwater and harvest is closed for this species, so were left to rely on divers estimates of size. Remember, water imparts a 25 percent magnification factor. Imagination accounts for another ten, and if the diver is also a fisherman, all bets are off.
With that in mind, here come a pair of stories: One documented as best I could, the other completely unsubstantiated but guaranteed to send a chill down your spine. While on a dive in the Gulf two summers ago, I encountered a real whopper of a jewfish lying motionless under a ledge. Signaling my dive partner to watch what I was doing, I gently lay on the bottom less than two feet from the giant, positioning my head even with his lips and stretching out along his entire length. As my dive buddy surveyed the entire scene, I noticed her eyes widen in astonishment. Upon reaching the boat, she explained what she saw: When I extended my fins (U.S. Divers Blades) straight out, the fishs length exceeded mine by 6-8 inches. I am 6 foot 10 with my toes pointed, the fins add another 15 inches, yielding a total of 8 feet 1 inch. Conservatively, this puts the fish at 8 1/2 feet long. Unscientific methods (also not very bright in retrospect) to be sure, but pretty fair documentation free of exaggeration as possible.
Now comes the tall tale. This story, which has been circulating around this area for a long time, involves a search for a missing diver. The hunt for the man proved futile but did result in the discovery of his tanks and underwater video camera. The searchers rewound the videotape and played it back, hoping it might provide some clues as to the divers fate. The video showed several assorted reef scenes and then focused on one particular inhabitant: A massive jewfish estimated at 12 feet in length and 1500 pounds by the observers. The videos final frames show this giant reef denizen slowly passing within a few feet of the camera, then the screen turns to snow - coincidence?.. the telling clue?...who knows? - thats why these stories are just that - tall tales, subject to the embellishment and enrichment that time and re-telling invariably brings.
I relate that story to illustrate the fascination we have with this real-life "monster" of the sea. A wonderful, benign critter that was hunted to near-extinction - its often easy pickins as a result of its curious nature toward divers. An underwater encounter with a really big one is an unforgettable experience, and hooking one a tackle and back muscle-testing tug of war. Immediately release any jewfish taken, of course - they are valuable members of the reef community worthy of every preservation effort we can undertake. Ask your dive charter operator about finding you a jewfish to visit - if you see my pal "moose" on the eight foot break, tell him I said Howdy.