The Gag Grouper is a drab, mottled-gray fish lacking the distinguishing features of other groupers. Its pattern of markings resemble the box-shaped spots of the Black Grouper. The Gag Grouper is a bottomfeeder and is often caught by fishermen seeking bottom-dwelling species, such as snappers. Its flaky white meat is considered quite delicious. Members of this species are known to be protogynous hermaphrodites, schooling in harems with the most aggressive and largest females shifting sex to male, probably as a result of behavioral triggers, when no male is available. Commercial and sport fishing have created tremendous selective pressures against the largest animals, typically male, restricting the reproductive capacity of the entire breeding population.
The coloration is extremely variable but generally brownish gray overall with a pattern of dark, worm-like or kiss-shaped markings along the sides. Gag Grouper can be distinguished from Black Grouper that often occur in the same habitat by the distinctive color pattern and the shape of the preopercle. The Gag Grouper has a noticeably notched preopercle (the middle bone of the gill cover) with a distinct lobed appearance while Black Grouper have an evenly rounded preopercle with no definite lobe below.
Gag Grouper are caught using one of two methods. Deep trolling large lures or jigs with a strip bait is popular in the Gulf of Mexico. The other method, and the one that is most often used, is just plain old bottom fishing. Heavy tackle in the thirty to fifty pound class with conventional reels and boat rods is the standard. A heavy leader, sometimes made with leader wire instead on monofilament, with an 8/0 or 9/0 hook is the order of the day.
Gag Grouper can be caught on fresh cut bait, such as mullet or pinfish. They will also eat squid, octopus, and crabs. Live bait is by far the best bet. A live pinfish, a small gray or lane snapper, or a live cigar minnow will draw almost as fast as the bait gets to the bottom. Trolling lures include Manns +30 giant lures, sometimes used with either wire line or with a trolling weight to gain more depth.
Gag Grouper are found in the western Atlantic, primarily from North Carolina to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Juveniles are found as far north as Massachusetts. Young Gag Grouper live in estuaries in structured habitats (seagrass beds, oyster reefs, shipwrecks, etc.). Adults live offshore and prefer hard bottom habitat including reefs and wrecks, coral and live bottom, and depressions and ledges.