TUSCALOOSA | Mark Possien knew he had a big fish on the line and it was burying itself in a hole in the shipwreck he was fishing. So he decided to cut it some slack. And that's how he landed what will likely be the new state record black grouper and perhaps an International Game Fish Association line class world record.
“My uncle always said to give them some slack,” Possien said. “A lot of times they'll come out if you quit pulling on them and give them some slack.”
Possien, a Tuscaloosa County resident and supervisor for Price McGiffert Construction, landed a 106-pound, 3.2-ounce black grouper fishing off the sportfisher Sea Mixer out of Orange Beach on Aug. 11 during the Alabama Associated General Contractors Bonanza Days fishing tournament. The previous state record was 67 pounds, 15.5 ounces.
Karon Aplin, a biologist with the Alabama Division of Marine Resources, verified the fish's weight, measurements and species. Black grouper aren't common off Alabama waters, with most of them caught farther south off the Florida coast.
“It was clearly beyond the previous record weight,” Aplin said. “I have no doubt about the species.”
Possien caught the grouper on 60-pound test line. The IGFA has 50-pound and 80-pound classes, and his would be in the 80-pound class. The previous 80-pound test record was 59 pounds.
An application will be submitted to the Alabama Record Fish Committee. There is a 15-day waiting period where the record can be disputed. After 15 days the committee will announce its decision. There is a different application process for the IGFA.
Possien will have a replica made of the fish. After the meat was removed, Possien gave the carcass to Aplin, and she will reconstruct the big grouper's skeleton.
“She has been so nice and so excited about this,” Possien said. “Between her and the young captain, they've been more excited about this than I have.”
Possien was invited to fish on the Sea Mixer, a 55-foot Viking by Ronald Davis and Butch Thomas. He was born in Mobile and has kin in Panama City, Fla., and made frequent trips fishing on party boats there. But he'd never fished off of one of the big, classy sportfishers that line the Gulf Coast harbors.
“That was something I always wanted to do,” he said with a smile.
After several days of steady winds, the Gulf was churned up with 5- to 6-foot waves. The big sportfisher could easily handle those seas but it's not the easiest weather to fish in.
“My knees and legs were rubbed raw from leaning against the rail trying to fish,” Possien said.
The Sea Mixer took off at 4 a.m. and its first two stops were to catch baitfish. The boat then headed to two amberjack holes. But it was slow going, no more than 10 knots in the heavy seas, heading out.
They worked their way out 45 miles to the grouper hole and the seas had dropped to 4 to 5 feet by then. They were fishing in 225 feet of water on a shipwreck. Possien lowered his bait and felt a fish hit.
“When I hooked up, I probably felt him for about 20 seconds and then it was dead weight,” Possien said, knowing that meant that the fish had come out of its hole long enough to grab the bait and then gone back in its hole.
Big bottom fish try to cut the line on the sharp edges of the wreck or rocks where they live.
“You know those big grouper, if you don't get them up off of the bottom pretty quick, you won't catch them,” Possien said.
Possien tried cranking down on the drag and pulling on the fish but couldn't budge it. Devin Potts, the Sea Mixer's 29-year-old captain, tried pulling the fish out of the hole by moving the boat forward but it stayed put.
That's when Possien decided to try his uncle's old trick. He gave the fish some slack, hoping it would come out of the hole. When he tightened back down, Possien could feel the fish.
“Devin said, ‘Can you feel him?'” Possien said. “I said, ‘Yeah,' so he pulled up to get us away from the wreck. As soon as he got away from the wreck, he was right down the ladder and standing beside me.”
It worked and the fish was clear of the wreck. But the fight was on and Potts coached Possien as the angler cranked down on the fish and lifted up. Possien would gain line and the fish would take it back.
“He fought for probably the first 100 feet up,” Possien said. “And then it was dead weight. After that first 100 feet it was like cranking up a Volkswagen.”
The rough seas make fighting a large fish much more difficult.
“The hardest part was trying to keep my balance and leaning up against the rail,” Possien said. “I was fighting the fish and fighting the waves at the same time.”
Eventually, Possien brought the big grouper to the surface. Potts was the first to see it and let out a loud expletive. Soon everybody was marveling at it as they hoisted the deep-water monster onto the deck with a good bit of high-fiving and knuckle bumping.
“It was probably a good thing that I was so weak and tired and couldn't pull any harder,” Possien said. “That fish was barely hooked and the leader was almost cut in two in three or four places.”
Possien sat down on a couch at the back of the cockpit. His legs were trembling and his arms were extremely fatigued.
“My arm was so tired I literally don't think I could have picked up a beer,” he said.
Potts told Possien that he'd never seen a black grouper that big. A 55-pounder that came out of the same hole looked small beside it. Two more anglers hooked fish in the same hole that cut them off.
“Devin mentioned that it might be some kind of record while it was lying on the deck,” Possien said. “I took it with a grain of salt. I know grouper get big.”
Potts called other captains over the marine radio and described the fish. They told him black grouper didn't get that big and he likely had a Goliath grouper or jewfish. The species is endangered and anglers aren't allowed to keep them.
“When we weighed him, the weigh master, a 70-year-old man, said, ‘by God, that going to be a new state record,'” Possien said. “Then everybody started looking on their smart phones.”
But Aplin confirmed the species at the weigh-in and sees little reason the record wouldn't stand.
“Until that day, the biggest grouper I'd ever seen was 36 pounds,” Possien said. “The biggest one I'd ever caught was 22 pounds.”
Interestingly one of Possien's closest friends is Samantha resident John Nichols. This year, Nichols caught the state record blue catfish, a 120-pound monster, in Holt Reservoir. Possien been ribbing Nichols about his newfound fame and realizes it's his turn to get the jabs now.
“I just want to say to John Paul, see you in the record books,” Possien said with a laugh.