And make no mistake, Goliath are perfectly happy in murky, even milk chocolate muddy water. This is shallowest grouper of about 14 species in the Gulf and Atlantic, spending perhaps its entire life in less than 100 feet of water.
They said when the shrimp boats docked, they would soon dump buckets of shrimp heads overboard, and they’d see the big grouper come up and inhale gallons of heads. Back in our serious spearfishing days at the platforms off Sabine Pass, or the South Padre jetties, we’d see big Goliath, but our light spears practically bounced off them.
Shooting at a variety of fish species, we became very accurate with the short 3-band guns we had; I even speared pompano a few times. The smaller of the two fish dragged me endlessly through bottom murk and pipes overgrown with barnacles like an underwater obstacle course.
Sensing time was running out, I pulled myself up the cable onto his back and finally steered him up to the boat; the water was only 30 feet deep. We set both fish in the bow, so we could get the boat up on plane, the Johnson 70 horse outboard straining with the heavy load.
Back at the Sportsman’s Supply in Sabine Pass, the two fish weighed 165 and 210 pounds on the store scales. Filleting each (fish) was like cleaning a hog, and I wasn’t impressed with the quality of the meat, with lots of fatty strips.
I’ve seen one video of a hooked cow nose ray circling under the boat, and a huge Goliath rising to inhale it near the surface. And, pictures of guys on a Florida pass using heavy tackle and frozen stingrays for bait.
So, imagine drifting a fresh stingray deep around the end of a Texas jetty, when the tide has slowed. Years ago I scuba dived the end of one jetty, and saw four big Goliath cruising by, averaging about 150 pounds each.
Those big puppies would have been real happy to find a fresh stingray, of which Texas bays are in plentiful supply. After getting hooked, these fish would make a power dive into the nearest hole unless stopped with heavy tackle.
With these fish, it’s brute force stopping them, or they reach their rocky lair, where they can wait out most anglers. In Florida, I’ve hooked a few Goliath in recent years, often in water as shallow as 12 feet.
What a region: That incredible maze of sheltering mangrove islands stretches for about 70 miles, from Flamingo to Naples, now the center of the universe for goliathgrouper. On a previous trip we stopped at a channel marker in Florida Bay just south of Flamingo and I tossed out a live, 2-pound jack crevasse, and a huge Goliath inhaled it within 10 seconds.
It was a savage battle at close quarters, more like fighting a manatee, and we had to crank the engine and motor away from the pilings about 40 yards. We kept it in the water; it’s now considered uncool and I think prohibited in Florida, to drag Goliath into the boat for hero pictures.
It was Gus pan-Arabist, a Houston firefighter, who caught our state record goliathgrouper at Galveston ’s north jetties. Saw fish were pretty much wiped out by nets in Texas, and the Goliath population laid low perhaps for other reasons.
It’s not just what you catch, but what you might encounter, that makes Texas jetty fishing such an incredible experience. In just the short time we’ve been here, the waves of the Galveston ship channel have doubled in size.
The breakers are chest-high now, charging past the boat like determined soldiers only to fall headfirst into the rose-colored rocks of the North Galveston Jetty. World War II was unmade history when he first learned how to fish the Galveston jetties.
He had his own way of finding the hot spots, triangulating landmarks and constantly scanning the rocks for the distinctive etchings he called “the stripes.” Permanently etched after drilling and detonation, the half-round creases remain today, though layers of algae can make them difficult to see.
To workers who labored in Hill Country quarries at the turn of the 20th century, men who every day loaded Galveston -bound railcars with massive granite boulders, the stripes were merely mundane byproducts of dangerous and exhausting work. I don’t know who if anyone, taught him the significance of the stripes, the way certain configurations advertise the jetties’ best fishing holes.
Or maybe he did like the old-school offshore skippers and meticulously probed the bottom with a heavy iron sash weight and a hundred-foot length of cotton rope. A careful drop of the sounding weight could tell him a lot, the peculiar way it landed atop a rock at the jetty base, clanked against its barnacle-encrusted edges and plummeted into an obscure bottom break.
A few hundred bucks worth of plastic, wire and silicon accomplishes in a couple of minutes what often used to take half an hour. The old man’s beloved stripes will always be there, reminding us of countless mornings spent riding the swells and catching untold numbers of fish from the churning and mostly unseen universe of the world’s largest jetty system.
At their bases they’re roughly seven times wider than at their wave-washed peaks, a ratio that’s typical of most major jetty systems. Fish, crustaceans and invertebrates regularly hitchhike the currents between Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
When I watch the ship channel on a changing tide, I sometimes think of the vacuum tube that whisks deposits to the teller at my bank’s drive-through window. It was a remarkable coincidence that a docile but frighteningly powerful creature center-punched our anchor line so precisely.
I’d struggled with the rope for perhaps 5 minutes, battered and baffled, when the distinct black shadow of a full-grown manta ray suddenly loomed below. The triangular flukes of the anchor were perfectly wedged on the creature’s head, halfway between its long and leathery cephalic lobes.
Our anchor chain trailed down the middle, where a wide and darkened marking gradually tapered into the thrashing whip of a long and spineless tail. Propelled by the outgoing tide and its own unstoppable momentum, it trailed the line 7 fathoms deep before picking up the anchor and resuming its seaward journey.
Exactly how remains a mystery, but we eventually freed the anchor from the manta ray’s back and speechlessly watched as a lumbering beast with a wingspread half the length of our hull sank unharmed and then disappeared altogether into the dark green waters of the ship channel. Manta rays commonly live 18 to 20 years, so our giant friend may well be alive today.
In the galaxy of life that flanks Texas jetty systems, the food chain is the limit. That fact, the element of the unknown and completely unexpected, is at the core of jetty fishing’s appeal.
Cases in point: One of Texas’ rarest of sport fishes, the shook, frequents the jetties at Port Mansfield and Brownsville. Farther north, at Port Arkansas, the local jetties host an early-summer influx of king mackerel.
Tackle-busting kings, tarpon, cobra and even the occasional juvenile snapper sometimes surprise jetty anglers at Port O’Connor, Freeport, Patagonia, Galveston and Sabine Pass. Legendary Galveston fisherman Gus pan-Arabist’ 551-pound goliathgrouper, caught June 29, 1937, remains a state record today.
The water remains in a constant state of flux, coursing freely through the granite curtain. It’s a world where angelfish mingle with tiger sharks, and every cast can result in a broken line or mangled tackle.
Fishermen who walk the rocks, careful to avoid slipping and falling on grease-slick algae spots, nevertheless manage to consistently take quality catches. It sometimes takes bottom fishermen a half-pound of lead to counter the current and hold baits in place.
When the tide turns outbound, those same species move offshore to patrol the rocky ledges and pursue current-carried forage. There is, regardless, no absolute rule, and no real substitute for an educated eye and long-term experience in “reading” the water.
A single 27-inch redfish gobbles my buddy’s bait and bolts just before the water gets too rough for comfort. It takes only a few minutes to motor around the end of the North Jetty, select our spot, drop the anchor and get back to fishing.
In the next few hours we’ll use light spinning tackle to catch Spanish mackerel from the washout between the rocks and the old concrete ship. It’s relatively shallow here, the south-wind-sheltered “Gulf side” of the jetty, so we’ll be protected from the channel’s angry waters.
Before dark, three more 38-inch-class redfish will pick up our live-baited circle hooks and prove once again why, regardless of gender, big female reds are always called “bulls.” The keeper-sized mackerel, all respectable 18-inch-class fish, will be filleted at the Galveston Yacht Basin cleaning table. At the dock, we recall the fat-bellied gaff top catfish that ate a live bait fish, three vividly striped sheepsheads caught on shrimp near the rocks, the acrobatic lady fish that attacked my buddy’s beat-up gold spoon, and of course, the inevitable Big One That Got Away.
The fish, one of the largest edible members of the finny tribe, will be on the menu Friday at Kelley's Café, where pan-Arabist is employed. A 12-root leader saved the big fish when he became entangled in the piling at Jettison's Pier.
Houghton CAPTION (04/29/2001): Vanishing act: A fading, 70-plus-year-old painting on a Rockport building shows a large saw fish once used as an attraction at a fishing camp. Houston Chronicle Show MoreS how Less 12of31 Galveston Island beaches on I-45 and head south until the road ends.
Houston Chronicle Show MoreS how Less 14of31 Clear Lake Park 5001 E. NASA Parkway, Seabrook For the Houston Chronicle Show MoreS how Less 15of31 Texas City Dike I-45 south, exit FM 1764 and go left.
For the Chronicle Show MoreS how Less 17of31 Bane Park Lake 9600 W. Little York, Houston For the Chronicle Show MoreS how Less 19of31 Eisenhower Park 13400 Aqueduct Road, Houston.
SPECIAL TO THE CHRONICLE Show MoreS how Less 23of31 Sheldon Lake State Park 15315 Beaumont Highway, Houston Special to the Chronicle Show MoreS how Less 25of31 Rollover Pass I-45 south to Galveston, left on Seawall, left on Ferry Road, take ferry to Bolivar, go about 20 miles to reach Rollover Pass.
For the Chronicle Show MoreS how Less 31of31 Herman Brown Park 400 Mercury Drive, Houston For the Chronicle Show MoreS how Less Gus pan-Arabist' passion for fishing and physical challenge proved a path that led the Houston native to record-setting accomplishments with rod-and-reel, landing fish weighing more than 1,000 pounds, garnering local and national attention and cementing his legendary status among Texas anglers.
Just what you'd expect from a man who would get companions to rope him to granite blocks so the giant fish he fought would not drag him into the sea. His records for large tooth saw fish and goliathgrouper are almost assured of never being topped, a testament to pan-Arabist' piscatorial and physical prowess and changes in the state's coastal waters.
His father, John, immigrated to Texas in 1901 from Chaos, a Greek island just miles from Turkey in the Aegean Sea. As a youngster in an immigrant-rich enclave east of downtown Houston, young Gus pan-Arabist grew up in a rough and tumble environment, scrambling for jobs and developing a life-long passion for fishing and physical fitness.
That physical toughness, reflected in pan-Arabist' undefeated career as a boxer during his World War II military service, was what led him to targeting the largest of marine fish. In the 1930s, the water off Galveston Island was a place anglers could find a seemingly endless supply of leviathans.
Monster-size tiger, bull and lemon sharks as well as rays, grouper and saw fish weighing hundreds of pounds swam in the waters along the beachfront. Gus John pan-Arabist is born in Houston to a Greek immigrant father and first-generation Irish-American mother.
pan-Arabist, an inveterate angler, begins targeting huge fish from Galveston's jetties, landing several sharks weighing hundreds of pounds, building a regional reputation for his uncanny ability to hook and land giant marine fish. Fishing from Jettison's Pier on the Galveston's North Jetty, pan-Arabist hooks and lands a 551-pound goliathgrouper.
Fishing from Galveston's North Jetty, pan-Arabist battles and lands a large tooth saw fish measuring 14 feet, 7 inches and weighing 736 pounds. pan-Arabist, now a World War II veteran and highly regarded Houston firefighter, ceases fishing coastal waters after a boating accident during a fishing trip results in a companion drowning.
See MoreCollapsePangarakis fished most often along Galveston's North Jetty, regularly spending days around Jettison's Pier, a building constructed near the end of miles-long granite breakwater and reachable only by boat. He also developed methods to float his baited line far off the rocks and into the deeper water where the largest fish were most likely to be found.
pan-Arabist' physical conditioning also was crucial for the brutal endurance exercise of fighting fish weighing several times his weight, a battle that could take two or three hours or more. pan-Arabist began hauling some of his larger catches back to Houston, where photos of him and the fish regularly appeared in newspapers and advertisements.
In the mid 1930s, pan-Arabist landed a tiger shark so large no scales could be found to weigh it. It was loaded onto a flatbed truck, hauled to Houston where it was displayed at Osman's Sporting Goods store at Capitol and Fannie.
On Jan. 1, 1939, pan-Arabist beat his own record with a saw fish that measured 14 feet, 7 inches and weighed 736 pounds. Returning after serving in the U.S. Army during the war, pan-Arabist got a job with the Houston Fire Department.
In April 1947, pan-Arabist was among the scores of Houston firefighters who raced to Texas City in the wake of the ship explosions that resulted in the deadliest industrial accident in the nation's history. There, he was injured doing heroic work, daughter Christine recalls from family stories.