Even with an unexpected catch, fishing in South Florida will give you a delicious meal

Matthew Utter, 10, of Hollywood with a nice almaco jack that he caught fishing on Free Spool with Capt. Dennis Forgione, right.
Matthew Utter, 10, of Hollywood with a nice almaco jack that he caught fishing on Free Spool with Capt. Dennis Forgione, right.

Sometimes an offshore fishing trip doesn’t produce the desired species, but South Florida has so many other fish that are fun to catch and delicious to eat that you will rarely be disappointed.

That was the case this past Tuesday, which was the opening day of grouper season after a four-month closure.

Capt. Dennis Forgione of Free Spool had been catching and releasing black groupers on a regular basis before the season opened, so his anglers were looking forward to enjoying grouper for dinner Tuesday night.

“Dennis said grouper season is May 1,” said Patrick Utter, a longtime friend and customer of Forgione’s, “so I said, ‘Book it!’”

Conditions could not have been tougher for grouper fishing. When Free Spool went out Haulover Inlet in North Miami Beach early Tuesday morning, winds were out of the northeast at 15 knots and seas were 2-3 feet. By the end of trip almost eight hours later, winds were 20-25 knots and seas were a washing machine-like 6-10 feet. In addition, the moon was full and there was little to no current.

“That doesn’t always mean they won’t bite, but it was also May 1 and we had to do it because you never know,” said Forgione, who fished wrecks in depths from 140 to 300 feet south of the inlet.

A couple of groupers did bite on wrecks where there was current on the bottom, but because of the lack of current on the surface, that created a loop in the line. By the time the anglers reeled the fishing line so it came tight, the grouper was already in the wreck and broke the line.

“When there’s a lot of current, you can get bites far off the wrecks,” Forgione said. “When there’s no current, sometimes you have to get really close to the wreck, so it’s a crapshoot.”

Those wrecks did produce several almaco jacks, which are smaller cousins of amberjacks.

“Pound for pound they fight way harder than amberjacks,” Forgione said. “I’m always fishing for anything stupid enough to eat my bait.”

Utter’s 10-year-old son Matthew caught a big almaco on a live pinfish that was intended for a grouper. So did Jeremy Partridge, who has been Utter’s business partner for 26 years in their two restaurants, Shenanigans Sports Pub in Hollywood and Shenanigans Eastside Pub & BBQ in Dania Beach. Another almaco was hooked on a butterfly jig but a sandbar shark chomped it behind the head.

The Utters, Partridge, Dale Salkeld and Bobby Sims also caught a yellow jack and three dolphin. Those fish hit chugger lures with bonito strips and a half-ounce double feather as Forgione drove his 39-foot Key West #1 from one wreck to the next.

“Why not? When you’re only going 10 knots, you might as well throw a couple of things out there,” Forgione said.

After mate James Baker filleted all the fish, Utter invited everyone to Shenanigans Eastside to enjoy the day’s catch. If anyone was sad about not catching grouper, that dinner changed disappointment into delight.

Chef Craig Whyte, who worked with Utter and Partridge at Martha’s Restaurant in Hollywood, went with them to open Shenanigans in Hollywood 26 years ago. Now at the Eastside location, which opened 10 years ago, Whyte has an innovative flair for cooking fish.

He made one of his signature dishes, dolphin francaise, putting dolphin fillets in flour and thoroughly coating them before shaking off the excess flour. That way, when Whyte put the fillets into an egg batter, the batter adhered to the fish. The fillets then went into a pan with hot oil, Whyte gently shaking the pan as he did so to keep the fish from sticking.

When a well-defined crust formed around the edges of the fillets, Whyte turned over the fish with tongs to cook the other side, again shaking the pan so the oil coated the fish. After a couple of minutes in the pan, Whyte put the golden-brown fillets in another pan with some of the hot oil and put that pan in the oven.

He then drained the excess oil from the original pan and deglazed the pan with white wine, which he reduced for a minute or two along with some chicken stock and fresh pieces of lemon. Whyte’s next special step was adding pieces of beurre manie, which is a 50-50 mix of flour and butter kneaded together in small cubes.

“It’s an uncooked roux,” Whyte said. “When you put it in, that gets the sauce thickening right off the bat. If you keep it small like this, as you add it to the sauce, it’ll boil and cook.”

And by keeping the fillets in a separate pan, the batter doesn’t come off the fish. After adding some fresh chopped parsley to the sauce and some more beurre manie, Whyte put the fillets in the pan with the sauce, then plated them and drizzled the sauce on the side. The result was delicious.

Whyte made the almaco jack, which is exceptionally tasty, by dipping pieces in a Sam Adams beer batter and cooking them in the fryer in 350-degree oil. Whyte prepares fresh dolphin this way for the restaurant’s fish ’n chips special, and the almaco was every bit as good.

If such recipes are beyond your cooking skills, don’t worry, the restaurant will cook your catch for you. Bring in your fillets and for $15.99 per adult and $10.99 for kids under 10, you can have your fish blackened, broiled, fried or all three along with two side dishes.

Dolphins fishing tournament

The Miami Dolphins Foundation has the 22nd annual Fins Weekend June 2, featuring a fishing tournament and a golf tournament. Proceeds will benefit the foundation’s efforts at local schools to emphasize scholarship and mentoring.

The Fins Weekend Fishing Tournament is at Rickenbacker Marina. Anglers can fish for dolphin, tuna, wahoo and kingfish with Dolphins players, coaches and alumni. Prizes will be awarded for the biggest of each species and the heaviest total weight, with the grand prize a trip to a Dolphins road game on the team charter. The fishing is followed by a weigh-in with Dolphins rookies helping out, posing for photos and signing autographs. The golf tournament is at Crandon Golf in Key Biscayne.

After the tournaments, participants as well as Dolphins fans can attend the Fins Weekend Saturday Night Party at Miami Marine Stadium. Visit or call 305-943-7900.