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It seems like once you break the ice of making it out the first time, all your subsequent attempts at getting out on the water just seem to come a little easier. So with another good weather forecast on the horizon this week, I started the calls on Wednesday to see who might be interested in another outing this weekend. After connecting with the usual suspects, my brother in law and I decided to go out on Sunday as the forecast was just a little better for that day. We had a couple of extra hands on the boat this week as a friend of my brother in law's was joining us for his first exposure to free diving and spearfishing and my nephew Danny was in town for a week after getting out of Naval Boot Camp before moving on to his next station. After spending the winter in Chicago (of all places) for boot camp, he was looking forward to getting back to warm weather and do some diving with his old man and uncle.
This time, we decided to head out of Hillsboro Inlet in Pompano instead of Miami. My brother in law has had a couple of very productive outings there (he graciously sends me pics to demonstrate it... every time). I haven't had the same luck on my outings with him there over the past couple of years, but it was the most convenient for everyone concerned and the diving is actually pretty nice there. As we made way out of Hillsboro Inlet, the ocean was wonderfully calm with 1 foot swells about 4 seconds apart. With seas like this the bay boat made it to the first waypoint in no time at all.
Since I was only a diver and not driver today, I took full advantage of the commute to be ready for the water by the time the boat came to a stop at the first spot. The first two spots we hit have wonderful relief (about 5 feet) with endless mazes of cracks throughout where fish can hide and never be found if you don't make that first shot count. I've always been surprised by the bottom in Pompano and always been shocked by the minimal life (of edible fish) that we find here. We occasionally see a couple of nice grouper when diving here, but since we only seem to dive here during the grouper closure, that's all we get to do is see them. Today wasn't very different. I got skunked at the first spot without seeing anything worth boating.
At the second spot, my brother in law jumped in the water with my nephew and me. As we swam along the reef line, I see my brother in law turn back and start to dive and accelerate. Just as he does, I see why. He's chasing a lesser amberjack that was swimming in the opposite direction with little intention of slowing down. My brother in law continues the chase as he and the fish pass by me. As I turn to follow, I can no longer see the fish in front of him when he takes a very long shot and lands the fish. It's because of shots like that one that he is so in love with his Daryl Wong 55" hybrid gun and I can't say I blame him.
Today was starting to shape up like my previous dives here and I was already reminding myself that I would rather be in the water even if we don't land fish when we get to the next spot. As I make my way around the reef, I see only small mangroves and hogfish that although possibly legal just weren't worth shooting. Sometimes spots with less activity are good because it gives me the opportunity to simply dive and relax and concentrate on my breath hold instead of chasing fish. Although we freedive to spearfish, freediving alone is completely different without the excitement and adrenaline of seeing that fish from the surface before your next dive. I don't care who you are, once you see that fish you want from the surface, you face the challenge of relaxing to a point where your excitement isn't going to affect your dive so you can take the greatest advantage of that next drop.
So I spend a while just dropping on different rocks and investigating them without actually spotting anything on them (you never know what you might find - spoiler alert!). I drop on this one rock that looked particularly interesting from the surface and lay on the bottom peering underneath but no one was home. Since I was down there I decided to scan the surrounding area just to be sure. As I peer over to the right, something about 20-25 feet away catches my eye. As I focus a little more I see the outline and the telltale dot on the tail of a Mutton Snapper. The fish was sitting in the sand facing away from me and had camouflaged herself very well by changing her body color completely gray (but they can't change the color of that dot!). For a split second, I see the fish's left eye and think that she's about to bolt, but she doesn't. So I drop into a blind spot directly behind the dorsal and tail fins and start to stealthily approach the fish while completely out of view.
This fish is a beauty, "At least 10 lbs..." I think to myself. These fish are notoriously skittish and I know I will probably only get one look before she takes off if she sees me. So I make sure that my approach is smooth and completely silent (equalizing your mask or squeaking your fins could make enough sound to alert them of your approach). As I continue my approach she continues to lay completely still. All the while, I keep thinking I'll never hear the end of it if I miss this fish that's doing what few muttons do in lying completely still (then again, I guess I wouldn't have to tell anyone...). I get to within 10-12 feet and even though it's not the easiest shot seeing as I've only got the narrowest view of the fish as my target, I decide it's time to take the chance I've been dealt and aim right down the dorsal fin. I hold steady and squeeze my trigger...
I see the shaft penetrate right where I was aiming and the fish takes off like a bat out of hell. As the fish comes around to my right, I don't see the tip of the shaft protruding anywhere which obviously means my flopper hasn't deployed and the shaft could possibly back out the same way it entered (especially with a fish this strong). So I immediately hit the lever on my reel opening the drag and let the fish take as much line as it wants, and it does. Not wanting to take any chances, I immediately start yelling for someone to swim over and give me a second shot. The fish finally holes up under a rock which I'm hoping will calm it down. Luckily it does.
As I'm waiting for my brother in law to make it to me, I look down and notice that the fish is actually sitting on the end of my shaft vertically in the water column and not moving very much so I start applying a little tension to bring it up. I reel the fish in hand over hand and once I have the spear in my hand I take no chances and immediately grab the fish in a bear hug and finally get the hold I want by inserting my hand into its gills. It's now that I feel like I take my first breath since the whole episode began.
I boat the fish and immediately jump onboard to take a closer look. Upon closer inspection, it's clear that it's a beautiful mutton, probably one of my personal best (top 3 anyway) and we proceed to take the requisite pics for the purposes of instagraming and facebooking.
Unfortunately, with the exception of seeing one other mutton that was obviously just passing through, that was all the excitement I got that day, but one really nice fish is better than a bunch of mediocre ones. Who knows, maybe this is a sign of better things to come at this spot. I'll only find out if I keep getting out there.