Well, I was finally able to get the stars in alignment and prove the power of prayer as the winds finally laid down the week before New Year's Eve and get the boat in the water for some family (and me) fun time. I dropped the boat in on Thursday (12/29) and spent the day at Boca Chita with the family and a few friends enjoying what was probably the first good boating weather in almost a couple of months (at least during a time when I could take advantage of it). Even though I wanted to dive before the end of the year and the close of grouper (which happens on Jan 1), I decided this would be a good way to get everyone excited about going on the boat and it would be easier to con (I mean convince) them to let me dive on Friday (besides, the forecast for Friday was even better than Thursday).
So Friday morning rolls around (finally!) and I was able to leave the boat in the water at a friend's house so there would be no time wasting trailering and parking this morning. Unfortunately we got a late start anyway, but the weather was holding true to the forecast so I wasn't too worried. We headed out across the bay and towards the Key Biscayne marina to pick up our last passenger at around 9:45a and everything was looking pretty good. Once we had all our crew on board we headed out to the ocean side of Key Biscayne to see if any of our old lobster spots (which I haven't hit in at least 5 years) would hopefully be holding fish and especially hoping for grouper.
The winds couldn't have been more than 10mph out of the East and the seas were in the smallish 1-2' range so it made for a very smooth ride (even though it wasn't a very long ride). On the way out, I decided to setup the suction cup mount for my new GoPro Hero2 camera on the console to get some video that I've never been able to shoot before... the passenger perspective. I was just itching to break in my new camera and even more so the specialized underwater case from Oculus (both of which I will definitely review in SpearViews soon).
I wasn't looking to go terribly far today since we got a late start and the expectation from the crew was still that of us having another afternoon barbecue at Boca Chita. So I wasn't going to have time to go terribly far and I would have to rely on our old spots since I wouldn't have time to scout out new ones either (but hey, I was getting wet so I wasn't going to gripe - not too much anyway). When we used to hit these spots for lobster mini season they were pretty productive for the bugs, but we would only occasionally find fish worthy of shooting at these locations. I was still hopeful. We arrived at the first spot shortly and I started the process that is getting ready for winter diving in Miami. I know some kooks in the northeast and other places will say that 69F surf isn't that cold, but I'm a tropical kind of guy so my 3mm Omer wetsuit is a godsend on days like this.
Once ready I jumped in and almost immediately spotted the first victim of the day. A beautiful male hogfish with his incredible dark brown markings was patrolling the edge of the coral heads I was searching so I moved in. Unfortunately, having been my first dive and fish since Labor Day, I let the excitement get the better of me and I actually forgot to hit the power button on my new GoPro for the first shot of the day. I may not have gotten the video shot but I got the fish so I was still stoked. As I'm dispatching the fish and reloading my gun, I notice a legal mutton snapper has let his curiosity get the better of him and has moved in close to investigate what all the commotion is about.
Those of us that shoot these fish know that they are two things, curious and skittish. They will come in to check out just about any commotion, but once they feel they are being pursued they are one of the toughest fish to hunt. Once in flee mode, they will swim without turning to see what is pursuing them almost without exclusion which makes it difficult to get a broadside shot on them. I always tell friends that a mutton will give you one look and you've got to be ready to take the shot on that first veer to the left or right. It makes me think of the movie "Hunt for Red October" when Alec Baldwin convinces the captian of the sub that he knows which way the Russian sub will turn next while making it's "Crazy Ivan" maneuver only to admit later that he had no idea but figured he was due for a break... just like chasing muttons.
This time (with camera powered on and rolling) luckily for me, this smaller fish obviously hadn't had a lot of experience with being pursued because he turned to look at me and gave me a beautiful shot (which I took... I don't turn my nose up at freebies). Unfortunately the viz wasn't great and I had a little condensation problem with my new case and filter (which I addressed on my next dive) so the video has a blotch in the middle of the frame but the video is still worthwhile. The other slightly unfortunate circumstance was that I shot most of the fish of the day at this first spot so most of the fish shots have the same annoying blotch.
At the next few spots I was discouraged to find not only that there were no fish, but that it was understandable as the bottom I was seeing was not what I remembered from those years ago when we would frequent this area. Honestly, the bottom looked barren to me. There wasn't a whole lot of life and I was very disappointed to think of how much the area has degraded since I was last here. I jumped in on about 4 more spots finding not much more than a couple of schools of the weirdest fish I had ever seen and I made sure to get a shot of them so I could try to identify them afterwards. Thanks to my brother in law, I now know that these are Cutlass Fish (a member of the ribbon fish family) and it's my understanding that it's not common to see them in any kind of large numbers so at least I got an interesting sightseeing tour. I did also shoot a large Lionfish at one of my stops. I was only too happy to do my part for the conservation of the local fisheries by killing this demon that is taking over just about every spot in the Caribbean.
After a while, I finally decided to call it a day and headed over to Boca Chita for some food and frisbee action. All in all I was still terribly excited to be back in the water (even if I didn't bag a grouper - guess I'll have to wait until Spring) and spend a couple of days enjoying my relative eternal Summers of South Florida.