It's been a crappy year on many counts. Truth is, before the holidays I thought (or rather, I hoped) that the year of crappy weather, fishing, diving and the breakin/robbery at my house (along with numerous other stupid things going wrong along the way) was the worst of it. Unfortunately I don't think I could have imagined earlier this year how bad things could actually turn, but the unexpected and sudden death of my father in early December definitely reminded me just how fast and how bad things can really get as well as how totally inconsequential all the other stuff really is.
I give thanks for all the times I had with my Dad and I actually deem myself very lucky to have been able to benefit from his experience and knowledge throughout my life right up until the day I lost him. My Dad didn't even know how to swim, so he never got to enjoy or participate in this part of my life, but as for everything else... I owe it all to him. He's with me every time I pick up anything from a screwdriver to a blowtorch and he always will be. Everybody gets a little wiser when they suffer a big loss such as this and I know it all sounds like rhetoric, but just because it sounds like rhetoric doesn't mean it's not true... Don't let a day go by without saying what you want to say to whomever you want to say it. Especially those you take for granted on a daily basis. You can never fully tell those you truly treasure what they mean to you but I'm glad for having been able to let my Dad know what he meant to me (while I could never have done it often enough). Thanks for everything Dad. We miss you more than we can ever say.
So during this tough holiday season on Christmas night, I get a text inquiring if I'm up for spearfishing Alligator Reef bright and early the next morning. Of course my immediate response is a resounding "Hell Yeah!" followed only by the obvious questions of exactly when and where we will be meeting. For all the reasons I mentioned before, I'm thinking "this is just what I needed..." as I make my mental checklist of all the stuff I have to make sure I have ready before I go to sleep that night for the first diving I'll have done since September. Hell, I didn't even care what the forecast was (although maybe I should have). By the time I get my gear together and lay down, I only get about 3 hours of sleep by the time my alarm goes off at 5:30am.
So I hop up, gather my gear and get under way as quickly as I can because we were supposed to be meeting up to get on the road to Islamorada by 6a. Unfortunately, I only had an approximate area in which we were supposed to meet. My buddy Carlos hadn't gotten around to texting me the exact address we were supposed to meet up at. So I get to the area, park and wait for a call or a text or 6a (which ever occurs first) so I can make the last short leg of the trip to begin my day. 6a comes and goes and still no word so I start texting but getting no response. By 6:20a, I'm wondering if the trip got called off for some reason so I'm checking the forecasts for the Keys to see if the weather had degraded to a point where diving was not an option. Checking the weather on my phone, it doesn't look great, but no worse than I've dove before so I keep waiting.
Right about 6:35a (after convincing myself to keep waiting since I was already up and there) I get the text I was waiting for. Luckily I was only a couple of blocks away from my final destination (of the very first part of my trip) and I'm there in flash waiting for all arrivals and to load my gear on the boat. By 7:30a, we're underway to PostCard Inn (that's Holiday Isle to everyone but the new owners) with a short stop for some snacks, ice and fuel along the way. We arrive at the ramp around 9a and after a short discussion about how ramp fees have become a disgusting example of legal extortion, we're on our way to Alligator Reef.
The original forecast had the winds at 10-15mph SE turning to SW during the day, which would have suited us just fine and should have kept the seas from building terribly, if it had been correct... We head out from the dock and take our SouthEasterly track to the reef line and are greeted by a minimum of 3-4' seas and discouraging viz as we head out. The seas didn't let up, but fortunately the viz cleared up as we approached the reef line and we all started gearing up for the first jump of the day.
By the time we arrived at our first spot, we could see the bottom from the boat in 30-35' and the excitement started to build. We were all hoping for grouper since the season was scheduled to close on Jan 1st like it has for the past few years now and this would probably be our last opportunity to bag some this year. We jump in and work down the reef line as best we can since we didn't check the tides and the waves were pushing us all over the place (hey once we're in the water, who cares?!?).
We work the reef line for a short while before Carlos spots his first grouper. I back him up from the surface as he follow it along the bottom hoping it will hole up before he runs out of breath. Unfortunately for him, he has to surface before the fish decides to stop in spite of his excellent bottom time. I continue watching the grouper as he surfaces as it stops in a small sandy patch among numerous rocks instantly turning white to camouflage himself in his temporary spot. I breathe up and drop on the grouper. As I approach it and get within shooting distance, it calmly turns and begins to swim off. As the fish is slowly swimming away I close the gap, line up and take the shot.
At first, I'm excited because I know I've hit it but that excitement is altogether too short lived as I realize the shot is high on this good sized fish and he almost immediately tears off the shaft and swims off to find shelter. Upset about the bad shot and the loss of the fish, it takes me a couple of minutes to get back with Carlos and Jorge and ask why we weren't pursuing the grouper. Unbeknownst to me, the divers on the surface had difficulty seeing all the activity and without my pointing in the general direction of the fish's escape as I surfaced, they were unable to see or pursue it from the surface. After some good advice about grouper stalking from Carlos, I explain that the fish was definitely injured and we believe it must have holed up nearby.
Luckily, Carlos is one of those guys (like my brother in law and unlike myself) to whom the bottom is easily identifiable. He worked his way back to the original area where I had injured the fish and successfully searched for the injured fish under a rock. He proceeds to ask for the rock gun and lands the first Black Grouper of the day. It was work, but worth it in the end as the fish seemed to be a respectable 14-16lb specimen.
The day proceeded slowly with a couple of hogfish and snappers being bagged (not by me) as we worked the heavy seas for hours all the while looking for more grouper. It wasn't until we actually moved into shallower water that the area started to appear to hold more promise. As we first jump in to this new spot, Jorge immediately spots a nice sized Mutton Snapper and after briefly grunting through his snorkel, gives chase and takes a shot which misses the mark. Luckily for me, I was watching the whole thing and immediately give chase on this fish which is now swimming feverishly upcurrent over wide open sandy bottom, giving him (and me) no place to stop and rest or hide for at least 500 feet.
At this point, I actually lose sight of the fish which is discouraging but a little bit of a relief because I was terribly winded by this time. After catching my breath, I convince myself it was worth another look in this area because it was the first shelter and I figured the fish had holed up nearby. After looking for a few seconds, the mutton appears to my right on the bottom swimming from one rock over to another. I get a good look at him this time and he appears to be 8-10 lbs. I breathe up and drop in on him trying to kick as little as possible because muttons are notoriously skittish. As I near the bottom, the fish actually comes up off the bottom to investigate this nearly motionless object that's dropping from the surface. At the last second, his fear overtakes his curiosity and he starts to turn away from me so I squeeze off the shot before he can get too far.
The shot strikes him in the upper back, but its through and through and appears to have toggled. The bad news for me is that the fish starts to thrash violently (he did just get speared in the back) and at some point, my flopper closes and he swims right off the shaft and into the distance. As you might expect, I'm pretty perturbed right about now. I wanted to be discerning with my shots today and only shoot at fish that I really wanted (no meat-hunt today), but so far I was 0 for 2 and the fact that both were fish I really thought were nice fish didn't make it any easier to swallow.
By now, I'm a huge distance away from the other two divers as they hadn't observed me pursuing this fish upcurrent as they drifted away with the current. Luckily the driver never lost sight of me and came right over to pick me up as quickly as I waved my gun overhead.
I finish out the day with only a couple of Black Margates to my credit (it was a two-fer shot though!) and although my day wasn't spectacular, Jorge and Carlos ended up bagging their groupers as well as some other fish to round out the catch. I had started out the day not wanting to go on a meat hunt and I stuck to my plan (whether it was to my benefit or not). My first two shots were on very nice fish and even though I didn't get to land them (even though the grouper did end up in the cooler), I was much happier (on the inside) knowing that I had a great day of diving and selective shooting. Regardless of my personal satisfaction, it was a lackluster day of spearfishing (to say the least) and I sincerely hope that this was the crappy closing to a crappy year that I can now put behind me and look forward to something new even though for me, there will be something missing this year and every year after.