The winds had been incessant all through April and as May came around there was no end in sight. Throughout the month, everyone was landlocked and cabin fever was setting in with the fishermen I knew (and liquor stores were running low). So as the forecast for Memorial Day kept looking so good, there were 3 factions: 1) those that didn't believe it (Memorial Day historically has bad weather), 2) those that would sell their Grandmothers to get out that weekend and 3) those that didn't believe, but had their Grandmothers on standby. As the weekend drew closer, more and more Grandmothers feared for their lives...
Luckily for me (if you can call it "lucky") I had been traveling for my daughter's soccer team almost every weekend in May so I wasn't quite as frustrated as everyone else (although you would've been pressed to know that every time I had to skip a potential fishing weekend). Either way, the holiday weekend had arrived and as of Saturday morning, it was everything those weather guessers had promised (sooner or later, they have to get ONE right...). I had brought the big boat in case they were wrong, but we were able to take advantage of the mild weather and put in the bay boat instead and we headed out with more options than we cared for because we hadn't hit any of our spots since last Labor Day, so we figured there was no way we could go wrong.
As we exit the marina the conversation immediately turns to "So, where do we go?" Neither one of us wants to be wrong so we don't jump in with an answer right away. After a few seconds of silence and realizing that the tide was working in our favor, we decided to hit some of our spots near the bridge (I wanted to go to #113 but these were closer). We excitedly gear up and jump in at the first spot near Moser Channel almost expecting to break the surface and shoot our first fish of the Summer. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case.
We started swimming along, all the while thinking we would run into that beast that's been awaiting our arrival all winter only to commit suicide by spear to the head... but it didn't show up. We swam for at least 30 minutes and while we did see a couple of fish worthy of landing, they were terribly skittish. "Maybe the water's too clean..." we thought, because these fish were taking off almost as soon as we could discern their outline in the distance. We continued on for the next 15-20 minutes with nothing to show for our efforts but a hog or two and a couple of mangroves. So we decide to cut bait and move before we lose the slack tide.
"They must be shallower" we said to each other so we move on to "The Pipes". Surely we'll find our first Summer grouper there!... NOT! By now the tide has started switching outbound and we're fairly perplexed as to how we're not seeing everything we had dreamed about after being gone for so long. So we try to take advantage of the final minutes of minimal current and drop in on the "Deep Hole" (it's not really that deep, but it is a hole). At first we weren't seeing much of anything except a few nice yellow porgies but we held off on shooting them because we still held out hope that the big one was just about to show up... Of course, I get tired of waiting and drop in on a nice porgy, line up and bam! fish on the boat. As I'm sure you've surmised by now, the first big one (a hog about 20") shows up just as I'm clearing my line and trying to reload. Unfortunately I lose sight of him from the surface and he gets to live to see another day.
The current is pretty much flying by now and we drift back over #27, #28 and #29 picking up more nice hogs all along the way (meanwhile leaving behind dozens of smaller legals to grow up). By the time we boat up we've landed almost our limit of hogs. But we were still looking for that grouper ice-breaker so we persevered and moved on to #017 where in spite of the drastic current, I'm able to land a nice red grouper and my brother in law lands a nice black grouper afterwards as we drifted with the current. We close out the day with our limit of hogfish for dinner and our black grouper limit as well.
Sunday after striking out at #113, a spot that was incredibly prolific at the end of last Summer, we head to #30, a spot near Hawk Channel that we can only attempt on the days with the most viz. Luckily for us, this was one of those days. This spot sits on the edge of Hawk Channel and has beautiful relief with large coral heads strewn along the whole line of the reef. I start seeing small mutton snappers darting about as soon as I jumped in. I keep scouting the reef looking for a legal grouper when I hear my brother in law calling for me from about 50 feet away. He's got one on and it's completely wrapped in a coral head as well as there are a couple of others hanging around. I arrive at the rock to a scene of huge plumes of mud covering much of the rock and I can just barely make out the grouper thrashing about below. As I make my first drop, I see a second grouper that my bother in law is pointing out just beyond all the commotion. I approach the fish and realize that she's too preoccupied feeding to notice me too much. She darts around and comes to rest between a couple of sea fans looking straight at me. Luckily by this time I was well within range and I quickly stone the fish with a head shot and surface telling my brother in law "I don't know why yours always make such a mess of everything...". He didn't think it was as funny as I did.
So I first drop in to investigate the situation and reach under the coral head and realize that I can't reach the fish through the same hole that she went in through. After blindly feeling around for a few seconds, I decide to surface and re-evaluate. As I start my ascent, I look down to see the grouper has come out the opposite side of the rock on her own. I quickly breathe up and drop on the grouper with my knife out and dispatch her as quickly as I can as by now, the cloud of mud she has stirred up is making it increasingly difficult to see anything. "At least she's not going anywhere now" I thought to myself. As I surface and begin breathing up again, I see my brother in law drop down and unclip the line from his gun so we can more easily remove the fish and gear from the rock. When I make my next drop to clear the fish and gear I go to cut the fish to make it easier to clear the line when I notice that there was only about 1/2 inch of skin holding the line in place. I make the smallest of nips and the fish comes free. Luckily I brained it when I did or we probably would have lost this one. We leave the spot happily with our limit of black grouper as well as seeing even more on the reef as we swam about. These seasonal closures are truly working. We've been diving this area for over 20 years and we are ecstatic to see how the grouper have rebounded in numbers since the implementation of the seasonal closures about 3 years ago.
On Monday we decided we would make a shorter day of it and only try to catch the high slack tide by the 7 mile bridge so we would have enough time to clean and store everything and have some time left over to relax before jumping into the holiday traffic on our way home. We head over to one of our faithful spots on the bridge, "Red Dots". These areas have to be worked at or around slack tides as the current is much stronger in proximity to the bridge. We jump in and drift with the still slightly incoming tide making sure to be ready to dive before the ledge so we can approach as ready to shoot as possible. As we drop and drift into the ledge, I see one very nice sized black grouper sitting in the sandy area in the middle of the ledge but am unable to close the gap before she dives for cover under the side of the ledge closest to me. Knowing more or less how these fish usually move on this ledge I decided not to pressure her and resurface when I hear my brother in law shoot. I look over to see he has another grouper on. So I decide to drop in on the ledge to see if I can find the first one I saw but unfortunately just as I am about to do so, the boat comes in to pick up Roly's catch and the first one comes out of the ledge and bolts off into the seagrass bed nearby and out of sight.
Disappointed but not discouraged, I make my next drop to scan the ledge and as I do, a decent mutton snapper gets a little too curious about all the commotion and wanders to close for his own good. After boating the mutton, I make way to the far side of the ledge where we know multiple groupers can and most often do hole up together. As I peer under the ledge with my flashlight, I can see multiple bodies moving around but can't make out any specific fish or it's size so I resurface to give them some time to calm down. The problem we face here is that our time is limited and as we know, the tide waits for no man. We spend the next 15 minutes or so scanning the ledge and we're able to finally make out 2 definitely legal groupers, but aren't able to line up a shot before the current makes it too difficult to stay on the spot. No problem, that's just two more for us another day. We close out the dive by making a very "swift" drift with the outgoing tide during which my brother in law spots a large black but isn't able to close any distance going up current in order to take a shot. He also spots a very nice red grouper that he points out to me as I was drifting behind him so I had the easiser shot without the struggle of swimming against the now very stiff current.
With 2 days of hogfish and black grouper limits and a third with opportunities for the same, we are totally excited at the fishing prospects that are materializing for us this Summer. Still one of the (if not "the") best Memorial Day diving weekends that we can recall. Here's to hoping the water stays clean for a while longer.