In South Florida, probably one of the most anticipated and planned spearfishing outings (aside from those that take you to major global destinations) is the trip we make on or about May 1 of each year for the re-opening of Grouper season. It doesn't always fall on a weekend but when it does (like this year), the planning begins early. The season closure has barely taken effect on January 1, and we already start talking about how many grouper we've seen on our winter dives and get all worked up about the 20+ pounders we'll be slaying when grouper opens up again on May 1. This year was no different with respect to the hype and anticipation, but April had been pretty windy and rough and we were running out of time for the wind and seas to lay down and the water to clean up. Yet we were still hopeful and faithful that the weather gods would be merciful and give us the window we all hoped for.
As Monday April 27 rolled around and we started checking the forecasts (with increasing frequency) for the next weekend we hoped for the best but we couldn't help but be a little disappointed with the prospect of even more high winds and seas in the forecast for everything from Deerfield Beach to Key West. With no real lapse in the windy weather giving any opportunity for the water to clean up, we were disappointed but undetered. Every person I knew was prepping and gearing up for the first day of grouper regardless of the forecast (no matter how undeniable it was). The frequency of the calls during the week kept increasing as Friday neared with non-stop discussions about last minute checklists, departure times and dive spot selection for each day of what we were sure was going to be an epic weekend regardless of all signs to the contrary.
Waking up at 4:45a on Friday, I head outside to hitch up and load up the boat for the trek to Marathon. All signs pointed to the weather being more of the same with the wind picking up well before dawn (which is never a good sign). Still, I would not be swayed (besides, the hotel was already rented) so I continued loading up all the gear, food and drinks for the weekend. We were hoping to be on the road by 6a but we can't avoid acts of God (you know, like someone not being able to wake up...) so we were satisfied to be on the road by 7:30a. The trip down was totally uneventful and we arrive at the 33rd street ramp in Marathon to take up the last available parking spot (maybe things would turn out ok after all...).
By now the wind was blowing a solid 15-20mph straight out of the East making tough work of even keeping the boat next to the dock. A short while later and we were cruising across the bay and under the 7 Mile Bridge to meet up with our friends who had gotten on the water a little earlier. As we meet up with them, we're watching out for hands and feet as we bring the boats together in the slop. We talk for a short while and they let us know that the slop above is making for soup below and we decide to head out to the reef line in search of some cleaner water (and hopefully grouper of which none had been landed so far).
As we clear Hawk Channel, the water starts to clean up somewhat and we get hopeful that the viz will continue to improve as we arrive at the first spot, #8. As we arrive, things are definitely looking better than they had closer to land. We could make out the bottom from the boat. We were only in about 22' of water so conditions weren't perfect and as usual when we entered the water, the sediment affected our in water viz much more than from the boat as everything near the bottom was in a thick haze and we were only able to make out shadows of movement as we started searching for our quarry. We aren't here for very long when we find the main ledge on this spot and I make out a grouper heading for shelter under the ledge. I call my brother in law over and after a couple of quick investigatory dives to make sure she looked good, I place a well holding shot just behind the head but I don't stone the fish and I'm unable to work her out before she buries her head deeper into the ledge. Luckily the protruding shaft keeps her from making it too far into the recess and after only a couple of dives the fish tires and I'm able to muscle her out of her spot and I head to the surface with the season ice breaker! She turns out to be a solid 28" black grouper. Still, we were hoping for more.
We soon depart and make way for #16, "TheClumps". As we make way, I'm shivering from the wind cutting through my 1mil O'Neill and can't wait until we arrive so I can jump back into the relatively warm water. Upon first jumping in, the viz was so bad that it actually disoriented us. We didn't even recognize the spot! It seemed that the further West we went the worse the viz got. We swam around for a few minutes trying to get our bearings when we chase a couple of snappers to an area that finally looks familiar. Almost immediately, I spot another grouper shooting under a ledge for cover. This one unfortunately is able to evade me and I can't locate her under the ledge when I make my way down. There were a few snapper around, but we were really only interested in grouper so after taking a couple of mangoes, we decided to head back East in search of better viz.
As we head back East we start checking the gps to see if any spots struck our fancy. Instead, we noticed a spot that had no tracks around it indicating that we hadn't visited it in quite some time (at least on my boat) so we decide to give #89 a shot. We're a little discouraged as we arrive to find more dirty water but undeterred we gear up and enter the water. Once again, we find minimal viz and we're in a spot we don't remember to boot. So we start exploring the area but spotting from the surface was just not happening. As we check out the area we start to get a little discouraged when all of a sudden as I'm watching my brother in law from the surface, I notice he hesitates on his ascent and turns back towards the bottom with his gun outstretched.
Knowing what was coming next and figuring we wouldn't be able to follow from the surface if it happened to get off, I immediately take a breath and start my descent. I had hardly broken the surface when he takes the shot and I see the shaft and the fish take off. I noticed he was giving it all the line it could take, which usually means he's uncertain about the shot, so I thought I would make sure we land this fish and give chase and give it a second shot just for good measure. Turned out the second shot was unnecessary but better safe than sorry especially in low viz. As he's pulling in the fish we can see it's a beauty of a black grouper that measured over 30 inches.
As it turns out this spot was apparently very lucky for my brother in law. We decided to jump back in and take another look around and we weren't back in the water more than 15 minutes using the same technique when I witnessed what felt like deja vu. As I watch from the surface once again, my brother in law hesitates, stretches out his gun and bang! This time there's no run, no chase and no second shot. And just like that we bag our limit on the opening day of grouper. Not too bad for a spot we didn't remember. I bet we'll remember it next time...
We head back in for some well deserved rest and nourishment and around 3p we decide to head back out to see if we can round out our catch with some snappers and hogfish. Unfortunately, the wind has picked up considerably by the time we get back out and the slop and soup was just too much to deal with for an afternoon dive, especially since we weren't empty handed from the morning's dive. So we decide to call it a day and head back for showers, drinks and dinner with friends (just the drinks and dinner, not the showers).
Saturday morning we awaken to more of the same conditions as the prior day but we're here to play so we head out in search of... Our first stop, good old #67. We usually hit this spot for snapper but we figured with the slop in full swing today, we would start out close and besides, after 4 months of no pressure, the grouper could be anywhere, so why not? Unfortunately, although they could be anywhere, they weren't here and after a good scouring of the area, it's back to #89 to see if we can find more of the same from yesterday.
Jumping into the water at #89, we find even poorer conditions than yesterday but we don't give up until we've literally been pushed out of the area by the surf and we can no longer identify the bottom we jumped in on because once again, the viz has deteriorated to less than 10 feet. So after going 0 for 2, we discuss our next stop when I blurt out, "let's just head to the staghorn, it's only a couple more miles." and we throttle up and head West.
By now we're a little discouraged because the viz is so much worse than yesterday and so far we're getting skunked. And the discouraging news continues when we jump in and it takes me 5 minutes of swimming guided by the boat to find the actual spot because not only is the viz still crap, but the seas have built to a solid 3 feet with more than occasional bigger surf. In spite of the surf, wind and lack of viz, we find the staghorn and we're able to snatch up a few nice sized mangoes. After landing the first few, there was one point where we both were clearing fish from our guns and by the time we got the fish in the boat, the GPS indicated we had drifted over 300 feet from the spot. So we made the decision to drop a marker (which spent half the time submerged because of the surf) just to be able to get back to our starting point without having the boat guide us back. After a while, even we get tired of bobbing around in the surf and we decide the bumpy ride home was better started sooner than later so we called it a day, sans grouper.
We arrive at the dock Sunday morning facing winds well in excess of 25 knots (that's 30mph for the landlubbers) but we decide to take a look-see anyway. The only good news after this lookyloo was that we should be home early because we didn't even clear the gunnel before heading back to the dock to rinse and pack the gear.
Normally, this is where the storytelling ends because trailering the boat home is not usually the fodder for a good yarn, but today's trip would teach us a lesson that all boaters should remember. The majority of the trip home was as uneventful as any until we got about 10 miles from home. It was then that I felt and heard some uncomfortable vibrations that I could only assume were coming from the trailer. I wanted to pull over immediately but due to road construction there was absolutely no place to pull over for at least another 3 miles or so.
When I finally get to pull over and check out the hubs, everything looks good at first glance. It's only on my second round of inspection that I find the source of the problem. Apparently the lugs on one of my tires had worked loose and the rim had been vibrating on the studs. So much so that the lug holes in the rim were actually big enough to pull the lug nuts through them without removal. A fact I wished my brother in law had pointed out before I had spent the time working free four out of five lugs (the last one seized of course). Luckily with a triple axle trailer, one less tire is not the end of the world, so we make the trek of the last few miles at a snail's pace (much to the chagrin of many a commuter) and make it home a little later (what's an hour?) but none the worse for wear.
Everyone checks and meticulously maintains their gear, boat , engines, etc before and after a spearfishing trip but this little adventure reminded us that the much maligned and often overlooked boat trailer is just as vital a part of your spearfishing outing as any speargun. Remember to give your trailers the TLC they need and deserve to keep you safe on the road when your heading out or coming from being safe on the water. Keep your lugs tight and your hubs lubed!