Once again, the most anticipated weekend for Florida spearfisherman rolls around and this year I actually got to plan some time off and hit it for a few days in a row. I hadn't had many opportunities to dive this winter (with the windiest winter I can recall) and even on those few occasions I did get to go, it just didn't live up to expectations. I was so excited to finally get back in the water this year for a full weekend of diving and spearfishing that I spent the 2-3 weeks leading up to the weekend double checking everything I could on my boat and my gear to make sure I was ready. My new Koah 110x was ready to go, the boat seemed to be in good working order and everything was lining up for a great time. We were actually waiting to decide which boat to take until we got a clearer weather picture, but some mechanical difficulties on my brother-in-law's bay boat had us calling upon my boat. It would have ended up this regardless, once we saw the forecast calling for 20-25mph ESE winds and 3-6' seas inside the reef in the Florida Keys. I had done everything I could, so we were as ready as we were gonna be (which would unfortunately prove to be not ready enough).
The plan was set into motion... we would leave Saturday morning hoping to arrive early enough to do some scouting (and hopefully some hunting) so we could make decisions on which spots to hit first on opening day. As we rolled into Marathon, the forecast seemed to be fairly accurate as we were seeing flags that looked more like they were made of cardboard than cloth the entire trip from Miami. Our determination was unwaivering (at least mine and my brother-in-law's was, his wife's... not so much). We pull into the 33rd street public ramp in Marathon, drop the boat and immediately head under the 7 mile bridge towards our spots. We had no sooner cleared the bridge than we were already heading into a washing machine. Even close to shore, the swell was easily 2-3'.
As we head out into Hawk Channel, the water starts to turn from that milky blue you get in water that is typically silty, into a gorgeous cobalt blue that although we couldn't spot the bottom of Hawk Channel as we drove through it, definitely represented very clean water. The color continued to improve as we exited the channel and before we knew it, we were easily seeing bottom in 25-30' at about 30 mph. All this, in over 4' seas. Needless to say, we were stoked. We thought we might have limited time with this clean water since the tide had switched, but we were scouting for the most part anyway, so onward and upward!
Our plan was simplicity itself. Because of the heavy seas, with few exceptions, we would start at some of our closer spots and keep heading West... wind, surf and tide permitting. We figured there was a good chance that some of our spots were unmolested since we do have spots that we have never seen other divers or boats on. Stopping at #67, #89 and #16 first, we spot quite a few smaller grouper, that while encouraging for the species, wasn't exactly uplifting our spirits. We were definitely expecting more numerous larger specimens. The good news was that we were seeing some very respectable Mangroves which were probably going to be our main catch today anyway.
At one of our first stops, a few minutes after getting in, I see some silver silhouettes approaching. As they close the gap, I realize it's about 6 or so very large Cero Mackerel. With my new Koah in hand, I descend to get level with the fish as they approach. The largest one in the group was leading the way, and as always is the first to turn away upon seeing what to him must be a very strange figure indeed. Typically, pursuing mackerel isn't the preferred method, but in this case I thought I could close the gap so I do (pursue, that is). Luckily for me, I'm able to close the gap just enough to where I felt comfortable taking the shot and I let the steel fly.
I strike home, but I can see that my shot penetrated very far back in the fish, so I release the drag on my Riffe Euro reel and let the fish take as much line as it wanted. I was worried because the weight of the 7.1mm shaft might actually be enough to let it tear off, but I watched as the fish weakened and starting flopping around in the lower third of the water column until I was able to reel it in enough so I could drop down and wrap my hand around the base of its tail. It was over quickly and I was soon holding my PB Cero Mackerel. I was pretty happy. A short while later, our friend Chris lands another just about as big. We close out the eastern portion of our spot tour at #16 where my brother in law lands a beautiful 21" Mangrove, so there were plenty of smiles to go around on the boat.
One of the spots that I had been wanting to make it to was #101. This is a beautiful long ledge with about 6-7' of relief that we usually hit for mangroves later in the summer, but it has excellent holes for grouper and had proven fruitful the last time we were there. Only Chris and I jump in at this spot and we spot a couple of good size grouper darting around the bottom from ledge to rock to open sand on the edge. All of a sudden, Chris excitedly points down at a ledge and he tells me he saw a large grouper sitting outside the ledge on his last dive and that it had holed up right beneath us. "How big?" I ask, and he tells me it's very big. So I breathe up and drop down to take a peek under the ledge. As I lay on the bottom peering into the ledge, I can easily see a beautiful mottled pattern along the broad side of what had to be an 18-20lb grouper! I surfaced and we immediately let my brother in law know that we will definitely be returning to this spot tomorrow.
By now, we've been on the water a while, the seas were actually continuing to build (stupid wind just would not lay down) so we call it a day and turned home for the 12-13 mile ride through rough seas. The boat was running well, but we had heard some screeching coming from my starboard motor earlier which sounded like the belt was slipping. The seas were too rough to take off a cowling right there and there was no power loss from the motor, so I kept on heading for home. I figured I would check it at the dock. We made a stop to meet up with our friends on the way home and unfortunately by the time we got back to the dock, the motor sounded normal and it slipped my mind so it went unchecked.
So the excitement had built up last night with dinner conversations about the first spots to hit and of course the topic on all our minds was that monster we left behind and whether or not we would be able to find and land her today. Today we split up for double duty from two boats, hopefully letting us be twice as productive. The wind had pretty much howled all night from the Southeast (so much that the more we ate last night, the more we had to hold down our plates) and was still going pretty good this morning, probably about 20-25 mph and as soon as we made our way out of Boot Harbor channel we could see the white caps beyond Hawk Channel. The blue water still looked like it was in pretty close, so as long as we had clean water, we were hitting it. We clear Hawk Channel to pretty much the same conditions as yesterday with solid 3-5' seas with occasionally bigger waves, but we could spot the bottom.
I'm not going to lie, the only spot I wanted to hit today was #101 for a shot at that beast we spotted yesterday. Chances were, that with no pressure she would stay in the area if not in the same exact spot, but I was itching to get there and find out. As we drew closer to #101, we spotted a large sport fisher near the area. From a mile away, it's hard to tell if the boat is actually close to our spot and we just kept hoping that we would either pass him by or stop well short of him so we could jump in. Unfortunately, as we came even closer, it became painfully obvious that he was fishing on our ledge. When he finally anchored up, he was too close to our coordinates for us to dive, so we made way to our next spot. The disappointment was real.
We moved on to other pastures, going back to some of the spots we scouted yesterday and we did limit out, but I was definitely left with a void that only a 20lb grouper could fill. By the early afternoon, the seas had picked up even more and my brother in law's wife was getting pretty green in the gills (and everywhere else) so we decided to call it a day and head for home.
My starboard motor started making that squealing sound again, so after neglecting to investigate it yesterday, today I would definitely be pulling off the cover back at the dock. Luckily, the ride was fairly quick with 3-5' following seas and once the motor cooled off a bit, I was pulling the cover and checking the source of the unnerving noise. So, the good news was that the motor was ok but the bad news was that the compressor on the motor was blown. So the boat was out of commission on the first day of grouper. These things happen. Luckily for us, we were with friends that were willing to make room for a couple more fishermen (ok, so I sort of horned in on their boat...) and we were none the worse for wear.
So today we head out on the "Just Cause", my friend's 25' Bluewater Center Console (which is quite honestly one of my all-time favorite boats!) for Day 2 of Grouper Season 2016 and I am stoked! Today is the day that we get to go back to #101 and find that monster that we had to pass up on Sat (season obviously wasn't open) and Sun (spot jumpers kept us from getting in the water). Surely we would find and boat that beauty today!
Today was just a guy's day on the boat as we decided to give my brother in law's wife a break from the 4-6' seas that were almost assuredely going to be punishing us today since the winds had held up both in direction and strength since Sunday. We head out of Boot Key harbor and into Hawk Channel where we're greeted by exactly what we expected in the way of heavy seas and wind but luckily we were also met with water just about as clear as the prior two days, so we were still pretty much all smiles on the boat.
With five people on board (meaning four in the water), it would be a chore to keep track of those tiny heads bobbing in heavy seas as the boat gets tossed and turned around by the wind and surf but we were definitely up for it. We stopped at a few of the usual suspects. Some that didn't produce yesterday (like #89) but we were hopeful that would today and some (like #101) that we were hoping was a sure thing. Unfortunately we would be proven wrong on both counts (spoiler alert!) as #89 only produced a couple of mangroves and #101 was disappointingly found to be empty after scouring every ledge in the area for well over 45 minutes.
After #101, we ended up heading west towards the Staghorn and 11G where we were happy to pickup our fish of the day (and then some). It was at one of these spots where we were pleased to have one of our less experienced spearo's bag his first nice mangrove as well as a very respectable red grouper. Not a bad couple of firsts for our friend and brother, Oscar and we were very excited for him. We ended the day with a couple of very nice red grouper as well as the 3 blacks and a beautiful mutton, so all in all, the day was a success.
Our last day was relatively uneventful (although we did catch some fish) and we kept the dive very short since it was our cleanup/moveout day and I had to limp the boat over to the ramp to load it on the trailer (remember? out of commission). So much so in fact, that we didn't even take pictures with the fish. We were a little disappointed in our total catch because we were all hoping for the monsters that never showed up (ok, except for the one on scouting day) but we still had a great time with awesome viz and awesome friends, even if we did have to tolerate big seas to do it. Not having my spearfishing Summers anymore really takes its toll on me on weekends like this one where the expectation is so high. Having one bad weekend was just that, ONE bad weekend. I always had the next one coming up. But now, with limited opportunities to get on the water, these weekends that most would say are spectacular still seem to leave me wanting. At the end of the day (or weekend as it may be), I'd rather be doing this than just about any other hobby or pastime I can come up with so no more whine-fest. Until next time, keep your masks clear and your spearguns at the ready to take advantage of any opportunity that may arise!