The excitement for grouper opening started a few weeks ago when my brother in law and I started discussing our plans. There was talk of scouting on Sunday and taking Monday through Wednesday off to maximize our time on the water. We would connect with our friends Lazaro and Chris and we were hopeful that we would have a good opening like last year. As usual, we talked timing, accommodations and weather forecasts. After talking about it for about a week, Lazaro told us to forgo the logistics and stay with him as his place would be empty (with the exception of himself). We gladly accepted his generous invitation.
Unfortunately, as the time drew nearer, the weather was not shaping up as well as we had hoped. The forecasts were calling for 15-20kts of wind from the E-SE with some possible shifting to the South which would only serve to build the seas. But the vacation time had been requested and we were committed (to not going to work for 3 days). We were still hoping to scout on Sunday after a mid morning arrival and then dive Monday through Wednesday, hoping that our spots had been able to accumulate a few residents over the winter closure. Upon our arrival Sunday morning, we were met with stiff 20-25mph SE winds (actually, the third day of this type of weather) so we decided we wouldn't scout and just chill on Sunday to hopefully get an early jump on the rest of the people that were planning to catch their limit of the seasonal fish.
Before I could get too comfortable, I had the bad luck of having to jump in to the canal behind the house to retrieve one of my spearguns. I had leaned my guns against the cleaning table when a strong gust knocked my guns over and one of them rolled into the water. The gun wasn't visible from the surface and the canal couldn't be more than 8' deep at the wall where the gun went in. Not willing to forgo a 700.00-800.00 investment, I don my mask and jump in to the brisk water sans-wetsuit or weight belt. My first drop had me feeling for the bottom with my hands about 8-10" in front of my face and they still touched bottom before I could actually see it (the bottom that is). Not wanting to stir things up on the bottom (which would have only made my task that much more difficult), I immediately surfaced and tried to position myself better according to everyone's estimates of where they had seen bubbles rising when my gun went in. It took two more dives before I almost ran into the reel of my gun with my mask as I was scouring the bottom of the canal. A reel spooled with safety yellow colored line and I couldn't see it until it was mere inches from my face! Nonetheless, I was ecstatic to have found my gun.
Monday morning finally comes and we were all a bit antsy to get on the water, but the weather had actually detiorated overnight and with a slightly southerly wind and an early outgoing tide, we knew the seas would build pretty quickly this morning. Undaunted, we get on the boat and had out, hoping for the best. We knew things weren't looking good as we exit the house channel and every boat moored in Boot Key Harbor was pointing exactly Southeast (and this is supposed to be protected mooring). Still we proceeded thinking we could handle it, regardless of all the natural evidence to the contrary. As we make way past Pancho's Gas Dock, we could already spot the whitecaps as far as the eye could see.
We come out of the last channel marker, gas up and get going. Things were going ok for a while, but we were already in 3-4' seas and we were still inside Hawk Channel. As soon as we neared Hawk Channel, the surf instantly increased to 4-6' with occasional rogues that were even bigger. We exit on the other side of Hawk Channel and we're greeted by nothing but milky water all the way to the drop off in nearly 100' of water. Some quick consideration after a short run to the West and we decided the seas and viz just weren't with us this morning. Knowing that the high tide was due for the afternoon, we decided to turn tail and head for home until later in the day.
After a light lunch, we decide to give it another go and jump back in the boat, this time even more determined than before because we just weren't going to let the entire day go by without actually getting in the water for some spearfishing. Especially on the first day of grouper. Once again we were in 4-6' seas with not much viz, but we kept heading West hoping we would find at least one spot that would let us bring home some meat.
Our first stop was The Clumps. This spot typically holds mangrove snapper, and not even typically this early in the Summer, but it was the first area we had been able to make out any shapes on the bottom and we had already been running for quite a few miles. So we send in the advance team (us seasoned professionals didnt' want to waste our energy if the water wasn't clean enough to work) and we get the "thumbs up". He was able to spot from the surface which was good enough for us to suit up and jump in.
Chris asked if he could use my spare Euro 100 and I of course let him. We actually jump in almost at the same time and are swimming along when I see him drop and chase something that I couldn't see from my vantage point. I see him take a shot, but he comes up empty. When he breaks the surface, he lets us know that he just missed a nice Black. I asked if he winged it, but he says it looked like he missed it clean somehow. A few minutes later I spot a Black about 50 feet away from where he was. She's sitting in the open and directly beneath me, so I take a chance and try to drop in straight on top of her. This of course didn't work and she takes off before I can make it half way down the water column.
I give chase as I surface trying to keep her in my sights as I surely didn't want to have a lost opportunity on my first shooter of the season. Luckily, I'm able to keep her in sight and make another attempt at a drop, unfortunately with the same results. I was starting to think I wouldn't be able to get her to rock up and that was bad because she was visibly skittish. Luckily for me on this run she curls up next to a rock that isn't quite large enough to conceal her, but just big enough to make her feel safe. So I make my stalker drop about 15 feet away using the rock to directly conceal my approach and as soon as I can make out her head over the top of the rock, I let the shaft fly and strike home on the first grouper of my season. I break the surface yelling out "First blood, baby..." only to find out that I missed first blood by about one minute because my brother in law had just landed a nice Gag Grouper.
Bang, bang, that's how we roll. Not too shabby for a spot that doesn't typically hold grouper for us. Chris ends up landing a couple of very nice mangroves (although it wasn't much of a consolation to him, but they were nice fish nonetheless) before we end up calling it a day. It wasn't exactly the epic start to our grouper season that we hoped for, but honestly we got more than most because from what we saw, we were practically the only boat that even tried to brave the conditions to make it out there on opening day. We were convinced that most people watching us go out that day definitely thought we had more than a couple of screws loose, but we didn't care... opening day was a sucess.
We grilled some of the grouper and added some ribs on the barbecue for a great surf-n-turf dinner that quite honestly left most of us rolling. We were absolutely stuffed.By the time we were finished cleaning up, we were all ready to fall asleep trying to watch a movie. Before long, everybody had passed out somewhere in the house and it was Tuesday morning. Today was the day, because the forecast had the winds laying down that day and surely today we'd be able to make that morning run and take advantage of the full day. WRONG ANSWER! The winds actually seemed to have worsened overnight and we once again braved the morning outgoing tide to see if conditions had changed on the reef. Once again... WRONG ANSWER. This time we called it early and headed back for home in order to come up with a plan for the afternoon.
So after another morning of wind watching and after a lunch of turkey/salami/cheese rolls and crackers with buffalo dip, it was time to head back out in time for the afternoon high tide. The afternoon ride out was a little better, just like yesterday, but things just didn't look very improved from yesterday. The milky blue water still extended out to about 120' and we still had to head West in search of any viz. Our first stop is Rob Reef. This is a spot that a rod n reel friend shared with us a few years back. He had some good luck with some bottom trolling through the area and thought we might be able to capitalize on some opportunities on this spot. A rare sharing of coordinates by a true fisherman, and even rarer still, the sharing of good coordinates. As I make the first drop, the first thing I notice is the 10' of viz that's keeping us from spotting anything from the surface, As I near the bottom, I spot a black grouper about 10-12 feet away at the edge of the viz. I try to give chase, but the grouper takes off. Rather than take a bad shot, I back off and just then I spot a nice mangrove swimming about 5 feet off the bottom.
I swing about in the direction of the snapper, take my shot and... I miss! I couldn't believe it. Was it the viz? Was the fish farther than I thought? These thoughts along with other doubts are zipping through my mind as I surface. I go to reload my gun and the end of the shaft doesn't line up with the trigger housing. It's then that I realize that yesterday's grouper bent my shaft and I hadn't noticed it until now. Luckily for me, being the son of a metal worker I've had a lot of practice and success straightening speargun shafts so I quickly make some adjustments and reload. Shortly after that, I spot a cero mackerel and decide to test my handiwork with a small, fast target. I make my drop, quickly line up the shot and let it fly. Eureka! The shot strikes home and I'm back on the hunt without even getting back in the boat. Not long after, without spotting any more fish, we decide it's time to move on.
We settle on the horseshoe as our next destination in spite of the fact that once again it wasn't a spot that typically holds grouper either. We hadn't been able to hit any of our typical grouper spots thanks to the viz (or lack thereof), but sometimes you just play the hand your dealt and we were determined to make the best of it. While at the Horseshoe, we did find a few mangroves which is our typical quarry at this spot and my brother in law Roly landed a beautiful one along with the rest of us picking up one or two smaller ones before we decided to move on. We typically head over to #36 and sometimes #101 whenever we visit the Horseshoe and today was no different. We headed right over to #36 where I started searching the main part of the ledge while remembering about 5 years ago when I was lucky enough to pull out about a 16lb black grouper from this spot. Hopeful but not really thinking I was going to find anything, I checked every one of the usual holes.
As I just finished peering into one spot, some motion catches my eye over to my left and I realize it's a nice size black grouper darting in and out of another ledge. Caught a little off guard, I swing my gun around as quickly as I can and am lucky enough to line up the shot just in time before the grouper has a chance to dart off. I was stoked to have my second grouper in as many days (and trips) especially considering the conditions. A short while later, Lazaro and Chris pick off a couple more mangroves from around a large staghorn coral that sits around the back side of the ledge before heading for home.
By the end of the second day, I realized that we had been almost completely alone out on the water both days. We had literally only seen one other boat out on the water over the two days we'd been out. I knew it had been rough, but I didn't realize that no one else would be willing to brave the weather and seas. By Wednesday morning however, things would definitely change.
Wednesday morning rolls around and today we can't afford to wait for the afternoon tide as for most of us it's our last day here and we need to get on the road before it gets too late. Luckily we woke up to 5-10mph winds and honestly, we all start to get a little excited. Knowing that time was short today, we didn't waste much time in getting underway and head out to the calmest seas in possibly weeks. The big question of course was whether or not the calm had allowed the viz to clean up. We weren't too hopeful, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, so off we went. At least today, we knew we would make good time to our hunting grounds.
We decide that today we would hit The Staghorn. This is one of our staple spots for a mixed catch because we've bagged everything from Muttons to Mangroves and Mackerel to Grouper. According to the gps, we arrived at the spot, but the viz was not cooperating at all. On great days, we can see the staghorn coral from the boat, today was not a great day. I jump in and start scouring for the staghorn, but I was dropping to the bottom just to get my bearings and it was difficult to decide which direction to head in with only about 8-10' viz.
After a couple of relocations from the boat, we finally find the staghorn but not even the tips of the coral were visible from the surface. I decide I'm going to capitalize on whatever is hiding in the staghorn since this spot is usually best for the first person that peers underneath the coral. As I approach the coral along the bottom, I spot a very nice red grouper just outside and it darts underneath as I get closer. Luckily, this coral has multiple large openings and I peeked in the largest opening and the grouper was sitting right there. Knowing she was skittish, I bring the gun around immediately and pull the trigger. The grouper was looking straight at me when I shot so I ended up with a "unicorn" red grouper.
There were a couple of nice mangroves hanging around, but I hadn't really seen anything of any formidable size. On one of my dives, I hear another gun fire. With the limited viz the only way to know who or where it was, was to surface and call out. A few seconds later, I see Lazaro boating a beautiful mangrove. We worked the spot a while longer, but it was hard work and we still had a long ride home so we decided to call it a day and head back. Some victory beers on the way home (first trip in 3 days we weren't risking chipped teeth) and we were soon back at the house to clean our catch.
It's funny because at the beginning of this trip we were talking about the prior two years' grouper openings and how 2 years ago we had calm seas and no viz and then last year we had rough seas and crystal clear water. This year was sort of the bastard child of the prior two and greeted us with high winds, rough seas and almost no viz, but perseverance pays off again and even if it wasn't the most epic trip, we got ours. Did you get yours? I hope so...