Some things are just worth doing again and again. For us, that thing is our annual Pirate Trip to Grand Cay. For 4 years now, we've been lucky enough to be able to pull off epic annual trips to the Bahamas for the sole purpose of spearfishing. Our first trip was to South Andros, and as epic as that trip was, since venturing out to Grand Cay on our second trip, we keep getting drawn back. Maybe it's the accessibility, maybe it's the environment, maybe it's just a great time! Sometimes, the grass isn't greener. Every year, we talk about trying new places in the Bahamas, and although I know that some day we will travel to those other places, for now we're content, no exhilarated, at the chance to jump in those waters in and around Grand Cay.
Even though we spend a couple of weeks just planning the necessities for the trip, it's always the last night that's the most busy and exciting. We're all running around town gathering the last minute supplies that have been forgotten or overlooked, meeting up at Carlos' house to load up the boat and then somehow trying to work off the adrenaline just enough to get a couple of hours sleep before meeting back up to drop in the boat and make our way across the Gulfstream.
As usual, we meet up at about 4:00am (after barely having fallen asleep) to load up the last minute items and get underway. We left the house just as planned and had the boat in the water just around 5:30 am. With the crossing to West End from Miami, we do get a little assist from the Gulfstream but you can never tell how the Gulfstream will treat you on any given day. Luckily for us, today was a good day (not a great day, but a good day), so by the time the sun rose well into the sky, we had made plenty of headway and already started talking about how this year would be better than the last.
We arrive at West End making what we felt was very good time, and with the advent of my personally digitized customs forms, expected to be in and out in record time. Unfortunately for us, we arrive almost immediately after a flotilla (maybe a dozen) of small boats (some of which honestly had no business crossing the Gulfstream) which were all doing customs as a group. This was a fairly rag-tag group of mostly 18-23 foot boats (some of the smaller ones, bow riders) that had come from the Carolina's by road and put in at Jupiter to make the crossing for an adventurous boating vacation. I've had some bad crossings in my own 31' center console that some of these boats would've had tremendous difficulty surviving. I glad they were fortunate enough to have seized a good weather window that helped them avoid some of my prior experiences. I never cease to be amazed by how much better it is sometimes to be lucky than good. As a result of the size of their group (and their total lack of preparation of their paperwork), we sat around the West End marina for almost an extra couple of hours before we could get back on our way.
We decide to set a course for Memory Rock on our way to Grand Cay since for the past three years we've had very good luck when fishing our way to our destination. As we leave West End we find crystal clear viz along the reef line and we continue our journey until as usual, Carlos guides us to a spot and lets us know when we should jump in. As usual, he guides us true and we jump in a spot about 50 feet deep with plenty of life. Some of that life was a little sharky, but there was life for sure. After we spend a little while at this first spot, we start to attract a few more of the locals and decide it's time to move on.
At the next stop, we hadn't been in the water for more than a couple of minutes when Carlos points out a toad of a black grouper sitting just behind a rock at the edge of the sand. It had camouflaged itself with a mottled white pattern and was sitting perfectly still. With a fish of this one's size and out in the open, Carlos decided it would be better to take a shot with a pole spear than with his Hawaiian sling, so I oblige with my new Headhunter Nomad. I breathe up and invert, dropping just behind the grouper, hoping I was out of its field of vision. As I drew closer, it must have been pretty confident in its camouflage because it didn't move at all, not even to turn and see what was behind it.
What happened next is an issue that spearfishers deal with whenever the water is extremely clear... I dropped closer and heard my first depth alarm go off on my watch (40ft). I dropped for what I thought was another couple of seconds. By this point the fish was looking pretty big and I thought I had closed the gap enough to take the shot, so I do (I will find out later how wrong I was). The shot seems to take forever to strike the fish and I hit it high on the dorsal. The monster takes off and tears off leaving me with my pole spear in hand. We chase the fish for what feels like forever with Carlos in the lead and the rest of us following behind. At one point, I lost sight of the fish, but I knew Carlos still had eyes on it because he was still chasing something.
Finally the fish rocks up and we're all able to breathe up after the strenuous chase. Carlos inspects the spot first and lets us know the hole isn't too deep so there's definitely a shot. I decide to take a peek and make my drop. As I'm dropping I hear my first depth alarm again (40ft), but this time I had to get all the way to the bottom to look in the hole, so I wasn't quite there yet. In the next few seconds, I realize why my shot made so little impact (even though my aim was off anyway) because before I hit the sand, my second depth alarm sounds (50ft). A little quick math in my head and I realize I attempted a shot close to 10 feet with my 9 foot pole spear. Talk about your a-ha! moments. Luckily, Carlos was able to get the two shots on the fish that it would take to un-rock this beast and we're able to boat what might well be the fish of the trip on the first day!
Even after landing such an awesome fish, it was still early so we decided to stop at one more spot before reaching our destination. As soon as we jumped in, we were greeted by a large number of mutton snapper. Not all were large, but there were quite a few of them. It seemed to me that they were displaying some spawning behavior because I kept seeing them in closely traveling pairs. After a little while, and after chasing more than a couple without success, I spotted one large fish and decided to give it one more try. This fish wanted nothing to do with me and kept swimming away from me but never taking off so I decided to keep up the chase. I don't know how long I chased this fish but I can tell you that I was getting pretty winded and I was starting to get an uncomfortable distance from the boat. Unfortunately no one had kept up with me in this chase, so I knew I wouldn't be able to continue it for much longer. All of a sudden, as I'm trying to keep up with this mutton, he spots a smaller mutton nearby and immediately heads for it and starts to circle it. After catching my breath at the surface and taking advantage of his complete preoccupation with this other fish (once again I assumed it was spawning behavior), I drop down and am luckily able to get a decent holding shot on him.
As usually is the case, he doesn't want to come back to the surface willingly and I'm using all the strength I have left after the long chase to muscle him to the surface. While I'm doing so, a small barracuda decides to take a run at the fish but luckily decides the mutton is too big for him and I'm able to fend him off pretty easily. As I raise the fish out of the water at the surface however, he demonstrates that he still has plenty of life left in him and proceeds to knock my mask off with his tail slaps to my face. Luckily for me, I'm able to subdue him and flag down the boat to put my new PB mutton snapper on pole spear into the cooler. So far, this trip is off to an incredible start! We finally decide to call it a day and make the final leg of the journey to Rosie's Place on Grand Cay (besides, we already had some sizable fish to clean before dinner).
After having such an epic (I feel like this word is over-used whenever I describe our Bahamas trips, but no other word suffices) first day, we're all excited to get up and going for day two of what could easily become our best trip yet. This place hasn't disappointed yet! So we have a quick breakfast and make our way to our hunting grounds for the day. Unlike last year the weather has been very agreeable and we even had somewhat better viz. Our first couple of spots prove to be a little difficult to land fish with Carlos having 2 or 3 nice yellow fin groupers tear off and disappear thanks to the labyrinth rock formations at this spot, but no one is dismayed because we all know it's only a matter of perseverance and time before he gets into the fish (he always does).
At the beginning of the trip, I loaned Carlos one of my GoPro's as he was having issues with his camera. Unfortunately, it seems as though there was an issue with either the case or seal which lead to the case getting flooded and the loss of the camera and footage from it. I would also find out later that my other two cameras were suffering from overheating issues that made them lock up and stop filming without warning. So as good as this trip was, it was my least documented trip due to all these camera issues. This particularly stunk because today was the day I would shoot my new PB Nassau Grouper on pole spear.
Carlos had been searching for one of his groupers that had gotten away and he spotted a fatty Nassau. Still hoping to find his fish, he told me about the fish that was hiding out in a big crevice in the side of a huge piece of relief. Dropping down the side of the relief, I hadn't made out specifically where the fish was when I hear Carlos grunting from the surface to get my attention and get me to look in a particular direction. Once I do, I'm able to just see the outline of a grouper and it pokes its head out to take a look at me. I load my pole spear and let it fly. The shot hits home and the fish immediately swims further into the hole, taking my pole spear with it! I was able to grab the pole spear but was literally holding on to the butt end trying to keep the $400 stick from disappearing into the crevice. I fought to gain ground as long as I could (I'm sure it wasn't more than a few seconds) but I was running out of breath and had to make a decision. Remembering something Carlos had done on a previous trip, I was just about to loop the sling around the nearest outcropping so the fish couldn't disappear with my pole spear (and my investment) when all of a sudden, something gave. I'm not sure why or how, but for some reason the fish gave up and I was able to extract my money, I mean my pole spear and the fish before screaming to the surface. As soon as I got my hands on this fish, I knew it was a new personal best for me, and I was stoked!
One of the things I always enjoy spearfishing with Carlos (aside from the fact that lately we're always doing it in the Bahamas) is watching his technique and appreciating his execution. With the exception of Carlos' dad, I'm by far the old fart in the group, but there always seems to be something I can learn from him. There were quite a few muttons taken on this trip but of the ones I got to watch go down, one stands out... Carlos drops to the sand while keeping an eye on a very nice mutton in the distance. Carlos' weapon of choice is the sling and he's an exceptional shot with it but this fish was considerably out of range. Carlos has already decided he's going to draw this fish in and take him. While laying on the sand, he starts to throw fistfuls of sand to grab the fish's attention. This is a proven method for bringing fish closer, but Carlos' execution of it was a thing to behold. He uses the sand he's throwing not only to draw the fish in, but to camouflage himself by keeping the sand between himself and the fish. As soon as he sees the fish is coming in close enough, he draws his sling, moves forward through the sand cloud and takes the shot as soon as he comes through the other side. The fish never saw it coming and didn't stand a chance, that's for sure.
All this said however, today would prove to be Jorge's day as we officially labeled him the "Mutton Man". Jorge landed as many nice muttons in this one day as we normally land in 3 days on these trips. We obviously timed the trip with some kind of mutton spawn, but regardless of that, he ended up with a magnificent day's catch of at least 5 or 6 muttons that any one of us would have been happy to get. As luck would have it, I didn't get to see any of Jorge's shots on the muttons, but today it seemed like every time I turned around, Jorge was throwing another one over the side of the boat. He told me earlier that he had never seen anyone successfully chase down a mutton like I did on the first day, but I can honestly say I hadn't seen one person land so many of these very cagy fish in one day either, especially on primitive gear. Jorge had some struggles since switching to his Billfish Republic roller pole spear from his Hawaiian sling, and we gave him more than his fair share of razzing about it, but he definitely worked through everything and seems to have it dialed in now. Muttons are no easy quarry and he landed more than his fair share today.
As is usually the case on these multi day trips, at some point, my right ear will start to pinch up and I will either have trouble equalizing (which I can easily live with) or I will end up with reverse block (if you don't know what that is check this out). It doesn't usually happen on the second day, but sometimes things just happen. So as my ear started to tighten up on me, I would dive less and less trying to make sure I avoid reverse block. I was still in the water swimming along with Carlos and hoping for something in shallow water but I wasn't very hopeful. All of a sudden, a nice size Cero Mackerel swims up along side me and just below me. Luckily for me, I had my pole spear cocked with my sling clip and I only had to unhook the clip and let the pole spear fly. It was such a quick shot that I wasn't even sure if I was going to hit it, but hit it I did and that's how I got my first Cero on pole spear. Not exciting, I know, but still a first.
We'd been having an exciting day filled with lots of fish and memories but it was time to start heading back to clean fish and ourselves for dinner. As soon as we get back to the dock, we unload the fish and Carlos and I get busy filleting the catch. I don't remember exactly, but I think we were about half way through the fish when I grab a yellow jack to filet on the table. I had been using my brand new 7" Bubba blade knife with some good results. I was following the backbone of the fish making the incision along the dorsal and upon reaching the bony tail of the jack, I guess I pulled on the knife a little more than I usually do and literally poked myself in the wrist with the tip of the knife. What happened next was a little unnerving for those around me...
Immediately after poking myself, I knew it was a bad spot because by the time I dropped the knife on the table and reached for my wrist, 2 or 3 gushes of blood had already streaked across the table literally covering everything in blood. Carlos' eyes got as big as saucers and the Bahamian gentleman behind us immediately stated "Oh mon, that's not good mon!". I assured everyone that I was find as I was able to stop the bleeding by applying direct pressure and I even took a look at the cut, it was little more than 1/4" wide, but I had obviously hit a blood vessel. The trick now was to get care for this wound on this tiny remote island in the middle of nowhere. I immediately started considering my options should I not be able to completely stop the bleeding. My first thought was that we might have to jump in the boat and make the 50 mile trip to West End to get proper medical care. Considering that, I was hopeful we would be able to get it taken care of on the island.
It took about 45 minutes to find the nurse that had just closed up the clinic and someone was nice enough to give me a golf cart ride to the clinic while she opened it back up for me. By the time we got to the examination room and she asked me to remove my thumb from the wound, the blood was luckily only slowly coming out while she inspected it. Since the bleeding has slowed so much, she decided we wouldn't have to stitch it up just then and we cleaned it out and applied a gauze dressing with some pressure to hopefully get me back home in two days. Thirty-five bucks later (what a bargain!), I was on my way back to our room. I could say that was the end of it, but what fun would that be?
After showering with one hand and making it to the restaurant where our fresh catch was waiting for us, everything seemed fine for a while. As usual, the fish stories as well as the story of the cleaning table ensued. Being latin, the requisite hand gestures were used while telling most of these stories. All of a sudden I noticed some drops of blood on my placemat. My wound had obviously re-opened and my bandage had soaked through. It was now almost 10pm and it was now that we had to jump in another golf cart to go find the on-call nurse to provide further care. Mike decided he would accompany me in case I needed any help.
After visiting a couple of homes and another 30 minutes, we finally found the correct on-call nurse (she was none too happy to see us) and headed back to the clinic once again. After getting back into the examination room, the nurse immediately notifies me that "if this thing is still bleeding, I'm going to have to stitch it...". I told her I didn't care what she had to do as long as it stopped bleeding. It's at this point that Mike advises me that he is "out". I never did find out what it was he had an issue with, blood, stitches or grumpy nurses, but he proceeded to wait for me outside. He was still providing support and input though, as he would keep telling me through the window of the exam room, "You're gonna die, you're gonna die..." Luckily for me the prognosis was much better than Mike thought and I left the clinic with fresh bandages and sans-stitches. He did make up for abandoning me though, when he kept waking up throughout the night to make sure I wasn't bleeding out again. The truth is, so did I.
The third day was a boat day for me for obvious reasons, but luckily the bleeding had subsided even if only until I got home (hopefully). It was decided that today was going to be focused on Hogfish, as we hadn't really seen many, especially of any size at the spots we had visited since we arrived. So we told our perennial guide Tiko to take us to some of his special hog spots so we could bag some of those tasty wrasses to take home. Tiko advised us that his Hogfish spots had 3 things and only one of them was Hogfish, the other two were current and sharks. With only Jorge getting a little nervous at this news (didn't matter to me, I was stuck on the boat), we headed out under Tiko's guidance to bag some of those other-white-meat fish.
Today's diving would be shallow. So shallow that there were a couple of areas we had to be mindful of the draft of the boat because of the coral heads that came so close to the surface, especially depending on the tide so we had to e extra mindful of the boat and the divers. The guys did see a few sharks as they dove, but of course it was Jorge that had the closest encounter. You see, Jorge doesn't like sharks and he's pretty vocal about it too, so of course it had to be him that had the run in.
The guys were finding hogs, but there were a couple of lulls in the hunting. At one point Jorge got bored and saw a school of Horse Eye Jacks. He decided taking one of these would make for good smoked fish dip so he lined up and took the shot. His shot was true and the fish started fighting vigorously, as most jacks do. Unfortunately for Jorge, this commotion got the attention of a decent sized shark that came in to see what all the hubbub was about. Suffice it to say that Jorge ended up standing on the coral head with fish in hand calling the boat over to pick him up. You gotta hand it to him, he brought home the catch.
At the end of the day, the guys were finding their fair share of hogs, but most of them were caught fairly uneventfully with one exception. There was this one fish that just didn't want to go quietly into that night. He had holed up in a large coral head that had a perfect hidey-hole for him. From what the guys told me, they could occasionally spot him from outside, but every time they tried to enter the hole to shoot him, he would find a way to hide. This game of hide and seek went on for quite a while.
Being on the boat, I obviously couldn't know how big this fish was but I was assured that it was worth the effort. I kept watching the guys take turns at diving down and entering the cavern and coming back out empty handed over and over again. Most people would have given up after a while just chalking it up to the fish finding the perfect hiding spot, but not Carlos. He was adamant that this fish was worth all this work. We of course took him at his word. He's not typically one to exaggerate. We had actually stopped all other diving in an effort to get this one guy out of his rock. After what must have been close to 45 minutes of repeated diving (not counting the time before everyone joined in the effort), Mike came up exclaiming that he thought Carlos had finally been able to get a shot on him. Luckily for our time table, he was right and Carlos broke the surface with the biggest Hogfish of the day. We closed out the afternoon at an isolated beach where got our drink on, cleaned our catch and I even got the drone up for a little flying time.
Unfortunately, the last day of our trip arrived and although we were spent (some of us weak from blood loss), we never want to leave. So we pack up first thing in the morning, load up the boat (it always seems better organized on the trip here) and bid our farewells as we push away from the dock. We stop at the local fuel dock to put in some fuel to make sure we have enough to get home (but not so much that it degrades the quality of our fuel in the tank) and we're off.
The weather on the way home was excellent and we were pretty much on auto pilot until we were well into the gulfstream. The seas always pick up a little when we hit that current but it was still relatively smooth sailing until we made port in Miami and headed back to Carlos' house to unload and head home. This trip is something I truly look forward to each year and although the only constant in life is change, I hope we are able to continue this tradition for years to come regardless of the changes that may come our way.
See you next year Grand Cay! Same Pirate Time, same Pirate Channel... Aaaargh!