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10-20 ENE (am)
20-25 ENE (pm)
This week's forecast was calling for a fairly typical Memorial Day weekend, rainy and windy. But what were the chances that those charlatan voodoo witch doctors (more commonly known as meteorologists) would get it right this week? I've lost count of the number of times the meteorological evangelists promised wonderfully light winds and calm seas only for me to make the hike and arrive to find weather conditions that only the cast and crew of "Deadliest Catch" would consider to be good. Typically, we're calling into question which dime store bubble gum machine their credentials were purchased from, but this time they nailed it (of course they did, the forecast was crap).
After braving the holiday weekend traffic and gauntlet of speed traps and rear end accidents towing my boat down Friday night, I notice upon my arrival that we don't have the other boat in the water yet so I unload and figure I would ask what the plan was in the morning (as all my other co-residents had retired for the night). As usual, I'm wired after driving late and wait for my buddy to arrive as he had gotten a later start than me and he needed my help re-rigging a couple of guns for the next day's fishing. After all was said and done, I probably hit the sack around 1:30am.
We wake up early Saturday morning to find the winds had laid down and the seas looking calm... "could they have been wrong again?" we thought? So after some discussion and realizing we were feeling too lazy to gas up my brother in law's boat, we decide to put my larger boat in the water instead of the bay boat in spite of the calm conditions (a decision whose forward-thinking we would all have a much greater appreciation later in the day). We head out in search of clean water and no other particular destination in mind.
As we head out we decide to check out Hawk Channel which follows the Florida Reef from Fowey Rocks in Miami all the way down to Key West. From where we are, the channel is only a couple of miles offshore and although we cross it with tremendous regularity on our way to our offshore patch reefs, we hardly ever get to dive there because it is almost exclusively notoriously dirty regardless of the conditions inside or outside its boundaries. But on this day, we would be lucky as we notice how incredibly clean the water is as we approach the channel and decide to take advantage and see if we could find any of the fish that we always imagine are there just because they are out of our reach (which is of course where all the best fish always are, ask any fisherman).
After jumping in we immediately notice that there is plenty of life and the bottom is as nice as we remember not having been here for a number of years. We spot a bunch of muttons but unfortunately almost all of them are short. My brother in law spots a good one and points it out so I give chase. I drop and follow the fish, which is about 20" and I start to think about the repair I made to the handle on my gun, the shaft on this gun that I had straightened after the grouper bent it last week and I guess it distracted me (at least I like to think so) because I take the shot and miss him cleanly. That fish didn't even have a nick on him as he swam away (probably chuckling).
A few minutes later my brother in law shoots another mutton that tears off and I chase him from the surface until he holes up. After breathing up, giving my brother in law a chance to reload, I drop to investigate what position the fish has taken up under the rock. As I inch closer to the rock on the bottom, I make out the mutton's tail to the right when all of a sudden something stirs everything up and I lose sight of the fish and resurface. In the commotion, the fish must have exited and moved over to another spot where my brother in law spotted him and ultimately lands the shot to put him in the boat.
After boating the fish, I'm not convinced that the commotion I witnessed was caused by the mutton and return to investigate further. On my next drop, I gaze into the same area where I had seen the mutton's tail and as my eyes adjust to the darkness, the squared off tail of a black grouper materializes. I size up the fish as well as I can without having a full view of its body and while thinking it looks good but not wanting to make a mistake, I call for the second opinion from my brother in law who takes one look at the grouper's head and surfaces giving me an enthusiastic thumbs up. I immediately drop and give the grouper what I thought was a great head shot. I move a rock out of the way to extract the fish by grabbing him in the gills. Thinking my shot is good, I release my hand on the gills (Note to self: Don't ever do that!) and the fish comes off but luckily turns back into the same rock to hide out. Unfortunately the shaft hit the ground behind the grouper and didn't give the flopper a chance to toggle on the other side of the fish. Luckily for me, I'm able to give it a second and final shot to boat the fish (finally).
We close out the day with more than enough table fare for tonight and head for home in what has now turned into sloppy 3 foot seas inside the reef and not more than a mile from the bridge. We are now very thankful for the bigger boat being in the water and not having to withstand the choppy water in the bay boat (see, I told you it would play into the story).
On Sunday we decide to head out to #67 to kill some time until the early afternoon high tide which we wanted to hit closer to the 7 mile bridge for some mangroves and hogfish. This turns out to be a good decision because after only few minutes in the water I spot what seems to be a legal gag grouper swimming along the reef. I hear my brother in law calling for me a short distance away. He seems to be stationary over a spot and I don't want to miss the opportunity at hand so I signal to him that I'm in pursuit of something. I make the drop and pursue the fish until he gives me the broad side shot I was waiting for. I guess I straightened out that shaft pretty well because I struck home right where I was aiming and pinwheeled the fish with a 10-12' shot that toggled perfectly. I immediately swim over to my brother in law to assess his situation.
I swim over to have my brother in law point out that he saw a nice black hole up in a rock directly beneath us but it was in a tricky position and wanted to see how we could best shoot it and extract it with minimal effort. So I drop down to check it out and find there are two angles for a shot but the front one gives us the best chance of extracting the fish easily (best laid plans...). So my brother in law drops and is aiming his gun into the nook we discussed but he holds off. I can't figure why for the life of me and assume that he's worried about bending the shaft on his DW55 when I see him react as though he's been startled and return to the surface. Once there he explains that he was trying to see the fish from the distance of the gun the whole time when he suddenly realized the fish was actually staring right back at him. By the time he noticed, the fish had moved back into hiding and he decided to surface. On to our next plan...
We decide that I'm going to drop and try to nudge the fish from the back of the rock to get him into a better position so he can place the shot from the front. So I breathe up and drop, expecting him to be shortly behind me. As I near the back of the rock to take my first look, I hear a shot go off and before I can turn around, the fish is already on the shaft. It's explained that when he got there, he had the shot and took it, so none the worse for wear, we proceed to remove the fish over the next two dives. We continue to scan the reef for a while longer but find no other life worth chasing so we call in the boat and get ready to move on.
We move on to the Glory Hole where, after swimming for a few minutes, I spot a grouper that holes up under the ledge of one of our favorite spots. As I'm raising my head to let my brother in law know what's happening, I see another grouper swim under the same ledge. Turns out, he was chasing one that decided this was where he wanted to spend his possible last moments as well. We scope out the void under the ledge and I can make out the broad side of one of the fish. As my brother in law surfaces, he gives me the shrugged shoulders look making me think he wasn't able to make out anything further so I take the shot. A few moments later, the grouper's on the deck but by the time I make it back to the ledge, the other fish has decided not to press his luck today and vacate the premises post-haste.
We close out the early afternoon with a bunch of hogfish and sheepshead added to the cooler as well as finding a new spot (#0017) just as we can no longer fight the now boiling outgoing tide. All in all not a banner weekend, but I'm still glad to be here busting my butt against the tide and waves, pitting my hunting skills against the survival instincts of the fish we chase.