The What'sApp chat group for this year's "Guy's Fishing Trip" actually started out as a discussion for a possible trip to Bimini in Dec of 2015 before the end of the year. I was stoked. Last year's Bimini Christmas was a blast and I couldn't wait to get back. Unfortunately, weather and responsibilities kept us from successfully making the trip. Gladly though, chatter started up again in February about this year's second annual Summer trip (which is now considered a tradition - at least by me). Of course it all starts with the question of "So where do we want to go this year?". The immediate and obvious response of "South Andros" (same place as last year) came across the app but there was a desire to do something new, some place new, and I was all for it!
As wonderful and adventurous as last year's trip was, South Andros' remoteness brought with it some challenges (especially in the fuel area) that we weren't sure we wanted to have to face again. For me, it was also at the bleeding edge of my abilities as a diver and spearfisherman so I was hoping we would find a place a little more in my comfort zone where I could be much more productive.
So after nailing down some details, (boat vs fly, May vs June, etc) and bouncing around a few ideas for locations, it didn't take more than a couple of days before the decision was made to head to West End and fish our way to Grand Cay. We identified our accommodations too, in the way of Rosie's Place on Grand Cay. A place that we have all read about in a few articles about the Walker's Cay/Grand Cay area as well as heard about from a couple of spearo's that have made this trip before. "Where" was checked off the list and with that decision, the excitement started to build. Next was the "When"...
We also originally targeted the weekend of the full moon in June (17th-20th), but a family event for one of the spearo's caused us to move it all up a week. We all hoped this change wouldn't affect the fishing too much since us spearo's love the full moon because of how active it makes many of the reef fish we would be targeting on this (or any other) trip but it was what it was. "When...", check!
Last but not least was appropriating the accommodations. Normally, you would think this is the simple part of planning a trip. You make a call, make a reservation and you move on... think again. Communication with the resort is challenging to say the least and as accommodating as they are on Grand Cay (and they truly are), you get the feeling there isn't a whole lot of logistical certainty when your best method of communication is calling and texting Raquel from Rosie's and waiting to hear back for confirmation over the next couple of days. It's all good. That's life in the islands. Us urban dwellers just don't get it. In the end, we got our confirmations and we were set to go.
With the location, dates, travel and accommodations nailed down, it was now merely a task of keeping clear schedules with work and family to get that final "I'm in" from everyone involved. The trip was set for 4 divers (Carlos, Carlos Sr., Jorge and me) until a couple of weeks before when we got an "I'm in" from a fifth. Michael would be joining us. No problem, there's plenty of room and a 5 way split would be cheaper! The only detail we left as a game day decision was our port of embarkation. We would either leave from a Miami port of call (which added about 30 miles of travel to the boat) or trailer up to Jupiter/Palm Beach and take the straight shot to West End from there. As our departure drew closer, it was decided we would leave from Miami to make everything easier (we decided it would be easier to not have to drive another couple of hours from Jupiter/Palm Beach after returning from West End on Monday).
Over the couple of days before our departure, our trip checklist gets heavier on the "done" side and the excitement is palpable. Everything is double and triple checked. I start gathering my gear and making sure I have backups of everything. When I travel with these guys they call me the boy scout, because I'm always prepared. My backups usually have backups. I had extra gloves, boots, mask, snorkel, fins, slip tips, slings, wet suits, pole spear sections and even sun block. I even brought gear to make replacement slings for others in case one of them didn't think to bring extras. At the end of the day, it's not like this stuff makes a big difference in space or weight, and it makes sure that we get to continue enjoying the trip even if some things break or get lost. A fact that I would appreciate even more on this trip.
Our plan was to meet up at 4:00 at Carlos' house on Friday morning. When I asked him by what time we wanted to be underway, he told me "5:30a, because we want to be in West End by 9a". My immediate response was one of disbelief. "There's no way we can start loading up at 4 and be underway by 5:30..." I told him. So we decided he and I would meet up at 3:30a instead to give ourselves some leeway. Thankfully, by the time the last guy showed up (from driving across the state), we were almost ready to go and wasted no time in getting on the road to the marina. Believe it or not, as we headed offshore and set our course to the Northeast towards West End, our watches read 5:28am. Time to settle in for the first leg of our journey.
Jorge and Mike settled in to get some Z's but I can hardly ever settle down enough to sleep on these trips. I'm like a kid at Christmas and my excitement usually gives me enough energy to last me until we hit the hay on the first night. Besides, I don't like feeling like a passenger. It's much more fun for me to always feel like an active part of whatever is going on.
Day 1 - The Crossing
The crossing to West End was a fairly smooth one with swells in the 1-3' range with a decent period as well as following seas. It didn't get sloppy until we were well past the gulf stream and even then, it was very comfortable and we rounded the West End light right on time at just before 9:30a. We had inquired about fuel at Rosie's and were told there was plenty of fuel for the weekend, so we decided to continue on instead of stopping for fuel at West End. As we came on to the bank it seemed like smooth sailing. By this time we were all up and talking about what great time we were making and started making plans for our arrival. Would we check in (at the hotel) first or just go straight out and dive? Would we fuel up today or tomorrow? Which direction would we head in? So many questions and the best part was that there were no wrong answers because we weren't on anyone's schedule.
As we navigated across the bank towards Grand Cay however, we saw some storms in our path, so we tried to circumnavigate them somewhat without veering too far off course. This didn't last very long and soon we were in what we would affectionately refer to as "The 50 Mile Storm". We all donned our foul weather gear in preparation for what was ahead. At first, it was merely a few miles of some light rain. This soon became driving rain which had us soaked to the bone as well as making it difficult to see. We kept watching for the other side of the storm on the radar, but soon realized that the storm was so thick and big that the radar simply couldn't penetrate to the far side of the system. So we simply stayed our course and kept making way towards Grand Cay.
As we neared Grand Cay (by which point we had been in this storm for almost 50 miles - hence the name), the storm worsened. Within a few miles of Grand Cay, our visibility was less than 1/4 mile and the lightning strikes had increased in frequency to the point where we were getting very concerned about being struck. All this and we were coming into a port that we understood was a little tricky with very little viz. Things got incredibly nerve wracking for a little while but luckily we were able to make it to port none the worse for wear. The only issue we noticed was that for some reason, we had lost our depth finder readings. Safe in port, checked in with customs and with the storm having cleared, we were ready to head out and find some dinner.
For our first trip out, Jorge suggested we hire a young guide he had already struck up a conversation with, Tico. We all met Tico and decided the idea was a good one for our first outing and a short while later we headed out of Rosie's marina through Funny Cut (that's the actual name) and headed west to some of Tico's spots to check out the local waters.
He took us to a couple of spots that had excellent structure but the viz was less than perfect (about 30ft) and there wasn't as much life as we had hoped. We weren't worried, we've done this long enough to know that not every spot is a honeypot and even if it is, it's not likely to be that every single day, so we persevered.
At the second spot, I got lucky. Swimming about 50 feet behind Jorge, I was coming to the edge of some relief when I spied something moving underneath an outcropping below. With the depth just beyond our viz, I could make out a fish, but not specifically what kind. I drop in on the fish with my Riffe pole spear loaded. As I close the gap, I see it's a beauty of a yellowfin grouper and she's spotted me but not running. By this time, I'm dropping motionless and letting the pressure of the water push me down until I feel I'm close enough for my first shot of the trip. I can't tell you how many things were going through my head. "I hope I don't miss", "I hope she doesn't run", "I hope she doesn't hole up", "I hope I get a holding shot", "I hope I can raise the fish"... the list went on and on. It felt like I had been dropping in on this fish for a lifetime but I knew only a few seconds had transpired.
I line up the shot, hold for just a second more and release. The next sight was an incredible relief for me. I pinwheeled the first fish of my trip with my very first shot! A beautiful stone shot right in the spine. I was stoked! As I pull on my sling to draw the fish towards me, the fish makes a twitch move under the outcropping and "snap", the midsection of my pole spear breaks! I knew this could happen, but I still couldn't believe it. I surface to breathe up while looking at my pole spear incredulously. Now I have to hope the fish doesn't revive and hole up. Luckily, I make quick work of my breathe up and drop to get a bear hug on my catch. As I do, I realize that the slip tip didn't have a chance to deploy because of the spine shot on this close to 20lb yellowfin grouper (My new PB!). So I surface realizing that I would have to make one more drop to retrieve the front section of my pole spear before calling the boat in.
I call the boat in and hand up one section of my pole spear while still holding on to the gills of my catch. The look from Tico was one of simply "Where's the rest of your pole spear?". When I finally get on the boat, I explain what happened and quickly rebuild my pole spear from the spare mid section I had in my bag (the boy scout in me to the rescue!). A hectic couple of minutes, but incredibly satisfying for me to know that my trip was off to such a good start. At that moment I thought, I would be happy no matter what else happened on the trip spearfishing-wise, but I also knew that I wouldn't be satisfied if I didn't continue to step it up for the rest of the trip.
We finish out the dive after a couple of hours so we could head back to the dock. It had been a very long day on only a couple of hours of sleep and we still had to clean fish and get ready for dinner. We pay close attention to the route taken by our guide, Tico as he returns to port since we were hoping to do some unguided exploration the next day, but we definitely wanted to make sure we knew how to navigate the terribly shallow and crooked Funny Cut. Carlos and I clean the catch while the rest of the group heads off to shower and get ready for dinner.
Our first reports of the accommodations back from the guys were that there wasn't much water pressure. "No problem," I said, "the only requirement for me right now, is water..." Little did I know what I was in for after making that statement. So I headed up to our room after cleaning fish and I'm seriously looking forward to that shower since the length of the day had started to catch up with me. I step into the shower, try to turn on the water and the shower handle proceeds to come off in my hand. "Not a big deal', I think, "I'll just put this back on and handle it with care." I turn on the shower and what proceeds to come out of the shower head could only be described as a dribble. But I'm so tired and so looking forward to fresh water that even this doesn't deter me. I continue to start lathering up when the dribble, stops! So my first thought is that the handle is not working properly (since it did come off in my hand) and I figure I will just have to rinse with water from the sink... HA! Apparently the water pump for the island had stopped working and there was absolutely no water. Not to be discouraged, I used what little water was still dripping from the shower to minimize my lather and dry off. I was hungry...
So after I give the guys a good laugh with my shower story at the dinner table, we talk about the day's events and how tomorrow is bound to be even better. A couple of drinks, some chicken wings and conch fritters later, we were eating our fresh battered fried catch of the day and damn was it good. I know I was tired and hungry but there is no such thing as bad fresh fish in my book. We finish off dinner and most of the guys head off to the rooms for the night (did I mention it was only 9:30p?). Michael and I decide to check out some of the other boats in the marina as the docks were starting to get active and we were curious to see what else there was to be seen. As we make our way down the docks, we see numerous boats all preparing their daily catch in their own special way. We saw grilled fish, steamed fish, baked fish, you name it. We met a young man from Miami that had arrived on Wednesday and he told us we arrived at the best time since they'd been having horrible weather each night since their arrival and it looked like it had finally started to pass. After a short friendly conversation, we decide we've had enough for the day too and head off for the rooms.
Day 2 - It gets better...
Saturday morning arrives and I slept in about an extra 10 minutes while everyone else was meeting at the boat for cereal and strategies to start the day. Today was the day we were exploring on our own. The way we figured it, today was a swing day that we would use to decide how we would manage our dives for the rest of our stay. We have the utmost confidence in Carlos. He is one of those guys that knows how to read reef bottoms and currents and locate good areas for us to dive. Besides, if we tanked today, we still had 2 more days to take advantage of, so we figured we would take the chance (don't forget, we're doing all this without a depth finder since we lost that function during the storm on the way in yesterday).
The weather still hadn't totally cleared up so we were dealing with gusty winds, a decent swell, spotty showers and overcast skies for most of the day, but as usual that wouldn't deter us. We found a little more viz today so we were glad for that but the severely overcast skies was making more difficult to spot from the boat with all the reflection from the sky on the water. Carlos started picking his spots from the chart depths and we started dragging divers in the water looking for just the right place. At first it was a little slow going, but success is only the result of perseverance and we were determined. We picked up a few nice hogs as we dragged along the edge of some shallow reefs which is always great, but not exactly the challenge we were looking for so we kept moving. We lost the first shaft of the trip when Jorge landed a shot on what Carlos described as a 40lb Amberjack but the fish swam off and they couldn't keep up with it. Hey, you never know unless you take the shot...
We came upon the edge of one reef that looked promising. Carlos and Jorge were the first in and I followed closely after. By the time I jumped in and started swimming towards them, I was able to see one of the largest Muttons I've ever seen hightailing it out of the area with a 5' sling shaft penetrating through him mid body. Jorge had landed a shot on this huge mutton and he was in pursuit. I gave chase as well, but I was too far back to be effective. I lost sight of the fish first and then apparently so did Jorge soon after. Apparently it had shaken the shaft off and was able to swim away too fast for us to keep up in spite of possibly being severely injured.
For me, pound for pound, Muttons are one of the strongest fish in the snapper family. I have seen them literally tear a spear shaft half way through their body to shake it off and then swim away with what for most fish would be a mortal injury. Many would say the Cubera is stronger and I would agree, but I think the Cubera has stronger armor. While Cuberas may be harder to land due to their imperviousness, the Muttons I've seen will sustain more injury in trying to escape and survive it. But then again, that's just one man's opinion.
After the chase, I promptly spotted a couple of other Muttons that were drawn in by the commotion and gave chase to the first unsuccessfully, but was happily able to land the second one that got a little too curious for his own good. A short while later I landed a smaller Nassau Grouper. While waiting for the boat to come back to me so I could throw up the Nassau, I spotted a beautiful Hogfish 40 feet below grazing on the bottom. I knew it would be difficult to hold one fish while chasing the other with a pole spear, but I was looking at the first Hogfish that I would consider a true Bahamas Hog and I didn't want to give him a chance to evade me. So I waved off the boat temporarily and dropped on the fish with the pole spear loaded from the surface while holding the Nassau in my other hand. I was very happy when I was able to land a holding shot on my PB Hogfish on pole spear. This trip was starting to stack up with great moments. Two personal bests in as many days. I was stoked.
There was one Yellowfin grouper that holed up on us that got very interesting. Carlos and I are similar in one way which is that we don't like to leave fish behind (ok, we're stubborn). This grouper holed up in a spot where the only way we could get a view of it was to enter a small hole, inverted. Even then, we could see it about 7-8 feet away from us at the far end of the cavern. I really couldn't see how we could shoot it in the hole (especially since I couldn't even get my pole spear into the hole with me), but it almost turned into a game to see who could get farther into the hole and closer to the grouper to see if we could get her to come out some other exit. Our friends think we're a little nuts when we do this (and maybe we are), but to us it's all part of the stalk and the hunt. BTW, Carlos definitely won the hole game when he was in it up to his ankles and still couldn't get the fish to move out.
By the end of the day, we had a phenomenal catch and had only run into a couple of sharks throughout the day. There was really only one that I would say was of any substantial size, but more importantly they weren't agressive and other than being aware of their presence, there wasn't much for us to do about them. As we took a few pictures on a nearby beach, we really appreciated our catch. As nice as many of the fish were, the most noticeable was definitely the Scamp Grouper that Carlos landed. It was definitely the biggest Scamp any of us had ever seen (in person). The weather had cleared up throughout the day and it looked like the trip was going to continue getting better. As excited as we were about today, we couldn't help but think that tomorrow could be better. For now however, it was time for the dirty work. So we headed back to Rosie's to clean fish and get ready for dinner (ok, so we did have a few drinks in celebration too - it can't be ALL work). Luckily for me, there was actual water pressure coming out of the shower today so I was able to sit down for a clean dinner before passing out and doing it all over again tomorrow.
Day 3 - Epic
Today was bound to be a great day as I came out of the room to gorgeous weather and beautiful calm wind and waters. At the morning meeting on the boat, Carlos proclaimed and we all agreed that today would be a day where we target ONLY large fish or trophies. "Trophies" being the exception to the large fish rule if it's a species of fish you've never caught or the largest of a particular species for you (Personal Best - PB). We all agreed.
We head out once again through Funny Cut (ok, I just like saying it) and head back to Lilly Reef where we closed out yesterday's dive. In spite of everything pointing to an epic day, the day did start out a little slow, especially for me. I had awoke in the middle of the night with a pretty bad case of heartburn (something I never get) and I was still feeling it pretty badly. In spite of this, I was trying to dive that morning. I suited up and jumped in but unfortunately it wasn't too long before it was just too uncomfortable to keep breathing what felt like fire through my snorkel so I decided to take a break.
By the time I decided to take this break, the guys had broken out the cold cuts for a mid morning protein snack. I wasn't ready to eat, but luckily Carlos Sr. told me they had antacid tablets on the boat. I chomped down a couple of those citrus chalk tablets and waited to see if they would help. After about 20 minutes I started to feel better, but I wasn't taking any chances so I downed a couple more just in case. After what felt like forever (but was most likely about an hour and a half) I felt like I was ready to try again, and I couldn't wait to get back in the water. I just knew that I would regret it if I didn't get back in the water today.
By now, we had gotten to a part of the reef that had so much life on it we were all getting pretty excited. Some of the fish weren't as curious today, but things were still looking up. We were seeing numerous fish darting all over the reef and sand. I was definitely feeling better and started making dives much more comfortably. I dropped on one beautiful Dog Snapper and was glad as I was able to hold my dive while he ducked under one ledge (which dogs invariably do) and patiently waited for him to poke his head out the other side of the ledge. I was ready for him. I lined up and opened my hand to release the pole spear. I thought I had done everything right but the pole spear strikes him right in the gill plate and does not penetrate. I was devastated. This one would have been a trophy for me. I'm glad to say that although it wasn't my trophy, it did end up on the receiving end of Carlos' sling shaft and he was the very happy beneficiary of the "Trophy" exception to our rule today. A fact he relished in as he did the "fishy dance" in the water in front of me (not that we're petty or anything).
Another high point of the day was when we saw what by most of our estimates was about a 40lb Dog Snapper. We thought the one Carlos landed was nice but this thing was absolutely massive. He passed by a few times throughout the time we were on the reef, but every time one of us dove on him, he would just keep on swimming away. One time, I followed him just to see if I could find his refuge (at which time, he would honestly had been done for), but sadly for me, he would tire of my following him and just speed up to where I would lose sight of him and I would have to return to the group.
Honestly, this was one of those days, where you know you're putting fish in the boat, but you don't get the feeling that you're crushing it because we were seeing so many more fish than we were shooting (and that's a good thing). But by the last dive to retrieve a Yellowfin Grouper I had dubbed "Scarface" because of the giant black streak he had across his face and head, we knew we'd had a phenomenal day. And that was before we got up on the boat to actually check out our catch all at once. What happened when we got back on the boat and actually evaluated our catch, could only be described as "Fish Porn". Who knows, maybe that will become a tradition for us to carry out on our (hopefully) now traditional annual trips.
By the time we headed back for the dock, I was noticing some pretty strong hunger pains. That's when I noticed and told the guys that 4 antacid tablets and 10 Ritz crackers is definitely not enough food to keep you going on a day of hard diving like today. Then again, maybe it was, because I hadn't noticed until then... I was obviously ok though, because the celebration started on the way home and lasted well through dinners. One thing was for sure, today would provide fodder for fish stories from now until next year.
Unfortunately it was our last day. We had originally planned to fish our way home from Grand Cay, possibly stopping around West End to investigate that area. But after a brief discussion (and after counting up the number of hours we dove over the past 3 days), we decided there was no reason to shoot more fish. We had more than we could wish for from such an epic trip and we figured we would be happy just making way for home early. We departed Grand Cay after some brief farewells from our newly found friends on the island and made way for West End to add some fuel for the trip home.
This day was actually the best weather day of the entire trip. We had smooth sailing across the bank into West End and the water we experienced on the trip home was nothing short of spectacular. We did our good deeds and picked up multiple mylar balloons on the trip as well. For me, one of the highlights of the trip home was coming across a large pod of pilot whales feeding. I had mentioned only minutes before how I had never seen pilot whales on my crossings or on my offshore fishing trips and shortly after we spot birds feeding and something breaching beneath them. As soon as we realized what it was, we headed over immediately and even got them to follow the boat for a while. It would have been hard for this trip to end any better.
Of course, every trip has to have it's trial and this trip was no exception. We pull into the marina in the early afternoon looking forward to an early finish to the boat and gear cleanup and maybe even the possibility of early home arrivals for all of us. Carlos heads off to get the truck and trailer when we notice that it's taking him considerably longer than it should so we head over to see what's going on. We arrive to to see the hood up on the truck and what appears to be a dead truck in the parking lot... at least that's what we thought. It turns out that the key to the truck got wet during the trip and some new keys that are electronically chipped don't like water (especially salt water), so the truck didn't recognize the key and it wouldn't even turn the motor over. Luckily, my son was home for the summer from college and he was able to go to Carlos' house and bring us the spare key. A mere 3 1/2 hours after our arrival, we were underway to Carlos' house for the final cleanup.
Hey, it's all just more fodder for more fish stories until next year.