Saturday, June 30, 2007

Hollywood Black Grouper

19.5lbs / 32-inches Black Grouper
Shot in 50 feet of water off Hollywood Beach, FL

One of my regular dive buddies wanted to try out his new (1970s) Bertram 28, so we loaded it to the gills with 6 divers and ran South of Port Everglades inlet. Divers included Ann Scutti, Eric, Ted Tanglis, Chip Edmonds, Randy Docks, and me.

Chip had a secret spot loaded in his GPS and off we went. The current has been running South all week, so we jumped in the water just North of the spot. The bottom structure was varied and included a variety of sea life. The visibility was awful for our area clocking in at maybe 25 feet. Unfortunately, this was to be the best visibility we would have all day and dropped as low as 15 feet on our third drop.

The first wave of divers were Chip, Ted, and me. Chip picked up a few hogfish along the way for an upcoming barbecue, and Ted missed another hogfish. We weren't seeing as much as we had hoped, but continued drifting South with the current. We started our dive on the deep side of the reef and as time moved on, we came in a bit shallower to check out that section of the reef and also to lengthen our bottom time. As we were cruising along around 55 feet I saw the oddest thing - a four to five-foot pine tree standing straight up on the bottom.

Upon closer inspection, it actually appeared to be some type of marine plant, but it was as close to an underwater pine tree as you can imagine. There were pipefish and a variety of smaller fish living among the branches. As I swooped in to take a closer look, I noticed a small yellow jack at a cleaning station getting the parasites removed by small blue goby-type fish. As I finished looking over the curious 'tree', I moved in the direction of where the jack had been. He had already moved on; most likely spooked by the three dark figures loudly blowing bubbles and moving in his general direction.

As I passed over the cleaning station, I noticed a small cloud of dust, which is usually a tell-tale sign of hogfish. I started looking intently for the little critter. We were heading West toward the apex of the reef when I noticed a much larger cloud of dust. This was either a very large hogfish or perhaps a grouper. Needless to say, my radar was on full alert and I was scanning the bottom as far as the visibility would allow. Up ahead, I saw a small divot in the reef bottom complete with a few ledges. I let out a breath and sank silently toward the first ledge. It was a nice overhang, but wasn't even deep enough for a lobster.

I passed this overhang and kept moving onward. Immediately after the small overhang, there was a good-sized hole. As it came more into view, I could see a large squared tail poking out. GROUPER! There was so much particulate matter in the water that I first thought it was a red grouper. Either way, this one was certainly more than legal size. (Black Grouper @ 24" and Red Grouper @ 20" - Red Grouper in the Gulf @ 22"). I moved slowly passed in line with the hole, but could not see inside it. I checked the rear of the dorsal fin for any spots just to reconfirm that it wasn't a Nassau Grouper, which are protected here in Florida. Nassaus also have a slightly rounded tail so I was not surprised that there weren't any dots. I estimated about where the head should be and pulled the trigger on my Riffe C3XS.

The hole exploded with a huge cloud of dust. As the shaft of my speargun disappeared into the hole, I knew it had found its mark. I quickly ran my left hand through the bands and pushed the gun up to my shoulder to secure it and keep it out of the way. The gun is buoyant without the shaft and the butt of the gun conveniently floats upward and behind. In the same motion, I had grabbed the shock cord and started pulling moving toward the hole. I could no longer see the shaft, so I followed the line all the way to it. I could feel the grouper pushing deeper into the hole and trying to wedge himself into the rock.

Grouper use this tactic regularly whenever they feel threatened. This is why line fishermen have to react to a strike instantly; if they hesitate, the fish will run into a hole or under a ledge. The fish inflates its air bladder to puff itself up and barricade itself in the hole. As the fisherman yanks on the line, the line usually frays against the rocks and soon breaks. Even with a steel shaft, the fish will try the same course of action - usually bending the shaft among the rocks. As deep as this hole must have been with the shaft not even being visible, I knew I didn't have much time. I grabbed the spear firmly and started to pull. I could feel the fish puffing up and trying to wedge himself in, but I kept pulling. In short measure, the spear shaft started coming out, and the fish with it.

The cloud of dust was huge now and I couldn't see a thing. I ran my hand up the spear until it reached the fish. Doing this sets the Hawaiian flopper that has hopefully exited the other side of the fish. I felt it lock in place and started moving the fish out of the cloud so I could begin to work at securing my catch. I reached my left hand under the fish and into its gills. The gills are fairly spiny and if you get a gloved hand inside with a solid grip, you're unlikely to lose the fish if it shakes free of the spear. This is especially true if you also are holding the fish upside down simultaneously. With the fish securely in my left hand, I reached with my right to open my stringer. I dive with a medium metal stringer most frequently that is clipped off to my Dacor BCD on a D-ring at my waistline. I opened the stringer and slid it through the gill and out his mouth. In one motion, I closed the stringer - now the fish is truly secure.

Experience has taught me that with larger fish, it is best to get them actually on the stringer before you remove the shaft. One swipe of a grouper's powerful tail and he can free himself of just about any hold you might have on him, save a good gill grip. Once secure, I reached the spear tip, pulled it through just a bit to disengage the flopper and then slid it back from whence it came.

Many divers will finish up with the fish before reloading their guns, but again, experience has taught me that whenever you're wrestling with one fish, there are often others coming in for a closer look to see what is happening. Mutton snapper are notorious for this. I reached up my left shoulder with my right hand to where the bands were still holding the gun in place. I slid it down my arm and reloaded the shaft into the gun. I clicked on the safety and proceeded to reload the 3 22-inch bands.

As I finally looked up from my work, I noticed my two dive buddies just sitting there watching the whole thing unfold. They had already been scanning the surrounding area for curious fish; no luck this time. Chip looked at me with wide eyes and motioned his hands like applause.

Black grouper are a prized catch among spearfishermen. They are typically pretty skittish especially when it comes to divers. The bubbles we exhale are actually pretty noisy and tend to spook many fish species. Even sharks tend to shy away from divers because of the noise. Granted, when there's blood in the water or fish thrashing around, loud bubbles are hardly enough to keep a large bull shark at bay.

I reached down to the inside of my right calf and grabbed my knife. The grouper was yanking on the stringer trying to free himself. After several motions with the knife, the fight was over and three families would eat grouper tonight.

As we finished the dive, I picked up a nice Spanish mackerel and then Chip called the dive with 750 psi. We didn't want to max out our bottom time so we could do a decent second dive. Randy, Ann, and Eric were in next and each came up with a nice hogfish. This was Eric's first time in the water with a speargun, and a hogfish is a great first catch!

After the second wave returned to the boat, Chip, Ted, and I went in for our second dive. We covered a lot of ground, and Chip and Ted both got hogfish. Given the size of the fish I landed on my first dive, I was very selective about shooting on this dive. I occasionally pointed out fish to my two companions, but never pulled a trigger. As is often the case during summer in Florida, a quick summer storm materialized and our dive was cut short by three tugs on the flag line I was towing above me. This is a signal we use when the guy running the boat wants to recall the divers. We also use an engine signal - revving the engine three times in succession within earshot of the divers.

As the three of us surfaced, we could instantly see the storm - the sky was black and there was lightening in the distance. No arguments here; we all climbed aboard and we were headed into Port Everglades within minutes. We got rained on, but hey, it's a dive trip - you're going to get wet anyway. Regretfully, Randy, Ann, and Eric did not have an opportunity at a second dive. That just means they'll get the first round the next time we go out.

All in all, it was a nice day for diving. That's the great thing about Florida, even on the few days where the visibility isn't stellar or the weather picks up, we're still diving some of the nicest bottom in the ocean. I dived in the Bahamas and in Mexico, but there's something to be said about being able to dive during the day and sleep in your own bed the same night.

All the best,


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