The other Florida sport.
by Bailey Rose
It's a blazing August afternoon back on land and the sun beats down mercilessly - on shore, it's easily a hundred degrees with heat index. Over the water, however, skipping across light inshore chop at a comfy cruising speed of thirty knots and sitting in a pool of shade (cast down by the Bimini top), it's cool as one could please. In the distance, I spy a dull-green dash on the horizon as Rodriguez key peeks out over the earth's curvature. Normally, there's a typical North-Eastern breeze of ten to fifteen knots, and the trip to prime territory becomes an arduous slog through broken inshore chop - today, however, the winds have changed, and the trip from Islamorada passes as a cool blur.
When the GPS chimes our arrival, Dad slows us and slides the motor into neutral - we pop into our gear, scanning the ocean floor with our eyes and looking for the tell-tale dark spots among the lighter green of fans and grasses that signify hard bottom and better hunting. It's odd, spotting good bottom from the surface, but somehow the intuition comes quickly to any spear fisher. Sunlight plays off of myriad facets flecking the salt-water's surface and squinch my eyes closed, pulling the mask over my face and making sure everything fits alright.
Shortly following our deceleration, my friend Hugh decides he's found a decent spot. A splash announces his discovery, not his voice - Hugh's fanaticism dwarfs the combined enthusiasm of all his fellow fishermen and it's something we've grown used to. Don't expect Hugh to wait for speeches when it's time to catch something. He blows salt water out of his snorkel; I hear him kicking off - already in pursuit of something - and in a second I'm in the water, too. The Florida Keys' balmy waters never fail to energize me when I break the surface. It's time to get dinner.
Islamorada claims to be the sport-fishing capital of the world - every year, droves of fishermen from around the globe flock to this tiny island community just south of the Florida mainland.
Hanging about the docks behind the local World Wide Sportsman, it's easy to spot, over the span of an hour, the colorful varieties of Keys fishermen in full regalia: Sportsmen in pursuit of blue water game-fish like Tuna or Wahoo head out in their charter boats or private mini-yachts toting Penn Internationals and miles of heavy-test line and leader, not to mention boxes of lures, wells of bait, and entire kits devoted to fishing tools; Bottom fishers in search of Snapper or Grouper bring their heavy bait-casting reels and plenty of bait; backcountry and flats fishers seeking Bonefish, Tarpon, or Snook brandish pricey spinners by Finn-Nor and Shimano. At night, one might catch someone toting a bully-net, hunting crabs -- in the late summer, swarms of Lobster fans, a-bristle with tickle sticks, nets, gloves, and measuring devices, dot the ocean for miles around with countless vermillion dive flags.
How spear fishing - specifically, Pole-spearing - fails to attract similar swarms baffles me. The Florida Keys' tropical waters are home to literally trillions upon trillions of maritime organisms, and many of these are edible (and delectable) fish, legal to spear and just as much fun as a standard rod/reel capture. The sport of spear fishing as a whole attracts me, but it's the Pole-spear that really catches my eye, and it's the only type of spear I use when I'm snorkeling.
Pole spears are cheap - at any dive store in the area, or back at home, one can usually find a decent rig for around twenty or thirty dollars. There are two basic types of pole spear, each with advantages and disadvantages. First, there's the plain spear; essentially a sharpened shaft with a 'barb' attached to hold the fish on the shaft. It's not too difficult to find increasingly sophisticated shaft tips for this kind of spear, but they all remain true to the original premise of a single point. Single points enter and exit a fish cleanly, but their small strike-areas make dead-eye accuracy a must, and bladed points require sharpening periodically.
My personal preference is the three-headed design, or Paralyzer point. This design employs three prongs stemming out from the tip of the actual pole; picture your index, middle, and ring fingers held straight out, with the middle finger held a bit above its neighboring digits - that's the way a Paralyzer looks. This point operates on the premise that more is better - more strike area; more points, thus, a greater chance to strike something vital in the target fish. Paralyzer points, generally simple prongs, also require less maintenance than bladed points in that they hold an effective sharpness much longer. but enough of technical details!
Back to my story.
Underwater, one might expect an eerie silence to settle about the diver - even for snorkeling, the common misconception holds that the water enfolds one in a blanket of noiseless void. What people don't understand is that here, on the patch-reefs several miles offshore, there is a LOT of underwater activity, and it's not quiet. About a million, billion fish go about their daily lives among these scattered coral formations, and about half of them seem to be eating at any time. A crackling sound pervades everything; an ubiquitous white noise as countless sea creatures crack off pieces of the coral for meals, or root around the rocks and in the sand for small crustaceans or other helpless creatures to round off the palate.
Personally, I find the din comforting. It makes the ocean feel a little homier, a little less forbidding, knowing that a whole world is going about its business down here.
I'm wrapped up in my thoughts, distracted and splashing around on the surface, when I spot one.
Typically, shallow-water Hogfish (or Hog Snapper) stay small. It's pretty unusual to see one that's clearly of legal length swimming around - usually a trip to an easy dive like Rodriguez ends up in watching dozens of runts swimming without a care. The one that's moseyed around a medium-sized head of brain coral and nuzzled up to some elk-horn looking coral is easily eighteen or maybe twenty inches to the fork of his tail. A monster!
Cocking my pole-spear (which really means shimmying the hand holding the band up its shaft), I ease down to him, praying he's too dumb to spook off when I submerge completely. My prayers are partly answered - he's got enough smarts to realize I'm not supposed to be following him, but at the same time, he's in a lazy mood. Maybe he didn't get enough sleep.
In any case, he merely ambles off, into the open sand-bottom, where he expects to camouflage himself and wait until I pass by. I do not pass by. I keep on him and after a few moments, he decides it's time to show me down. Turning sideways, he puffs himself up - the rooster 'feathers' along his spine perk up and he opens his mouth slightly, showing off his bite. The pole spear works like it's supposed to - he's mine before he sees it coming. The points get him through the head, just behind the eye, and he goes instantly stiff - I 'stoned' him, as the term goes.
Practically shaking with excitement, I hold my spear (fish decorating the end) out of the water for two reasons: 1) I don't want to get too much blood in the water, and 2) I want them all to see what I got before I get to the boat. As I draw nearer, I realize that everyone's gathered around Hugh - I see his snorkel poking up in the center of the rest, and he's got his spear gun cocked. Ah, there goes my glory - he's got a grouper holed up somewhere and he's about to go get it.
By the time I make it over to them, Hugh's got the grouper up. It's a nice Red, which is rather unusual for this shallow water (twelve to fifteen feet at the deepest) - almost thirty inches, which will definitely make for some decent filets. I'm a little jealous -- he always gets the killer grouper! - But seeing the look on his face (and knowing I get to eat grouper tonight) tamps it down. After all, I did get the decent Hog of the day, and I'll have less meat to clean when we head back.
It's just barely sunset when we arrive back at the Tropical Reef, our annual abode of many consecutive years. In all, we've got several nice Hogfish, a few mediocre ones, and the great grouper. Already I can smell a spread of food being prepared in almost every room - a faint tinge of charcoal smoke scents the air as grills for tuna (caught earlier) get prepped. As my friend and I make our way to the cleaning tables with our fish-cooler, I think to myself - this is the life!
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