Florida spearfishing for sanity trip
february 23rd - march 5th, 2000
Olivier Lauzon and me HAD to leave Canada. The snow was piling high on the streets. The plow trucks barely had time to clear my street before a new layer of white shit would cover it again. The sidewalks were gorged with sludge. The salt was eating my snow boots and the bottom of my pants. So, even though we were broke, we decided to go to Florida. We were hoping to drive on gasoline fumes and peanut butter for ten days.
The drive is insane enough: 2600 km, 27 hours and 42 minutes each way; in a Honda Civic full of gear. It's a dull 7 hours on the 87 from Montreal to New York then 20 hours 42 minutes on the 95 from New York to West Palm Beach Florida.
Once in Florida, we had to find a place to stay. Fortunately, the Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Jupiter had a tent site for us. This was a relief since the alternative to a campsite was sleeping in a rest area with nighttime security. After pitching the tent, we went to the beach. There, we meditated on the meaning of existence while watching the 8 to 10 feet surf.
The next day, on Friday, we dove from shore in 5 to 7 feet seas with 5 feet of visibility. We wondered if this was the start of a very bad diving week. People on the list started to refer to the Roger Yazbeck curse. Fortunately, Roger was on the other coast. So, it was the last day of very bad visibility and high seas.
Mike Damns had given us a rendezvous for Saturday morning at 6 am. He generously offered his place for two nights. It was very kind of him since the State Park was booked solid on the weekend. Mike is a super guy! We finally got to see the Rob Allen stuff. We were thoroughly impressed. Had we not been so strapped we would have bought two 120cm guns. We later found that they were the possibly the definitive weapon for Florida. We gathered our resources to buy one float line, a pair of gloves and a shaft. I will surely get a 90-cm version for the stripers in Rhode Island.
Saturday, the seas were rough: 4 to 6 feet. After so many months on land, I was a bit worried about motion sickness. I took two Dramamines and thanked God that Mike owned a Sea-Cat. Even though the seas were so rough that most people kept to the inter-coastal, we had a relatively nice ride. The cat's twin hulls really cuts down on the banging and the shoving around.
Somehow, the visibility was very good. I could make the details on the bottom at 70 feet. Everything was foreign to Olivier and me: the fish, the visibility, the depth. Our equipment was somewhat inappropriate, especially the 5mm suit and 90cm gun. As for the fins, during the trip I used both my long/stiff Sporasub blades and my Mares Avanti-L's, and after much trial, I went back to my Avanti-L's. Yes, even at 100 feet. Since I play hockey so much, I seem to consume less air while kicking often than I do while kicking harder. Also, my ankles cannot take the beating from the stiff/long fins.
Scott Turgeon was on the boat with us (In the picture, Mike is on the left, Scott is holding the fish). The guy was having quite a day. He had groupers, snappers... It was fortunate that he shot so many fish since it gave us a chance to identify some of the local species. Unfortunately, I cut his day short; after 4-5 hours at seas, I was getting quite nauseous.
On the way back, we dove the jetty. There I shot a 10 pound plus Marquis Snapper, a.k.a. shitfish. There was a very large school of jack crevalle and plenty of sheepshead. The current was not unlike the one in the St-Lawrence. The diving consisted of small drifts towards the jetty while boat dodging followed by recovery. It was not the safest of scenes, but I saw more fish there than anywhere else. A few boats came pretty close to us. To do this they had to pass real close to the rocks directly in the chop but those
idiotsfriendly boaters are determined.
We continued diving in the inter-coastal on an artificial reef. The place was full of snook and snappers. Scott shot a huge Cubrera snapper that he mistook for a grouper.
Sunday and Tuesday we dove with Russ Karnapp. Sunday was my birthday. I did not even think about it but I got my present in the form of a barracuda rodeo. It was the first time I was spearing a fish that can cut my fingers off (In the picture, Olivier keeping the fish well away from himself). It was training in managing and landing fish. The rodeo was also a very difficult test on our equipment. We found out that, in Florida, it is useless to try to keep a straight shaft. On that day, I bent and unbent the same two shafts too many times to count. For a guy who always insists on using straight shafts, Florida could prove expensive. On that day we dove ten hours.
On Monday, we took it easy; we only dove 4 hours. We explored the second coral reef in front of Commercial Boulevard. I shot a 4-5 pound hogfish.
On Tuesday, Russ first took us to a wreck (On the right in the picture below). The wreck was in about 70 feet of water, maybe more. It's the one in front of Boca Raton. We were instructed not to shoot any resident fish since this was a site very popular with bubble blowers. There are many jewfish around.
After a few hours, Russ took us to corals closer to the shore. Personally, coral diving is my favorite since the hunting ground is not limited to a single object. There is more of a hunt. The second set of corals we visited was rather shallow: 20-25 feet. I followed it for a while and visited the holes to find fish or bugs.
I find a hole that looks more promising than the others. I first spot a entrance from the top, but I cannot look inside from that angle. There is another entrance from the side. With my belly against the sand I can look inside the hole and I see fish: large sheepheads. I get interested in that hole so I go back again and this time I really go deep inside the hole. At this point only my fins and part of my legs stick out of the hole (knees down). Each time I returned I stayed longer and I explored a bit deeper. The sheephead I decide to shoot is a good nine feet from my hand; lets say fourtheen feet inside the hole. I'm thinking, if the shaft gets stuck, I'm not even sure I'll be able to retrieve the gun since the shooting line is attached to the tip of the gun which is very deep in the hole... you get the picture... So I decide to take the shot. I get a nice shot on the side of the moving fish... that's when a disgusting green moray eel comes along! YUCK! So I'm in that hole with a five feet long green thing with teeth. It bites my fish. It bites my shaft. It then bites my gun and returns to the fish before I can exit the hole. I drag the fish and myself out of the hole. The green monster follows and bites my gun again! I let go of my gun before the thing comes for me! Yuck! argh! I grab my float line and start to yank on my gun and fish until the eel lets them go. The fish has this very visible gash. For the remainder of the trip, I will ponder a long time before going into holes.
On the surface, I thought: this is so cool! On my way back to the boat, I saw some eels going from hole to hole and I understood how mine materialized. It was not in the hole with me from the start. It simply came in once the fish was shot. For those who have not seen those eels, they are SO GREEN!
I came back to the boat to find Olivier sleeping on the cooler. We gutted our fish and managed to attract 5 nurse sharks, 2 moray eels and a large baracuda. Oh well.
On Wednesday. We met Mark Stalnaker and Juan Cabrera at the John U. Lloyd State Park's boat ramp in Hollywood. Mark is a slim guy with longish hair and a pierced ear, Juan is a well enveloped Cuban (do I really need to explain which is which?). Mark and Juan brought us to a place called the stink hole. It's an interesting site. It's where the fresh water overflow from the city is released at sea. On the surface the thing looks odd. The fresh water is very flat compared to the salt water. The current created from the fresh water gushing from 100 feet below is intimidating. Let's just say that if I passed near that thing by accident in my kayak, I would have turned away from it. From the very bottom the whole thing looks like a nuclear mushroom of brown water in clear blue water. I loved it, but it will never be a popular spot; no matter how many fish hang there. I cannot understand how come I did not take a picture of the stink hole, sorry.
Of course this disruption in the natural order of the ocean concentrates fish and sharks. Different kinds of baitfish hang near the brown water at different depts. More interesting are the fish chasing them. From the surface you can witness the bait fleeing the predators. We even saw the bait being chased by a dozen dolphins (the mammal). What a site!
Mark and Olivier went in first. Juan and me stayed on the boat to spot them (that's Juan and me exchanging lies, it would make a great manly outdoorsly Malboro add). The stink hole neophytes were instructed not to fight the fish we would spear from the water because of the sharks. "When you spear a fish, come back to the surface and signal, we will take you and your float and bring the fish from the boat".
Olivier shot the first fish, a jack crevalle. We were then told not to shoot them by Juan. I spent the remainder of the day not shooting at anything that resembled a jack, even the yellow jack; oh well. Olivier had seen a wahoo: a large one. Things were getting interesting.
Then comes Juan's and my turn in the water. As usual, I'm the first in. We are far from the hole, far from the action. Juan, for some reason, takes a long time to get in. I tell him that I'll go down right here to get the bubbles out of my suit and warm up. "Be my guest..." he says. So I go down very slowly. The visibility is not spectacular, maybe 15 feet. When I reach about 60 feet I slow down and head back up very slowly. At about 40 feet, I see a fish. I'm thinking, this must be a very common fish since I see it on my first dive. The very common fish is hard to get close to anyway. I don't break my slow ascent rhythm but I turn slowly and start to chase the fish. I cannot get a head shot but I know that even with my 90-cm viper with 3 lengths of shooting line (one wrap for the Floridians) I can get a body shot. I continue the slow chase and finally take a shot. I get it mid section and it bolts, POW! I know that my shot is not great, so I handle the fish by hand from the water even though the boat is 10 feet from me. I work the fish for 4-5 minutes and I ask for a second gun. I load Olivier's viper and get a nice shot. Once on the Boat, Juan was ecstatic. "You don't know what you've shot!" It was a 17-pound kingfish. Juan had to explain to me that this was very good.
There are so many different fish species in Florida that I could not tell a good fish from scrap fish. Incidentally, we spent most of the week watching fish without shooting.
Olivier went back in. He missed two kingfish because of the lack of range; our guns only had 3 lengths of shooting line. Myself, with a longer gun I would have shot another king at 50-60 feet of dept.
The bottom around the stink hole is uneven. Olivier had asked me to try to get to the sand. We both thought that it was at 80 feet. He had been to the bottom a few times and said that on the way up he felt the surface was very far. Was it because the fresh water made it harder? We had our answer when I reached the end of my 100 feet float line. I looked over to see the angle of the line. There was none and the bottom was still a good 10-15 feet under me. We later learned that the bottom on the south side of the stink hole is at 80 feet, but it's 110 feet deep on the north side. It's good to know these things...
We left the stink hole for a wreck. That's were I let the yellow jack pass without shooting... Mark thought that I was refraining from shooting an easy pray ;-) The wreck was loaded with snappers.
We went from the wreck to a trench line. At least we tried to find the trench. The boat was anchored. Olivier went south and I went north. We were supposed to find the trench and report its location. I think the whole purpose was to get us away from the real spot: right behind the boat. Anyway the visibility was bad, 15 feet at the surface, 30 on the bottom. So I have to dive repeatedly at 40-50 feet find the trench. After about 15 dives, I am far from the boat, real far, and I see that Olivier is just as far on the south side. So I decide to come back.
On my way back to the boat, I do more dives. On one of them I drop right on a grouper. I shoot it before it has time to flee. It goes round and I keep it from going to any hole; not that I saw any. I head back to the surface keeping a lot of tension on the line while the fish trashes under me. I then get the fish closer to the surface. I can see the grouper's shape but also a larger, much larger, shape coming way fast toward it. It's a 10 feet + bull shark! I call for the boat but it is very far. I pull on the line to get the grouper out of the shark's mouth. I start finning fast toward the boat while trying to get the attention of the guy standing in it. That guy is Olivier and he cannot do anything since the boat is anchored. He had just gone through the same experience with a snapper. He had left his float and proceeded to walk on water to the boat. I continue to swim fast but every few seconds I was taken back five feet behind by the shark. He came back three times to steal the only grouper I shot that week! By the time I got to the boat, I had a chunk of flesh the size of a dime on my spear. Way cool, I thought; too bad for the fish.
Back on shore, Juan invited us for some porc "à la tandoorie", Mark had to go back to his children. It was quite a day.
Thursday, we did not call anyone. We went to the beach; no diving. We were exhausted and we wanted to be fit for Friday's dive and Saturday's drive back home.
Friday we dove with John Bettua and Mike Messina. We used John's brand new boat. Everything was so clean. It was surreal. Fortunately, I brought a large chocolate bar that will eventually melt and mend this disturbing boat feature. I must also give credit to Mike who will help by taking care of boat's chrome bars with his bloody hands. John put the last touch by throwing his new baseball cap overboard; his person was also too tidy to fit a real mariner's profile so he through his new baseball cap in the ocean. By the time we came to shore the boat and crew finally had looked proper.
John and Mike first took us out for real blue water hunting. The ocean was flat near shore but with the winds that day (easterly I think) a few miles offshore the sea was a bit choppy (2 to 4 feet, nothing serious). We rode out looking for baitfish or whathaveyou splashing. The color of the water was incredible. It was also warmer than on shore. After much scouting, we finally gave up on the baitfish and started looking for any floating object. The sargasses (weed) was all broken up by the chop. There were no really nice patches. We finally stopped near a bunch of small patches.
John insisted that we take his wood guns. Olivier took the pipe gun and I used the Alexander enclosed track gun. John stayed on the boat. Mike, Olivier and me hung around the flasher looking at the deep blue waters. We sank slowly and came back up. I spent time looking at them floating on the surface while I was down and vise versa. It was a very calm freediving session.
Of course we saw nothing. We shot our guns and headed back to the boat. It was the first time Olivier shot a tree trunk. The range and the power of the guns impressed him. The Alexander I shot sure took that spear far, fast.
At the wreck (named captain Dan), the water was calm. The current was going north slowly but surely. We had to swim far in front of the wreck in order to come down on top at 70 feet. The sand was at 110 feet. We never went down there. I think it would have been hard and unpractical with that current, although the payoff might have been good.
We had anchored, so everyone was in the water. John and me saw some unfamiliar fish under us. I went down slowly, John rocketed to it, took a shot and missed. It was Mike Messina who nailed one. It was a bad tail shot on the wahoo. He called for help (this story was posted previously) and I stoned his fish. He was quite happy.
We continued diving the wreck. I saw no other wahoo. I swam farther and farther in front of the wreck until the moment when my dives got me in the front section of the ship. On one of my numerous dives, I saw an amberjack. It was under me. I swam up to it. It presented me is good side and I shot. What a dumb fish. It gave me quite a ride though. The darn thing would not die. I could not get it in the boat without killing it but I could not let one of my hands out of its guill racks. I got a few head bangs. The darn thing would not stop trashing even though I had ripped a few of his guills. I finally took the knife and put it in its eyes and turned towards its brain. Bingo, it died! The fish was 33 pounds according to our very bad scales.
Olivier had the same experience with another amberjack but to much sorrow, the darn thing ripped away... Oliver was left with a bent shaft and no fish. Oh well. (In the picture below: John Bettua, Olivier Lauzon, René Potvin and Mike Messina.)
That was our last dive in Florida. It was probably my best diving trip ever. I must say that I learned a whole lot and that I was very impressed with the greeting we got from the member of the list and others. We will have to go back, just to dive with all the people we did not have the chance to meet. Special thanks to Mike Damns, Scott Turgeon, Russ Karnapp, Mark Stalnaker, Juan Cabrera, John Bettua, Mike Messina. You were great!
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