At this point we had some epic sailing. Some epic diving. Remote spots. Not-so-easy boat maintenance. New friends. Full freezers. Great beach parties. And an epic success (thanks Jaco) in targeting and acquiring a specific and sizeable species. A personal best and trophy Cubera Snapper. And everyone rejoiced with us and enjoyed the fresh fish.
All was well.
Of course, with my recent success – and because Jaco had checked himself to help me out in our last hunt – we now needed to find a suitable trophy for Jaco. That’s the way a good spearfishing team works; it’s all mutually beneficial.
The Black Grouper Hunt
Since we found out that our Cubera Snapper didn’t have ciguatera – we were hopeful that we could find and boat a big Black Grouper for Jaco. The plan was fairly simple: go to where we last saw the giant Black Grouper (The Deeeep Ledge) and attempt to locate him again. We felt confident. And though Jaco uses a similar speargun (I use a Rob Allen Snapper 130 and he uses a Rob Allen Snapper 120) – I let him use the “big gun” – with two (short) rubbers and set up Hawaiian breakaway. I would be using a smaller gun and my primary job was to chum, backup, and serve as the safety for our diving. We were, afterall, diving deep and long. That is, freediving deep and freediving long. Not for the inexperienced or faint of heart.
Our confidence diving that way; a direct product of our combined experience and understanding of, what can be – a dangerous sport.
And so we went.
We dove and dove and chummed and chummed and dove. We saw many grouper. We got close to many a grouper. We checked our fire on Cubera Snapper, Yellowfin Grouper, Black Grouper, Nassau Grouper. Looking for the Big One. Despite our depth, our experience, our understanding of the local water and the underwater topography – we failed.
The diving, as it were, was epic. It was beyond beautiful. It was fishy. It was healthy and fun. But it was, for the desired target; fruitless. I was, again, impressed by Jaco. The man has lungs like I’ve never encountered. Without training, he dives deeper than most that compete. And he does it hunting. In this he is among the elite.
But we had a backup plan (as you learn to have, when adventuring in remote locales).
Our backup was a shallow(ish) reef that sat in about 10 meters of water – but moved into 5 meters of water. At this depth, hunting becomes about stealth and tactics and understanding terrain. You must use all of this to spot, and then sneak up on a fish that has grown large by not being snuck up on. It’s challenging. From a freediving perspective, this kind of hunting is immensely easier than freediving and spearfishing at deeper depths. From a hunting and spearfishing perspective, this can be much more challenging.
We had a limited amount of time before the girls, who often stay on the boat for trophy-hunts, became annoyed with us. There is no boat large enough for a man to escape a woman who has become annoyed with said man. This boat does not exist. Sometimes a country isn’t big enough. And as such, it is wise for men to avoid annoying the women with whom they share a boat.
So we cruised the reef. At first, it was fruitless. At this depth we were hunting separately. Either of us was allowed to take whatever (giant) Black Grouper we were lucky (or skillful) enough to get close to. It was a free-for-all. With some level of preference to Jaco, who had helped me immensely in landing my trophy Cubera Snapper earlier.
So we searched solo. I shot, early, a Barracuda, for chum. I began scattering chum about and managed to attract quite a following among the Dog Snapper, the Yellowtail Snapper, the Mutton Snapper, and the smaller grouper species. They became docile when they realized (as species lower on the food chain, but still hungry, do) that I was more of a food-machine than a threat.
Jaco found our Black Grouper.
But, as large Black Grouper can be – he was onto us. He was wily. He knew his terrain better than we did. That is to say he knew his backyard. At one point I found Jaco when he found the giant Black Grouper. It was in a hole with a million tunnels leading a million different ways to a million exits. And so, we eventually gave up. Big fish, when smart and pressed, can be remarkably evasive.
So we kept moving.
I found, by accident, the virtue of leaving a fish-head alone for an extended period of time – and then returning stealthily to the spot in question. A large Barracuda head has the quality of being food, but being too large for all but the largest reef fish to consume. And so – they all mill about, picking at it, and it gives the stealthy spearfisherman a chance to, minimally, see what is in the area.
This, accidental, tactic allowed me within range of trophy Nassau Grouper, Mutton Snapper, and Dog Snapper. And it allowed me a glimpse of the – always evasive – giant Black Grouper.
Of course, upon recognizing me (and they see you before you see them) he went into turbo-mode and vanished into a hole that I never would have guessed he would fit into. Jaco found the fish as he made his escape, but having seen a much large Black Grouper earlier – checked his fire. At this point I realized that the Black Grouper I had seen was a minor trophy in comparison – so my enthusiasm waned.
We returned, over and over and through many different routes, to the last place Jaco had seen the giant Black Grouper – but to no avail.
And so we packed up and headed back to the boat, empty-handed. Despite the incredible variety of great fish which had presented themselves. I’ll say it again – a spearfisherman should be judged more by what they do not take than by what they do. Inexperienced or spearfishermen without virtue are prone to taking what they can, instead of what they should. Discrimination is virtue.
So, thwarted, we picked up our anchors and moved to our next spot with Songerie and NOMAD. We were moving further Northwest – closer to Cienfuegos – where we needed to resupply and wade to the obligatory redtape.
We were able to sail, and it was much appreciated. As we sailed in I stayed in the helm the entire time, marking spots which showed an abundance of fish life at depths we could dive. This was, as always, a wise decision.
NOMAD arrived first, with Songerie a bit behind. And when I called Jaco to tell him we were going for an hour dive, he told me something not-so-unexpected: he needed to do boat maintenance. He would skip this one.
So Anna and I went, and because Anna was with me – we went to a bit of a shallower spot.
When I asked Anna to drop the anchor – she told me it was “just sand.” But, I knew what I had seen on the fish-finder. So we dropped anchor and slid into the water.
When I first saw what was underneath us, I was ecstatic. It was a coral head holding medium-sized but dense fish life. And I dove and dove. I checked my fire over and over. But for Anna – this was a perfect ground to progress. She took two great grouper and lost one nice snapper.
As I met her at the dingy to chat – she told me to go just one coral head further. I did.
Here I found huge schools of Tarpon, what had to have been a breeding ground for Schoolmaster Snapper. Large Cubera Snapper were milling about. And then I caught a glimpse of a very respectable Black Grouper in the middle of the water-column (which isn’t very common).
The Black Grouper was milling about in a school of Spadefish and Tarpon. And as I approached, he veered. He moved further as I approached. He was getting further and further from my grasp as I slowly kicked in his direction. So I stopped. And at this point, his curiosity got the better of him.
I saw, what is always the best moment in spearfishing, his decision to investigate. He stopped moving away. He turned. He began paralleling me. I covered one eye and feigned disinterest. Out of my peripheral, he closed the distance. I began having contractions.
And then there was the moment when I hoped (but felt) that he was within range. Practice makes perfect here – as I turned and aimed and fired with one fluid movement. He didn’t move a muscle. Not even a shake of his tail.
When the spear hit him, he rolled.
And as I surfaced I felt guilty that Jaco hadn’t been here to take the fish. As I boated him I actually considered not showing the fish to Jaco. There’s nothing worse than being denied a spearfishing opportunity, only to learn that it was productive for everyone else.
But, one way or another, it would come out that we had found the fish.
So we headed back and showed it to Jaco. He was, obviously, fired up. It was decided then and there that we would make another attempt in the AM for a Black Grouper for Jaco. Spoiler alert: he was successful, despite high winds, strong current, deep diving and poor visibility.
Here’s the fish.
That evening a large (160 feet) traditional sailing boat came into the anchorage. They were Harvey Gamage. And they wanted fish. We cleaned the grouper and gave it to them. And they brought us a bottle of much-needed rum.
Life was good. Again.