We started the day at 3:30 am, hoping to fish a spot in 130ft of water right at sunrise. From October-December our crew has one fish on our minds, Grouper.
Anticipation was high. Just a little over a week prior, at this spot, we had been repeatedly broken off, pinned to the rail, and just plain beaten. Most of these battles ending in the favor of the beast either with a broken line or a straightened hook. That day we managed a few respectable fish, but as every fisherman knows, it’s not the fish you caught that keeps you coming back, it’s the one that got away. We had these fish on our minds, while day after day; there were northeast winds and small craft advisories.
Obsessively checking the weather 6-7 times a day, hoping to see a break, the window of opportunity we had been waiting for was here, and we were ready. We headed out into a calm ocean to the area I had reluctantly left just over a week ago. It was 6:45am, and there was just enough daylight to turn off the gunnel lights and brighten the display on the bottom finder.
As we crossed over the first coordinate, and the first baitfish came into view on the screen, I gave the crew the order they had been waiting for, “drop ’em”. Four hand sized pinfish raced to the bottom, as the bottom machine confirmed they were going to hit their target. It didn’t take but a second or two on the bottom, for all 4 rods to be doubled over, but It was obvious these were not the bites we were seeking. Four, 20 pound plus class, Atlantic red snappers were vented and released back to the bottom, and we swung around for round two.
Well, round two through ten ended in the same manner with our baits being fed to the red snappers. We tried bigger baits, bigger hooks, 200-pound mono leaders but these red snappers didn’t care, they ate everything. Normally, I would move much sooner if I encounter a red snapper bite as furious as this, which is common, but I just knew the big boy was there; he just didn’t have a chance with so many red snappers around. I moved from spot to spot in the area finding more red snapper, so reluctantly I moved to deeper water where I hoped we could find our target.
A nice weed line was in the area so we decided on a change of pace, and put out a small 4 line spread. We picked away at some small dolphin for a little while, and even though the action was steady; it was not what we were after. After an hour, we went back on the hunt for our target species.
We decided to try out a few spots I had marked on previous trolling trips, but never fished on the bottom. The first spot I came to showed bait holding higher up in the water column, but no real ledge or drop off like we usually find in a depth of 160 feet. I was about to move on, but decided to drive back over it. Once again, the same bait showed up, but this time I slowed almost to a stop over them, and studied the bottom machine.
The bottom was definitely rocky and the bait holding over the top had my interest. It was a small spot, in bottom fishing terms, but I decided to give it a try. I warned the crew that this was unknown territory, but “I liked what I saw”.
Again four baits went down, and I watched the bottom machine for reassurance they would land on their target. They did and the first hook up was the right bite, and my buddy was pinned to the rail. We all watched as the 8-foot rod bowed over down to the reel and he did his best to turn the handle. He was locked in a stalemate with the beast. It started to turn in the fishes favor, as the locked down drag began to slip, slip, and then pop; broken line. The encounter was over and that familiar feeling came over me again.
Undeterred, we set back up for another drift.
This time we took a hammer, and beat the star drag down as tight as we could and beefed up the leader class by replacing the 100-pound shock leader with 200. The next hook up came, doubled the rod over and here we were again, but this time was different, this time we were gaining line.
The fish was coming up, and he was big. When the first color came into view I don’t think anyone said a word. We were all still just stunned by what we saw coming up from the depths. Finally someone said it, “Black Belly!”, which is the nickname for a large gag grouper. This one hit fifty pounds on the scale!
We did it, we caught the beast that got the better of us time after time, and it felt good! Everyone on that boat has caught their fare share of big fish, pelagics and other big grouper but this one felt special. We took pictures and cheered in our success as a team. We got him.
No doubt I will remember this fish for the rest of my life, and that I got to share the experience with my wife, and friends on a beautiful, warm, sunny December day.