My high school buddy Robb and I found out that there were a bunch of jewfish (now called goliath grouper) living on the rock ledges in Captiva Pass back in the 1970s. We decided that we would make some spending money by spearing and selling them — a practice which was perfectly legal in those days.
We’d load scuba gear and spearguns into a boat, run down to Captiva Pass, anchor in the north-central portion of the Pass over a series of rock ledges in 15 or 20 feet of water, then wait for the incoming tide to begin to slow down. Our goal was to get in the water right before high tide so we’d be there during slack high water and the very beginning of the ebb.
We’d watch the prop freewheeling in the racing tide. When the spinning slowed almost to a stop, it was time for us to get in the water. If we timed it right we could have about a half hour or 40 minutes of bottom time before the outgoing tide became so strong that we’d have trouble swimming against it. If we stayed in the water too long, we’d risk not being able to get back to the boat and could be swept out into the Gulf.
We soon discovered that there were other pitfalls to our money-making scheme besides the need to carefully time the tide. We were getting paid by the pound for the fish, and this made it tempting to shoot big heavy ones in the hopes of a nice ka-ching moment back at the fish house scale.
But with our relatively light spearguns, we were seldom able to stone (spearfisherman slang for killing him dead on the shot) a big goliath, which meant that we would have a pretty wild time of it trying to corral a speared fish. Goliaths look fat and sluggish, but they can shift into a high gear when needed.
We were towed on some really rapid rides by big fish we’d speared. Once I even had my face mask ripped off by the rush of water when a big goliath took off with me. Usually something would eventually break or pull free and the big fish would escape.
We mangled a few spear shafts and broke off numerous flanged tips before we disciplined ourselves to only shoot smaller fish. A top size of about 40 pounds was all we could reasonably hope to handle with that equipment. But we were inventive, and also very motivated to find a way to land those big high-dollar fish.
Our first equipment upgrade was to change over to detachable spear heads. This mostly solved the problem of bent shafts, but we’d still get dragged all over the place by bigger fish. We noticed that when the speared fish ran off, they’d usually dive under one of the overhanging rock ledges eventually. We tried to take advantage of this by changing our rigging.
A standard speargun setup had the spear tied to the gun with about 10 or 15 feet of nylon cord. If I speared a big fish, I’d have to really hang onto my gun or it could get snatched right away from me.
We experimented with a different rig. We disconnected the line from the gun, tied on an extra piece of nylon line about 20 or 30 feet long, and tied a crab trap float on the other end of the line. The float would follow on the surface as we hunted for fish on the bottom.
We’d hold that line in our off hand while lining up a shot. When we’d plug a big fish that took off on a hot run, we’d just let go of the line. Then all we had to do was bob up to the surface, spot the float, swim to it, and follow the line back down to the holed-up fish.
Believe it or not, this actually worked sometimes. We’d find the fish wedged back under a ledge, then try to get gloved hands into its gills and wrap it up with arms and legs for the trip to the surface. I know, I know — not the safest strategy in the world. But we were able to land fish in the 50- to 75-pound class pretty handily this way.
Still, there were dollar signs in our teenage eyes every time we saw bigger fish. We yearned for a way to up our payday by harvesting the really big boys.
Next time: Stepping it up to the next level.
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.