Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Day Trip For Grouper

I’m back, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s character in "The Shining" (an otherwise forgettable movie). I do not feel quite as demented as his Jack Torrance, but then again, I have recently returned from an extended summer hiatus in Maine where I spent several weeks decompressing from the routines of daily life. "In America," John Steinbeck once confessed, "it is said that it takes three weeks to rest from the rigors of a two-week vacation." Well, I’ve been away longer than that yet I am happy to get back in the saddle and resume my regular weekly schedule. Thank you for your patience during my absence.

This is the posting I had promised before going on hiatus, but last minute deadlines prevented me from posting this one before we left home. So, voila! As promised, this week’s offering is from a very different edge of America; a trip to Florida’s Gulf Coast, a jaunt predicated by a long overdue visit with my mother and the opportunity to spend some time with my ailing father in a local nursing home.

I am reminded of something Tom McGuane once wrote about dialogues between fathers and sons. They are something "that goes on fairly regularly. It’s just something that men have. It’s our cross to bear, this unwitting and unwilling conversation with our fathers . . . It’s something you never get away from." So I flew down to Florida to continue the dialogue, and wonder for how much longer?

Over the past two decades, when my folks were, for the most part, living on the northern fringe of the Tampa Bay metroplex, my visits have included trips out on the Gulf of Mexico with Dad in search of grouper, those ugly yet oh so delicious denizens of offshore limestone reefs and various man-made structures and wrecks. These trips always began from Tarpon Springs, a Greek infused fishing and shrimping port along the southern edge of the Anclote River before it flows into the Gulf. We caught some pretty nice fish on those trips. So on this latest trip I decided I would sneak off for a day of fishing, weather permitting. After all, as John Steinbeck stated so succinctly, "for a man to admit a distaste for fishing would be like denouncing mother love or hating moonlight." Unfortunately, Dad could not go this time around. Furthermore, I was unable to book a trip out of Tarpon Springs on such short notice and I was referred instead to another boat operating out of Port Richey, a few miles up the coast.

I awoke before dawn, made a couple of sandwiches and threw a six-pack of beer into a small cooler, and a few minutes later I was driving up U.S. Route 19, a continuum of strip malls, pawn shops, surf shops, liquor stores, trailer parks, and adult bookstores. At this early hour almost everything was closed and there was very little traffic. I had a feeling it was going to be a good day just as the first few raindrops popped across my windshield. A light rain continued to fall as I arrived at the dock adjacent to the highway bridge across the Pithlachascotee River (known locally as the "Cotee" - pronounced "Coat-ee"), one of several mid-coast blackwater rivers and creeks flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

The "Miss Virginia," a 58-foot, twin-diesel boat fully equipped for grouper fishing out on the open Gulf, was moored between the bridge and the local Hooters franchise, still dark and silent at this early hour. I was putting my gear aboard when the engines rumbled to life at 7am, the vibrations running from the soles of my feet , up my spine to the top of my skull. The hair roots began to buzz and the sweet diesel fumes overpowered the freshening salt breezes blowing off the Gulf. Raindrops pimpled the rainbows of petrol-stained water as small baitfish and mullet, a silvery surface glint, moved upriver on the floodtide.

A few minutes later we slipped the mooring lines to enter the Cotee for our outward trip to the Gulf. The river’s original course has been much altered in recent years by the construction of concrete-walled saltwater channels surrounding "McMansions" and high-rise luxury condominium complexes of every size and description. Even Millers Bayou has been completely reconfigured and dredged to support its extensive marinas. Gone are the mangrove backwaters that were here when I first began to regularly visit this area back in the mid-1960s. I tried to remember what it looked like as we navigated the river channel through a no wake zone designed, not to minimize shoreline erosion, but to avoid upsetting the million dollar yachts moored in Millers Bayou. As we continued down river I spotted a few people out on their docks as they prepared their boats for a day on the water. The rain had stopped and patches of blue sky appeared in the west . . . a good sign because that is exactly where we were headed. Soon we reached the breakwater jetty at the river’s mouth; oldsters and young kids stood on the rocks casting to redfish (known in some quarters as red drum or channel bass) and sea trout that frequent this stretch of the coastline.

Moving into the Gulf we followed the red and green channel markers across the Intracoastal Waterway, many of them crowned with elaborate osprey nests. Here we caught the organic odors of the mud flats before they were inundated by the incoming tide. Smaller boats - skiffs and Boston Whalers - manned by anglers lie anchored along the channel’s edge. Beyond the last channel marker the captain finally opened up the diesel engines creating twin roiling humps of whitewater that quickly expanded into an arrowhead wake as we crossed into the deeper bluewater of the Gulf. To our port was Green Key, at the mouth of Oyster Creek, and beyond that the tall smokestack of the power plant at the mouth of the Anclote River which was always a key reference point when our boats returned to Tarpon Springs after a day of fishing on the Gulf. There, too, was the tree-fringed northern shoreline of Anclote Key.

To our starboard, beginning just a mile beyond the jetty, we spotted the first of the few remaining stilt houses found along the Pasco County coastline. At one time over two dozen of these structures could be found in this area, anchored into a limestone ridge that parallels the coastline, but Hurricane Gladys, which struck in October 1968, destroyed many of them. These stilt houses date back to the very early 20th century, and a few more were constructed in the 1920s so that fishermen could clean and pack their catch of mullet before a runboat circulating among the stilt houses collected the catch and transported it to a processing plant farther up the coast, at Cedar Key. Their heyday, however, began in the late 1940s, when people used them as weekend and vacation getaways until the day Gladys blew through. A few were rebuilt, but no new construction was permitted after 1968. Eventually the Florida legislature ruled that all of these structures would have to be removed by 1999. Those who own them, many of whom apparently have deep pockets, appealed this ruling and the deadline has now been extended to 2019, as long as another major hurricane does not come through and make it a moot point. Eventually they will be gone, and so I enjoyed their presence as we headed farther into the Gulf, seeking out the fishing grounds that lie beyond the western horizon.

Our goal was isolated coordinates where we would not have to compete with other boats. The coastline gradually became a thin, dark pencil line on the horizon astern. Gulls and cormorants, even an occasional pelican, followed us and we watched with interest as they plunged into schools of baitfish. After an hour or so the captain throttled down as we approached a couple of buoys which the mates snagged with gaffing hooks. Attached to each was a length of rope which was retrieved hand over hand until large wire traps full of pinfish were brought aboard and their contents placed into the bait barrels. A block of frozen chum was inserted into the traps before they were returned to the water. They will be full of bait when the "Miss Virginia" returns on her next trip into the Gulf. The thumping diesels resumed as we headed farther into the Gulf. We began to get our gear ready; we wanted to start fishing as soon as we found our spot.

The earlier overcast eventually burned off leaving us with a spectacularly clear day for fishing. Around 9:30am the bluewater became a paler green as shoal water rose to meet the boat about 25 miles out. Here the depth ran 15-30 feet, with limestone reef outcrops on a sandy bottom. The boat slowed to a crawl as the captain navigated us into position. Moments later the anchor chain rattled out and the diesels went silent. We had reached the honey hole, the meat bucket, and it was time to go fishing.

Baitfish were breaking on the surface; black and silver glints in the bright sunlight as the surface grew restless. This would have been exciting back home on the Chesapeake Bay where such action meant that bluefish and rockfish (striped bass) were churning through the baitfish forcing them to the surface in a mad attempt to save themselves. But we would be fishing deep, and we were more interested in the shadows that darkened the depths of aquamarine shoal waters. The pinfish brought on board earlier, and cut strips of squid, would serve as bait on this trip.

We hoped we had located some promising bottom structure where black and gag grouper (22 inch minimum), and my personal favorite, red grouper (20 inch minimum), liked to hang out. Our sturdy boat rods were equipped with 80-pound test monofilament line and 10-12 ounces of weight necessary to get the bait down to the bottom. Once there, a couple of cranks on the reel brought the bait up a few feet and then it was just a process of jigging the line up and down. This was not sight fishing; the quarry was much too deep for that. This was also not trophy fishing while strapped into a fighting chair. This was toes dug into the scuppers fishing; dropping your weighted and baited hook down to the bottom and then jigging until, all of a sudden, it feels like someone tied an anvil to the end of your line. After that it is crank and pull until you see the sunlight sparkle off the fish’s scales as you bring it to the surface where it is netted by the mate. We were also catching much smaller white grunt, so called because of the sound they emit once they are removed from the water. Although our primary target was grouper, we were happy to add these tropical snapper to our catch buckets while we waited for their big brothers to show up.

We fished for five hours and we managed to bring a few legal grouper on board. I caught several red grouper measuring 17-19 inches and weighing several pounds each. Nice fish, and fun to catch, but unfortunately below the minimum. Back they went to grow a little bigger. In fact there were very few keepers on that trip. But the grunts kept us busy all day and I had a catch bucket full of them when we weighed anchor for the return trip. Grouper fishing is not rocket science. "It has always been my private conviction," Steinbeck once wrote, "that any man who pits his intelligence against a fish and loses has it coming." I tend to agree with him. But it does take patience. I went fishing in order to relax and clean out my head. It is a respite from life’s burden and a chance for renewal. "The fisherman’s eyes get a dreaming look and he turns inward on his own thoughts, inspecting himself and his world in quiet," Steinbeck added. "Because he is fishing, he is safe from interruption. He can rest detached from the stress and pressures of his life or anybody’s life." He knew what he was talking about.

There are a lot of sore muscles at the end of a day of grouper fishing. Arms and shoulders ache from jigging your line for several hours, and, hopefully, from pulling ten-pound grouper from the depths. Feet, ankles and calves are tight from trying to keep one’s balance on a pitching deck while jigging and catching fish. Even though I used copious amounts of sunblock, my skin felt dry and crackly. It is surprising how exhausting a day of grouper fishing can be. On the way back almost all of my fellow anglers retreated inside where they found a spot for a nap. Others played cards, or finally got around to eating something (you don’t waste time eating when you are on top of good fish). Not surprising, a few cans of beer were consumed(beer drinking never seems to interfere with fishing).

After stowing my gear, I took my sandwiches and beer and moved to the top of an equipment locker on the bow, directly below and in the shade of the pilothouse. From there I could observe our trip back to port while chatting with the captain and the mates as they went about securing lines and scrubbing the decks free of a day’s fishy detritus. The seas stretched out in every direction and I was sorry the day was coming to an end. Before long the shapes of the high-rise condos began to lift above the eastern horizon, their details and features becoming more apparent as we approached the coastline. The stilt houses appeared to port, Green Key to starboard, and the captain reduced speed as we approached the first channel markers. From there we encountered an almost unbroken parade of yachts and other pleasure craft as they moved in and out of the Cotee River. The dock was certainly livelier upon our return; a rainy, dreary morning gave way to a most beautiful day. I guess it really makes no difference which port you fish from. I made it back safe, happy, and with an impressive stringer of fish.

The next day I went to visit my dad at the nursing home. I told him about my fishing trip on the Gulf and showed him some of the photos I had taken. He asked if I had managed to catch any grouper and so I shared with him the fabulous tale of the fine specimens I was able to argue out of the depths . . . some very respectable red grouper. He peered over the tops of his glasses and asked if any of them were keepers. I showed him the photo of a particularly attractive 19-incher and boasted, "The trophy of the day." "OK, but 19 inches isn’t a keeper," he said as he shook his head and looked out the window at nothing in particular. I showed him again the photograph of the long stringer of grunts lying on the dock. "Nothing wrong with those," he admitted. "They are pretty good eating."

I went back to Mom’s place where she cooked up a batch of grunt filets which we had for lunch before it was time for me to drive down to the Tampa airport to catch my flight back to Baltimore. They are pretty good eating . . . especially when you caught them on a beautiful day far out in the Gulf of Mexico. On the flight home I promised myself that I would plan another fishing trip on the Gulf, and next time I would catch some of the groupers I had to throw back this time around. My dad will want to see photos of the ones that did not get away. After all, it is my cross to bear.

NEXT WEEK: What I Did On My Summer Vacation