Getting Wet in the Dry Tortugas

Getting Wet in the Dry Tortugas

7 Shooters, 3 days, 1 mission: Fill the fish box.

Almost 70 miles (113 km) west of Key West lies the remote Dry Tortugas National Park. The 100-square mile park is mostly open water with seven small islands. Accessible only by boat or seaplane, the park is known the world over as the home of magnificent Fort Jefferson, picturesque blue waters, superlative coral reefs and marine life, and the vast assortment of bird life that frequent the area. – National Parks Service

The Dry Tortugas National Park is the land of dreams for saltwater fishing enthusiasts of all types. What separates the Dry Tortugas National Park and the surrounding waters from the rest of Florida is its geography. Considering that back on the East Coast near Miami, where everyone and their mother is a gangster fisherman, the remoteness of the Tortugas creates a pristine environment not often visited by the daily grind of fish grabbers. Much like backcountry fly fishing by bush plane in Alaska, the more real estate you put between yourself and the rest of crowd, the better the fishing is going to get. To say that the fishing in the Dry Tortugas is simply phenomenal is an understatement, and we considered ourselves fortunate that we had the chance to experience it firsthand earlier this year.

Getting Wet in the Dry Tortugas boat

We started our 3-day “slaycation” with high expectations. The group met in Key West, Florida onboard the M/V Playmate on a Thursday evening, stowed a ton of gear, and settled in for a late night departure. Some members of our elite fish hit squad shared a drink or two while others decided it was better to tuck in early and get some shuteye before a long weekend of dealing death. Eventually, we all fell asleep while visions of giant grouper danced in our heads. We awoke on Friday morning to the wonderful smells of a homemade breakfast wafting down the passageway to our cabins. The energy onboard the ship was electric and everyone was amped to get in the water. The good news was a hearty breakfast was in the galley, and the even better news was – it was freakin’ on!

Day One

On our first dive, seven shooters drop in along a patch reef line in about 50 feet of water. The plan is to spread out and work the patch thoroughly. This is the kind of cover that hogfish love, and the little fish fear. With greater than 80 feet of visibility, we all had the feeling that this was the start of something special. The very first “shootable” fish I saw was a hogfish so large that it stunned me. I whacked it with solid shot and strung it up. Having “knocked the skunk off”, and feeling pretty good about things, I passed on a red grouper that came in to check out the ruckus. I decided to not shoot him simply because he looked so much smaller than the hog I had on the stringer. Later, I discovered that the hog was 27 inches, which for South Florida is a decent sized fish. This meant the red I had spared was plenty legal, as the minimum size for red grouper there is 20 inches. However, I did not make that same mistake for the remainder of the weekend.

Getting Wet in the Dry Tortugas

Back onboard the team slowly trickled in and threw their catch on deck. As the blacks, reds, hogs and snapper quickly piled up, the Mate shouted up to the Captain, “Damn, get the camera down here!” We all thought we had a good dive, and we had shot some nice fish, but nothing spectacular. However, when the Captain came down to inspect our catch he noted that we had put more fish on deck in our first dive, with just seven shooters, than the last trip of 11 divers did in their entire first day of six dives. We were feeling pretty good about the weekend right out of the gate as we bagged and tagged our fish and put them on ice. One dive down, and we were just getting started.

Getting Wet in the Dry Tortugas fish

The rest of the day was filled with a lot of high fives and back slapping as the big fish kept rolling in. The Mate made sure we tagged our fish and did not exceed our daily limit on any species. It is important to note, for all the fish huggers out there who are reading this article with disdain, that we were extremely careful not to break any state or federal regulations. However, I’m not going to lie to you, more than a few fish were harmed in the making of this story.

By dinner time on Friday evening we were all thoroughly whipped. Not just from the physical effort of doing 6 dives in one day, but for me at least the constant rush of adrenaline seemed to tax me more than anything. Even after more than 28 years of diving, most of that professionally, I still get excited every time I get in the water. The ocean remains a very special place for me.

Getting Wet in the Dry Tortugas sunset

Around the dinner table, which was loaded with an Italian feast of pasta and more replacement calories, everyone had a great story about the big one that did NOT get away. Though we all brought along plenty of beer and liquor to party each evening, almost none of us had the energy to put back more than one before we turned in for the night. We all knew the deal by now, and another full day of six more dives lay ahead of us. Side note: if you have ever logged six or more hours underwater in a single day, then you will have a profound respect for the toll it can take on even a fit diver. Suffice it to say that not all of us, myself included, necessarily falls in the “fit” category these days. Time for lights out with one killer day down in the history books.

Day Two

Getting Wet in the Dry Tortugas wes

Second verse same as the first, but a little bit louder and a little bit worse. As we made our way further west towards Fort Jefferson, we dropped in on a few incredibly diverse dive sites along the way. The truly unique aspect of the Dry Tortugas is the varied underwater geography.

Most of the Keys tend to be “just another pretty reef” with one dive blending into the next. Here we saw a wide variety of structure; from wide open patch reef, to tall spires, rocky crags and ledges, and everything in-between. Not only was the structure varied, but so was the visibility and current. No two sites were the same, and each demanded a subtly different approach to hunt. One thing they all seemed to have in common was plenty of big fish.

As the big fish kept rolling in by mid-day, the shark stories started rolling in as well. Note that anywhere where there is good fishing, there is always an abundance of top-level predators enjoying the fishing as well. The Dry Tortugas are no exception. A healthy respect for the fact that you are not at the top of the food chain is necessary, along with a good sense of humor. As our Captain noted, “When you are on the surface, signal for a quick pick up only if you have an emergency, and sharks are NOT an emergency.” What he was trying to impress upon us, and we learned only too well, is that sharks are in fact quite common here. Fact is, all experienced spear fisherman know that sharks are always around, you just don’t usually see them unless you have something they want. Fresh killed fish perhaps? Why yes, thank you.

Here is a great shark excerpt from my dive buddy Scott:

Steve and I dropped on an isolated coral head, the top of which was at 45 feet and dropped to around 80 feet. Saw a nice black grouper directly below me and powered down to get into range. He slipped over the side of the head and I used the geography to get to within 10 feet to make my shot. The spear went right behind his head and passed through. He took off and pulled the entire shaft and himself into a small cave. Meanwhile, Steve was able to shoot a nice 28-30 inch mutton snapper. After the silt has settled I was able to see my wounded black upside down in a nearby cave. Steve put a shaft in the grouper and we were able to slide it up the line.

 

After securing the fish we did a tour of the head and saw nothing else to shoot. I went back in an attempt to retrieve my shaft and while I struggling with it Steve managed to shoot a 30-35lb king mackerel that had casually stopped by to join the party. While the kingfish was struggling on the line an equal sized barracuda came along and helped himself to a bite taking the last foot of the kings tail off. Steve got my attention and I looked up to see the remains of a large king bleeding and trailing pieces of flesh into the water. My first reaction was, “Shark!”, but Steve reassured me it was a just a ‘cuda.

 

I swam over and grabbed the fish while watching for sharks and kicked for the surface; 10 feet off the bottom 2 reef sharks showed up and I knew we had a problem. I began to push towards the top while the larger of the two sharks came up the blood trail. In an attempt to look bigger Steve swam with me shoulder to shoulder. I always carry a slip-on powerhead with me but with my only shaft on the bottom I had no defense, and things were moving too quickly to get it onto Steve’s gun allowing me to get the powerhead into play in time.

 

By now, the large shark was only 3 feet away with pectoral fins down and rigid body structure, I pushed the rest of the kingfish towards him hoping to keep him busy, and as a possible gesture of good will?. The shark turned sideways, and for the first time I was able to see his true size. He was at least 11’ long by three feet wide, and was shredding the remains of the kingfish just an arm’s length in front of me by violently shaking it and swallowing large chunks. This was rather profound to say the least. My calmer thoughts were that the fish would probably settle for this meal and might not be interested in us as a second course.

 

Several seconds later he came back around and pulled the mutton on a large wire stringer off of Steve’s waist ,and my last view of him was as he violently shook the fish while the stringer hit him in the head with each shake. At this point Steve and I were in full tilt mad rush for the surface, and as soon as we broke through inflated we our BCs and were sounding our crazy loud Dive Alert whistles. Until we were back on the boat we were both rather shaken. I never feed sharks willingly ,and have encountered numerous ones with bloody fish and never had a problem. I don’t know if my fear of not having my spear shaft with me was telecast to the shark, but I will never allow myself to be unprepared like that again.

Over the course of six dives on Saturday we fell into the routine of switching dive buddies on each dive, which gave us a new perspective on each of our trip mates. There are few better ways to get to know someone then to dive with them and share an epic adventure like the one we had just embarked upon.

On one dive in particular on Saturday afternoon, I was hunting with Steve in noticeably lower visibility around a series of large rocks, with crazy caves all throughout, that were holding all kinds of bait fish. We knew this spot would also be holding bigger fish, we just couldn’t see them in the thick pea soup of organic material. Now, some old school “spearos” will tell you that low viz gives the shooter an advantage; as the fish can’t see you. This may well be true for freedivers; however on SCUBA the fish ALWAYS know you are there. We sort of stand out like Darth Vader in a quiet library.

Fish don’t live to get big by being stupid as all the young dumb fish are already on someone else’s plate. Finally, I see a fatty red grouper coming straight at me out of a crack, not the ideal shot, but with a line gun you can get away with it. I shot him through and skewered him good. Next, I string him up quickly and proceeded to follow a mutton that came in the see what all the fuss was about, which was a fatal mistake on his part.

As I’m focused intently on dispatching this mutton that clearly needs to be removed from the gene pool, Steve makes a sound through his regulator that is intended to get my attention. I don’t look back, but feel a slight “nudge.” Still focused on the mutton, I take a poorly timed shot and miss just high. Dang! Now what was it that you wanted, Steve? I turn around to see the universal sign of surprise of Steve’s face, you know the look, even with a mask on you can see the bugged out eyes. He gives me a shrug like, “Oh well” and I still don’t understand what he was trying to communicate. I am thinking maybe I missed a bigger fish? Turns out later I did – a 300 pound Goliath grouper had snuck up behind me and tried to snatch the red grouper off the stringer hanging at my belt. If Steve had not persuaded him that this was a bad idea with a swift butt stroke, he would have gotten away with the heist. Funny thing is, I never saw him. Oh wait, the “nudge” … got it! At least it wasn’t a shark, right?

Getting Wet in the Dry Tortugas fort

As the sun set on Saturday evening, we pulled into the anchorage at Fort Jefferson. If you have never been there it’s actually a pretty cool place. Fort Jefferson is a massive, but unfinished, coastal fortress. It is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere, and is composed of over 16 million bricks. It also served as a Federal Prison. The most notable “guest” was Dr. Samuel Mudd who actually set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth and gave him harbor after he killed President Lincoln in 1865. He was convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The Construction of Fort Jefferson was still under way when Dr. Mudd arrived, and continued throughout the time they were imprisoned there. Construction went on for several years thereafter, but the fort was never completely finished.

Saturday evening we were provided a spectacular sunset over the Fort, and enjoyed a few drinks on the top deck as several large goliath grouper cruised the anchorage apparently in search of easy handouts from other boats staying there. Again, by the time dinner was over everyone was dead tired and ready to rest up for our final day on the water.

Getting Wet in the Dry Tortugas team

Day Three

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. However, for us the good spearing did not. In fact, on Sunday we got the serious talk from the Captain who reminded us of our limits on each species and we reviewed what we had checked into the ice box with our mate. The last thing we wanted was to get ticketed for getting overzealous on the last day and go over our legal count.

So with this in mind, we made several drops as we made our way back east. Again, the spots were productive and everyone was happy with their catch. We only needed three dives to close out our limit for the day and the trip. Late that afternoon, as well pulled back into the dock at Key West, we all left the Playmate with not only several coolers full of fish, but also full of some extraordinary memories from an epic underwater adventure with great friends.

If you would like to experience fishing at its finest first hand, contact Sea-Clusive Charters.

AUTHOR

Wes Gruver

Wes will head up our Training section of MOTUS. A member of the US Naval Academy Class of 1989, he has worked at NMITC, the Naval Special Warfare Group 1, and served aboard the USS Kitty Hawk. Wes is an accomplished diver as well as a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer, NAUI Scuba Instructor, and SDI Open Water and Solo Diving Instructor. When not underwater, you can find Wes teaching at the range. He is a NRA Certified Firearms Instructor, NROI Certified Range Officer, and is both and member and competitor in the USPSA, IDPA, and NSCA. His specific expertise in weapons systems include the M16/M4 and its variants, the M9, MK25, M1911A1 as well various and non-issue weapon systems such as the Glock family of handguns. He is known for his ability to communicate complex processes in simple ways to a wide audience.

All stories by: Wes Gruver

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