The alarm rang at 2:30 AM. I woke immediately, anxiously awaiting for the day ahead of us.
Two days prior, I was informed by CJ Peppe that I would be able to participate in an FWC Research trip led by Capt. Ed Walker! We were heading 130 miles offshore to fish in sanctuary grounds alongside the FWC Research Team, Hayden Staley Menendez and Eli. The objective, is to research and document studies on Gag and Scamp Groupers. The ultimate goal of this study is to have an understanding of when groupers are transitioning (female-to-male), breeding, and if they migrate or stay in a specific area.
As I geared up for the long day ahead of us I had no idea really what to expect. In ten short minutes we were off!.. to load the car up with gear, we grabbed our jigging rods, trolling rods, food and drinks. We were now heading down to the boat to meet the rest of the team. After about 45 minutes we arrived and started to load up the boat. The sled for the day was a 36-foot Yellowfin powered by trip-300's, needed for a 260 mile minimum trip. We bundled up in our jackets grabbed a bean bag and knocked back out for the 3-hour ride.
When the engines cut we all knew it was game on, we rigged the jig of our choosing and waited for the captain to say when. We all dropped our jigs and man, was it a long drop, but once the jig hit the floor followed by a few jerks- FISH ON! I reeled up a 10-pound red grouper Ed and CJ both had about a 3-pound scamp but JD's rod was bent. After a few minutes passed the tension was gone and the fish started to float, the crew started to get excited knowing that gags are floaters after a while; and sure enough a 20-pound gag broke the surface! The boat erupted and high-fives went around. After a few pictures were taken the gag made her way up to the scientists who immediately started to measure and write specs onto charts. Hayden then took out 3 vials and a needle and started drawing blood from the grouper within a vein from its gills. I was mesmerized, the point of this is to separate the plasma from the blood and take it back to the lab. In the lab, they use an ELISA kit which tests the plasma for different hormones to see if they are changing sex. Once that was completed they gave the grouper a number and put it in the cooler to run further tests back on land. This process was done to every gag and scamp grouper we kept.
Everyone now had multiple fish caught, most being red grouper that we attached to the SeaQualizer and sent back down safely. I picked back up my rod and got back into the madness. By the end of this spot, everyone caught their fair share of red groupers and a few smaller scamps. It was time to pick up and move, after trolling around and monitoring the bottom machine we found a new spot. We all dropped down and hit a mother load of 3-pound scamps. All of a sudden we hear JD's reel scream! Everyone was anxious and knew that there was a fairly large fish at the end of his line. We reeled our lines as quick as we could to reduce the chance of a tangle and all eyes were on the "grouper man". There was a bit of give and take but after a while he was able to gain on him and reel him up. Everyone saw the bubbles rising followed by deep color and then we collectively saw it... RUSTY BELLY! JD reached down and pulled up a 35-pound rusty bellied gag, this was a true male and everyone was relieved to have this monkey off their back for the remainder of the trip.
It was time to move spots and take a lunch break. The scientists were getting their camera gear set up for a deep drop. They had to video for 20 minutes and test water quality and thermoclines. During this time you cannot fish and you could see the fishermen itching to drop some jigs down. After the twenty minutes passed we loaded all the gear back to the bow of the boat and took off to find a new spot.
We hit many spots, some duds some great. We caught a lot of scamps and a handful of gags. All of a sudden we started to get sharked, head after head started floating up. The size of these red grouper heads were impressive we weighed an 11 and 12 pounder. They would have been massive fire trucks but it was time to move and get away from the tax man.
The next spot we fished was something out of a movie, the bottom machine was lit up from top to bottom. We dropped our jigs, half of them did not make it to the bottom before they were inhaled and peeling out line. When the fish came to the surface we discovered they were extremely large American red snappers (ARS). Somehow my jig was able to make it to the bottom and after one jerk it was engulfed and the fish took off. It was fighting like a gag off the bottom, which made me anxious to find out what was at the end of my line. After a few minutes of back and forth I finally started to gain on the fish and when the leader slipped into the first eyes of the rod all eyes looked overboard waiting for color. Shortly after we saw the biggest ARS most of us have ever seen. Once this thing was on the deck it was truly appreciated coming in a little over 20-pounds, I looked in awe of the brightest and fattest red snapper I have ever seen. It was red snapper mayhem, we reeled in a few more and switched to the last spot of the day.
At the last spot we found some nice gags and scamps and everyone on the boat was stoked on what a great day we had. The last two drops I made were both rewarded with decent sized gags and I knew it was time to call it. The sun was starting to set and we gathered all the gear and got the boat ready for its 3-hour journey back to the dock. On the way back in we rendezvoused with the other boat and both recapped on the day we had before reaching land. Once the boat hit the dock it was about 10pm: time to clean, transport fish to labs, pack the car, and head home!
Thank you to Capt. Ed Walker, CJ Peppe, and the FWC Research team for having me!
*All fish besides the gag and scamp groupers kept for research were released safely using the SeaQualizer.