Snorkelfishing: A Close Encounter

During a visit to Serges Performance Cycles Shop in Lexington Park, I spotted a very unique heavy duty beach bike outfitted with a small single cylinder engine.
“Looks like this is the DWI Transportation Special.” I said.
Serge smiled and replied, “Yes, I need to hook up the clutch.  There are a few engineering challenges that I have to overcome yet.”
We had a nice conversation about motorized and electric bikes.  Serge is a very smart guy.  He will get his invention working before long.
I promised him that I would write a column in the November edition of the CHESAPEAKE about a sport that I invented and came to realize that, in the ocean, we are not top of the food chain.
There is a fish called the Hog Snapper or Hogfish that is found from the Carolinas down through the Caribbean.
The Hog Snapper is not a snapper at all.  It is a wrasse.
It is not easily caught by hook and line because it generally eats crustaceans or mollusks.
Most fishermen down South do not use crustaceans like crab or lobster for bait.
Clams are seldom found as bait in South Florida either.  
Also, the Hogfish is a very picky eater.  Despite the funny looking snout that is the mouth of older specimens, Hog Snappers nibble very gently, shying away from the imbedded hook.  If they feel any resistance at all, the wary Hogfish will drop the bait and swim away.
However smart they are with hook and line fishermen, they are equally dumb confronting spear fishermen.
These slow moving fish turn their broad bodies full side view to predators.  It may make a grouper decide to find a smaller meal to swallow, but the spear fisherman gets a bigger target.
Spear fishermen account for the majority of fat, tasty Hog Snappers harvested.
Over thirty years ago, the largest populations of Hog Snappers in the United States were found off Key Largo.
This was the one area along the East Coast that was illegal to spear fish due to its special status as both a State and Federal Marine Sanctuary.  Most fishermen could not hook a Hog Snapper and fishing with a spear gun was and still is illegal.
Three decades ago, I caught a crab from under a rock while exploring a patch reef behind the snorkel boat that I worked as a mate on. Any Maryland boy knows how to handle a crab.
With the back paddler joint pinched between my thumb and forefinger, I carried it back to Capt. Dennis and formulated a plan:    We took the boat Penn spinning rod and reel combo out of the foc’sle.  I broke the crab in half and hooked it on a 5/0 hook though the side joints.  Then he left the bail open as I jumped back in with my snorkel gear and swam behind the boat looking for a fat, sassy Hogfish.
Sure enough, a big old hog was cruising through the sea fans and sea whips.
I dropped the baited hook in front of him and swam back but still within watching distance.  Then, like a musical director with my hands above water, I showed Capt. Dennis how to give the fish plenty of slack line.  When the Hogfish passed the crab past its tender lips and swallowed the bait deep within its crushing throat, I motioned for Dennis to set the hook.
As the hook sunk in, the Hog Snapper threw the broad sides of its body in gear and swam back and forth wrapping the line around soft corals as it pulled the drag out.  Once it stopped under a coral head, I simply snorkeled down, unwrapped the line from the Gorgonians (another term for soft coral) and pulled the fish out of its coral lair.  Capt. Dennis cranked the hog back to the boat.    Each one of us got a big filet for dinner.
The whole routine of coordinating two fishermen, though successful, could be eliminated if the snorkeler handled the rod and reel in the water I surmised as Capt. Dennis and I discussed how to put a steady supply of fried or baked Hogfish on our dinner tables.
Thus, the sport of snorkel fishing was born.
I bought a Zebco 404 spin cast combo, greased the internal gears with heavy marine lube, and loaded the reel with twenty pound test line.  Capt. Dennis purchased the same rig.  He generally did not like to fish but this routine was to his liking.
We took turns during our trips doing lifeguard duty while the other of us would seek out Hogfish with our snorkel fishing rigs.    Imagine if you will, the joy of seeing your prey and actually catching and fighting your fish in the clear warm Florida subtropical waters.  We mostly caught Hogfish, though Dennis or I would settle for a Margate, porgy, or grouper if the hogs were scarce on a particular day.
We even had capturing bait down to an art form.  We tossed the filleted carcasses behind our dive boat in the marina.  Small blue crabs would feed on the remains and be found in the rocks behind the dive platform.  As first mate, one of my duties became diving behind the boat prior to a trip to grab a few crabs for bait.
We never got skunked in our snorkel fishing efforts.  The general procedure was to get all our customers into the water.  Then, Dennis or I would do lifeguard duty while the other prowled the grass flats and patches off the main reef for Hog Snappers.
Upon seeing a likely candidate for the cooler, we would cast to the fish and let the hooked bait settle to the bottom.  Invariably, the hog would ease over to the hooked crab and gingerly pull on the bait.  The key to success was to keep a slack line until the fish got the hook deep into the crushing jaws beyond the lips then pick up the slack and set the hook.
Then, the fish would take off making the drag scream on the little plastic reels.  After dragging the line around as many soft corals as possible, the hooked Hogfish would settle under a coral head.  The snorkel fisherman then simply had to wind the line away from the sea fans and sea whips and dive down to pull on the heavier leader line to withdraw the worn out hog from its hole.  There was always a steady thump, thump, thump as the fish was extracted.
Pretty much we had become the master predators of our undersea universe until one day I noticed that George, the resident shark on Grecian Rocks, was taking a close watch over our delightful sport.  George was either a Dusky or a Reef Shark who was almost six feet long.  He kept coming closer as we were fishing but did not express real interest in the process.
Then, one morning when I hooked a hog over the undersea grass flats, George rushed in and tried to eat it as the Hogfish scooted under a coral head.  George moved up from the brain coral with his mouth gaping right behind the fin of a snorkeler on the surface.  I nearly swallowed my own snorkel when I witnessed the potential horror.
Abruptly, George turned and swam toward me.  Apparently, he knew the real culprit who was usurping his domain.    I had already broken off the line.  The hooked hog was of little concern at that point.  George circled me all the way back to the boat a rod’s length away the entire time.
“Dennis, this shark is onto us.  I’m not going snorkel fishing here anymore.  Something bad is going to happen if we do this again.”  I told Capt. Dennis.
Well, that deal lasted for a week.  Capt. Dennis informed me he wanted a hog for supper.  I told him that I would not fish but I would run interference for him.  We had a second mate on board that day who was doing lifeguard duty.  Dennis hooked a small hogfish that he pulled out of a coral head.  The thump, thump, thump sounded like a dinner bell to me.  I knew George was going to show up.  Worse than that, the hogfish was gill hooked and trailing blood.  Dennis broke off the leader and handed me the rod as he dragged the fish back to the boat.
I was behind Dennis in the blood trail when I saw George charging through the clear blue water in the distance.  This time, he was shaking with his jaws snapping.  I used the little spin cast rod to poke him in the nose to fend him off.  I was actually getting pretty good at swimming backward and fencing with this very agitated shark when a smaller shark swam past my arm and joined in the commotion.  Shorty, the other resident shark, that was only about three and a half feet long joined George in a two fish tag team.
I was not about to be tagged it by being bit.
Capt. Dennis made it up the dive ladder as I porpoised right up onto the dive platform.  We decided that day not to snorkel fish on Grecian Rocks again.
This should have been the end of the story, but snorkel fishing is an addiction not easily withdrawn.
A couple weeks later, I decided to try snorkel fishing one more time off of White Banks which is a patch reef far from Grecian Rocks.  Other than an occasional nurse shark, I had never seen a shark around this particular area.  The water was very green that day with only fifteen feet of visibility.  Far behind the boat, I hooked a nice five pound Hogfish.  With the hog subdued and gripped by the eye sockets, I was ready to swim back to the boat.
At the edge of visibility, I spotted the distinct black and white vertical pattern of a pilot fish.  Never, have I seen a pilot fish swim alone.  They always accompany a bigger companion, generally a shark.
I have only seen one Bull Shark in the water in my lifetime and I witnessed it that day.  With the big Hog Snapper in my hand, I saw a ten foot long, big thick Bull Shark ease into visual range which was only fifteen feet away.  This is the kind of shark that not only will bite you.  A fish that big can tear your torso in two.
Instinctively, I dropped the fish which slowly swam to the bottom.  I hoped the shark would take more interest in that stunned fish than the shocked fisherman who was smoothly swimming back to the boat.  Not once did I look back through the murky water though I did pray to God the entire time.  There would be no stopping a fish that big if it was determined to feed upon your carcass.
I made it back to the boat with my body intact and a story to tell.  That was the last time I went snorkel fishing.

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