The subtle tug on the other end of the line did not feel like the grouper we had been reeling up.
"Maybe a grunt," I mentioned to my fishing partners. As I reeled the mysterious thing up from the bottom 60 feet below, it stopped pulling back altogether.
"What ever it was it is gone now," I mistakenly uttered.
As my rig came to the surface, I saw that there was indeed something attached to the hook — an octopus.
I lifted it into the boat and grabbed it behind the head. Immediately the tentacles wrapped around my arm and the creepy suction cups latched onto my hand, wrist and arm. Knowing that the beak in the center of all those legs can inflict a nasty bite I tried to pull it off, but it was too late.
He had me; his suction cups were locked on and lining me up for a bite. Just as the beak was getting near my skin I managed to rip him off and drop him on the floor of the boat. There he began slithering around, climbing the walls. Soon he simply walked himself up and out of the boat, which was okay by me.
During most years this encounter is relatively unusual; however, this has been one of the cyclical seasons during which large numbers of octopus appear over shallow shelves off West Florida.
It is the thing commercial stone crab trappers fear most. According to them, the octopus show up en masse every seven years or so and wipe out the fishery. When this happens, the marauding eight-legged creatures gobble up a good portion of all the stone crabs in the area.
Not only do they eat the wild crabs, they are adept at entering stone crab traps, eating the crustaceans inside then moving on to the next trap. The only evidence of what has happened to the would-be catch is a large number of crab shells and pieces in the bottom of the trap. Usually the stealthy creatures depart before the traps can be hauled aboard the boat.
Over the past few months the commercial crab catch has plummeted. Trappers generally describe their catch in the average poundage of crabs per trap among all the traps they pull in a day.
In late October many Nature Coast trappers were enjoying a 1 pound or better average over 300 to 400 traps per day. Then came the octopus. Now the catch has plummeted to as low as 15 pounds of claws total for the day out of the same number of traps. Many of the larger operators are hauling their gear in and hoping for a better season next year. In a recent visit to Pelican Point Seafood in Tarpon Springs I witnessed large commercial crab boats unloading their catch for the day, which consisted of more octopus than crab, a bad sign.
For the angler
For the most part, octopuses do not have an impact on hook and line fishing. They seldom prey on fish so the fish do not seem to mind them much. The one way octopus can benefit anglers is as bait. When the tentacles are cut off they make appealing yet tough bait for grouper, particularly red grouper.
Another bizarre benefit is that the tentacles will continue to move around for as long as 30 minutes after they are trimmed from the animal and placed on the hook.
Several years ago we used a piece of octopus to make one of the strangest catches ever. The bait had been on the bottom only for few minutes and the rod tip began to bounce. John Peppe reeled a struggling fish to the surface to find a good sized triggerfish that was not even on the hook. The suction cups on the piece of octopus had latched onto the raspy skin of the triggerfish and held onto him all the way into the boat.
On the table
Although octopus is one of the most popular items on the menus of greek restaurants in Tarpon Springs, cooking them yourself, at least in my case, has proved somewhat difficult. On several occasions I have tried, and no matter how much tenderizing I do they come out tough and chewy. Pounding with a tenderizing hammer or marinating to break down the toughness is what the pros recommend, but my fishing friends and I who have caught octopus have not had much luck.
For now, I'll stick with using them for bait and visit the sponge docks when I have a taste for grilled octopus.