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Going deep in search of gags

After several productive shallow-water grouper fishing trips recently, I was excited to have the opportunity to see things from a subsurface perspective.

Tuesday afternoon I joined underwater videographer Sasha Bratic and fellow free-diver Jim Runkle of Palm Harbor for a trip to some of the offshore rock formations between Tarpon Springs and Hernando Beach.

With temperatures hovering around 63, it was going to be chilly underwater. Five-millimeter suits were called for, but I didn't have one so I put on two three-millimeter suits, one over the other.

As is almost always the case, Bratic was in the water first. He made a drop to the bottom and a minute and a half later returned with a hogfish and the universal "thumbs up" sign. There were fish here.

I grabbed my favorite spear gun and hopped in. "Yeeee-aaa!" I exclaimed through my snorkel as the first splash of cold water filled my suits. After a few minutes I was able to regain control of my breathing and begin the relaxation technique required for long breath holds.

On the way down I saw a small grouper moving to the right, so I adjusted my course. As expected, he led me to the main body of fish. There were dozens of gags and hogfish cautiously looking my way. The smaller ones maintained about a 12-foot radius from me but the bigger ones stayed much farther back.

With each drop onto the same spot, I peered through schools of gags from 12 to 20 inches and many that looked close to the 22-inch minimum. I held my trigger finger knowing that everything looks bigger underwater, and kept trying to get close to one of the big gags.

I began lying on the bottom motionless and scanning the fringes of my visibility. Out there, behind all the other fish, I saw the biggest gag yet. I slowly crawled along the bottom toward him using only my hands. Before he was in range he turned and swam away. I gave chase.

Racing down the reef and nearing the end of my breath hold, I saw the fish turn to dart into a cave. I fired a long shot, hitting him behind the head. The spear stuck but the fish snatched the gun from my hand and bolted out of sight. Normally this is not a problem since the spear and gun are connected with a line and a floatline and buoy are attached to the back of the handle.

As I caught my breath at the surface, I did not see my float. Somewhere below me there was a big grouper running off with my gear. Eventually the float popped up 50 feet away. It took 10 dives and two people to extract the fish from beneath a ledge, but soon the 12-pounder was on the boat.

Over the course of the day we managed to take five good-sized gags up to 15 pounds, a half-dozen hogfish, and a few mangrove snapper. At each of the six spots we stopped, we found the same thing: large numbers of small- to medium-sized gags, sometimes 50 or more, accompanied by a handful of very spooky and challenging adult fish.