“That’s why we came here.”
Captain Travis Palladeno directed our attention to a depthfinder suddenly painted red with fish. For three of us still numb from the early morning two-hour bean bag ride at close to 50 mph, the fish show was like an intravenous shot of caffeine. Judging by the reactions of our crew, Jeff Strane and Doug Chinchar, I wasn’t alone with my “I gotta get a bait in the water” jones. Strane had a pretty good idea of what was coming.
“I’ve been fishing some of these offshore springs for years,” Jeff said, “and I’m rarely disappointed.”
Doug had something to say, too: “I’ve never been beaten by a fish, where I had to say no,” he claimed on our way out. I’ve heard that a few times, I mused.
We were in almost 300 feet of water so I didn’t think we’d anchor. Travis spent a long three to four minutes, out of gear, figuring out our direction and speed of drift. “In order to get to the grouper you want to get your bait as close to the lip of the spring as possible,” said Travis. “So understanding your drift at this depth is critical in having your baits land near the sweet spot, even if you’re not going to anchor.”
Once Travis determined the drift, he moved upcurrent several hundred yards of the spring and gave us the word to drop our baits. He kept the triple-engine 38-foot center console in gear, facing the current so that both sides of the boat could drop at the same time. “This isn’t the place to fish light tackle,” Jeff was saying next to me as we both dropped baits on stout 8-foot Ugly Stik rods with 9/0 Penn reels spooled up with 80-pound monofilament. I was a little surprised that both Jeff and Travis preferred mono over the braid-type lines.
Jeff feels the stretch that makes mono less desirable in certain situations is actually beneficial when fishing this depth for such large fish. “The bend of the long rod and the stretch of mono is far more forgiving, and acts like a shock absorber, when you have a 30- to 50-pound grouper bulldogging you 300 feet away.” I’d brought a smaller outfit, spooled
with braid, but figured I’d go along with their program.
We both were dropping live pinfish on a standard west coast grouper rig, just jumbo-sized: 80-pound running line, an 8-ounce egg sinker, then a 125-pound swivel, tied to a 6-foot 100-pound mono leader which ended with a 9/0 circle hook.
On the other side of the boat Doug had the same tackle, but was dropping a large dead bait, a frozen Boston mackerel with its head twisted off to provide some extra scent and its tail clipped off to prevent the bait from twisting on its descent. And it was Doug who was first to have his rod yanked to the gunnel.
“Turn the handle, turn the handle,” Travis pleaded.
“I’m trying, I’m trrrr…”
“That was our grouper,” Travis said to a dejected 220-pound ex-college Big Ten volleyball player. “I couldn’t turn the reel,” Doug said in disbelief. “I couldn’t turn the reel…”
Then it was my turn. “Reel, reel, reel,” were the instructions directed to me. I think I got a turn or two, but not enough nor fast enough. I whiffed on my first bite as well. It was game on and I was glad I had super-sized my tackle.
We were on an amazing aggregation of fish, right at the doorstep of prime season, November through mid-February.
Anglers have long theorized that these springs deliver a consistent groundwater discharge, warmer than surrounding waters of the Gulf of Mexico in winter.
But today, sources indicate otherwise. Curt Bowen, publisher of Advanced Diver Magazine, has personally dived and charted more than 20 deepwater caves; he says very few are active springs. So why, then, do most of the caves hold winter aggregations of fish? Maybe it’s due to age-old migration patterns, or possibly it’s due to winter migrations to structure or possibly the reduction in fishing pressure.
“The Gulf is basically a desert; a Coke bottle on the bottom has life around it in just days,” commented Bowen. “These sinks are magnets to mutton, genuine and mangrove snapper as well as gag and red grouper, and swarms of amberjacks live year-round on most of the caves.”
One thing seems certain: There are lots of springs out there. The floor of the Gulf of Mexico out to 300 feet of water (50 fathoms) represents surface area alternately exposed and covered by sea levels in flux since the Ice Ages. As recently as 10,000 years ago, Florida’s landmass was about three times the size it is today. Scattered across the huge, underwater plateau off the state’s west coast are countless springs, sinks and other features, products of erosion and other geologic forces.
Of these forces, Eric Osking, a contributor to Advanced Diver Magazine, writes in “The Discovery of Diamond Rock Cave,” that, “Shorelines moved up and down the continental shelf, allowing vast areas of previously submerged carbonate rock to be subject to weathering and the development of sinks, springs, cave systems and other karst landforms.”
There seems to be a slight debate on what exactly created these underwater caves. Bowen thinks they were formed more by methane gas (natural gas) than by solution (underground water). But there is little debate that they hold fish. The Diamond Rock Cave [see below, “What’s It Like Down There?”] was discovered by a tip from a commercial fisherman about an area that held fish during the winter months. The idea that the relatively warm groundwater discharging into the colder open Gulf waters led the divers to the location.
Bradenton’s Larry Borden has been diving these springs for more than 20 years and has personally shot gag grouper over 100 pounds. “One of the springs that’s publicly listed I named,” Borden said. “Not intentionally, but it stuck. Back in 1981 I came up from diving this one nearshore spring that lots of people knew about, but I think since it’s only about 45 miles out from Sarasota most commercial guys were going past it or maybe missing it when they anchored. Whatever the case, when I came up from my dive all I could say was ‘Awesome.’ To this day you’ll find people still talking about fishing the
Awesome sink. The sheer number of grouper on the bottom and then genuine red snapper on top of them had the amberjacks stacked all the way to the surface.”
Palledeno had us drifting over such a spot.
My next hit felt like my bait was picked up by a passing car. I crammed the rod butt into my hip and turned the handle. As any good bottom fisherman will tell you, if you win the first 20 feet, you’ve won the battle, maybe not the war, but the battle. With the pride of the Southeast Conference on my side I bullied the 15-pound genuine red to the surface.
Bottom fishing with this size tackle, at this depth, and for fish this size turns fishing into competition. You don’t want to lose a fish when the guy next to you catches one.
It was on our third drift of the spring when Doug called for help. We were filming a segment for Florida Sportsman TV, so unfortunately for him he can no longer claim to have never been beaten by a fish. In a mild panic Doug pleaded, “Blair, help! I’m going to lose it. It’s going to pull the rod from my hands.”
We proceeded to lift and wind, lift and wind, slowly, the two of us. Four hundred-plus pounds of men, against this fish. What came up was the largest grouper I, we, ever caught. A warsaw probably close to 70 pounds. Awesome.
We fished three different springs or sinks, all with success. Never once did we have a bait come up without a bite. We caught several genuine red snapper that had to be released; we vented them with the hollow needles that are now required gear on all reef fishing boats in the Gulf of Mexico. There’s no shortage of red snapper out here. We caught a 15-pound gag, and a couple nice scamp grouper. But the fish that bit the most often was the back-breaking amberjack.
Borden—who I spoke with a few days after our trip—said that fishing like this generally happens in the winter. “Even though you may not show huge schools of bait, a lot of the time you’ll see even pelagics like dolphin and sailfish come and stay around the springs,” he told me. “Summertime, it’s just too easy for everyone to get out and fish these spots. I’ve been on some of the springs where you hardly see any fish at all in the summer, but never in the winter.”
Without question, these mysterious deepwater caves hold some tremendous fish.
Gulf of Mexico Blue Holes
Site, Latitude/Longitude, Depth
Jewfish Hole, 28-25.76, 82-42.53
Top Cap, 27-11.733, 83-34.00, 162 feet
Deep Undercover, 27-08.225, 83-26.391, 160 feet
AJ Hole, *14089.3, 44695.1, 114 feet
Green Banana, *14021.6, 44769.4, 154 feet
Pride Sink, *14084.2, 44958.3, 124 feet
Awesome Sink, *14034.3, 44958.3, 140 feet
Donut Hole, *14076.9, 44741.6
Captiva Blue Hole, 26-28.900, 82-44.190, 90 feet
Mud Hole, 26-14.768, 82-00.637, 55 feet
Naples Blue Hole, 25-50.570, 82-09.114, 64 feet
Chicken Pot Pie, 25-40.744, 83-01.657, 168 feet
* The numbers beginning with 140 are TDs, or Loran coordinates, and can be converted to latitude/longitude pretty accurately now with software
The below list of offshore springs from the Big Bend region are known springs, and were provided to us by the Suwannee River Water Management District, but neither they nor us have been able to confirm their accuracy.
Offshore Spring, Latitude/Longitude, Name (degrees-minutes-seconds)
Econfina Spring, 29-59-25.9, 83-55-18.7
Steinhatchee Spring, 29-36-44.4, 84-00-03.8
Spring 22, 29-53-40.0, 83-52-49.0
Ray Hole, 29-44-54.0, 84-02-30.0
Ocean Hole, 30-04-23.4, 84-07-42.0
Freshwater Cave, 29-59-30.0, 83-55-24.0
Spring 1, 29-27-38.0, 83-59-33.0
Spring 2, 29-27-39.0, 83-59-33.0
Spring 3, 29-26-39.8, 83-50-38.4
Crack, 29-22-34.3, 83-44-05.7
Easy Rider Spring, 29-22-33.5, 83-44-04.4
Lamb Spring, 29-26-37.7, 83-50-37.6
Crack 2, 29-23-49.1, 83-42-43.3
Limerock, 29-36-23.1, 84-14-54.4
Spring 4, 29-26-39.0, 83-50-36.9
Billy’s Hole, 29-22-27.8, 83-55-31.1
John’s Hole, 29-21-40.6, 83-57-22.1
John’s Hole 2, 29-21-29.5, 83-57-38.2
What’s It Like Down There?
Can you imagine creeping down into a black tunnel at the bottom of the sea? The ultimate Fear Factor, for most mortals. For some intrepid (partially insane?) technical divers, these portals lead to amazing discoveries.
Writing in Advanced Diver Magazine, Eric Osking chronicled cave diver Al Barefoot’s “Discovery of Diamond Rock Cave,” a formation off Sarasota:
“My regulator just about dropped out of my mouth,” Al Barefoot recalled. “I thought, what in the heck have we discovered here.”…Following several strands of encrusted monofilament fishing line, Al worked his way deeper and deeper into the cave. Thousands of years of silt and crumbly rock fragments, disturbed by the upward flight of his regulator’s exhaust bubbles, clouded the water and streamed down around him. A few moments later the passage became horizontal and he found himself hovering above a rock balcony at 240 feet, overlooking a large subterranean chamber. Even though the room was full of clear water, his light was unable to illuminate either the bottom, or the distant side. “It was obvious from the lack of a guideline, and the undisturbed nature of the passage, that no one had been down here before.”