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Posted by Dix Roper on 09 November 2007 at 11:42 AM

Almost close enough, Almost deep enough, Almost clear enough, Almost big enough, Almost early enough, Almost the right tide, Almost the right current, Almost curious enough, Almost calm enough, Almost straight enough, Almost ready, Almost dead. Almost—but not quite.

December and January are the time when most people like to be at home. When it comes down to a choice of going diving or staying around for the change of seasons, the Christmas spirit and shopping, the parties, the excitement and even family and friends, I am almost tempted to stay at home. Almost—but not quite!

So even though I knew I was bailing out on Santa Claus, White Christmas and shopping, I felt deep down inside that another fantasy had a stronger pull—- the fantasy of holding my breath, suspended in space at 20 feet beneath the surface of a blue ocean, surrounded by, immersed in and at one with the power and beauty of the universe. In the fantasy I am totally relaxed in the silence of the warm, crystalline liquid surrounding me, speargun in hand, all time stopped, open and awaiting a divine visitation.

The best winter option of choice to fulfill this fantasy seemed to be back to Panama courtesy of frequent flyer miles. After a couple of enjoyable weeks in Panama City putting all the pieces together, we were ready for the long drive followed the next morning by a 70-mile trip in the outboard panga to arrive once again in the Kingdom of clear water and big fish. Our diving would be in both the deep and shallow water around the various islands and from last year we knew that we could expect to encounter wahoo and maybe other pelagic fish if we were lucky. The tidal change over a six-hour period of 13 to 15 feet makes for ripping currents and dangerous navigation in the rivers and close to the islands. Channels offering safe passage at one time of day will sink your boat a few hours later. Having experienced the impact, shock and near disaster of hitting a submerged rock with the panga once before, we were extremely careful.

While diving in open ocean the current is not felt much but it means that it is difficult to stay on the high spots. But in closer, during high current times, it means that if you start a dive over a pinnacle (or bajo) you will be swept off before you get down and you will just watch the rock and the fish go past as you are blown by. So it was necessary to start a dive 200 feet or so upcurrent of the spot, usually even before the bait were visible, kick down, get set up and scan for game as the rocks came rushing at you. However, since the fish usually did not seem to accommodate us by being in the line of drift and it was impossible to penetrate against the current, we soon realized that getting everything 100% right was very unlikely. Just flying over the contours and watching everything go whizzing by was really fun for a few passes. With wahoo, the current was fortunately not a problem because they generally were in deeper water and not over a specific high spot.

Hunting wahoo is an incredible experience. No two sighting are the same. Sometimes deep, other times mid-water but usually near the surface, they appear like ghosts, silently and with little movement. Curious but also cautious, they usually stay just out of range as they circle, eyeballing the intruder. I usually try the classic method of avoiding eye contact and diving down and away from the fish. Then keeping the gun tucked in, I hope that his curiosity will bring him closer and around to my front for a shot. Other times I am so captivated I can’t seem to take my eyes off the fish but just try to remain calm and see what he does. The fish, on this trip, seemed shy and I would say that I saw at least 20 or more fish for every one that came close enough for a shot. The flasher, as well as the reflective tape on my fins, seemed to attract fish, but the best wahoo call, of all, is to shoot another fish.

Ana and I were diving with one gun, taking turns going down while the other person ran the flasher and breathed up and scanned from the surface. Having seen no fish for awhile, I decided to shoot a blue runner, which are both sizable and plentiful. Within seconds of shooting the fish a very large wahoo appeared not ten feet away, totally disregarding our presence and excited by the thrashing fish. I took the blue runner off and started to reload and the wahoo was still there. First band loaded—still there, second band loaded—still there, third band loaded—still there. Really close… This is great, but then as I fumble with the slip tip I see him lose interest and glide off into the blue. I was almost quick enough. Almost—but not quite.

Another wahoo surprised me in shallow, 15-feet deep water as I drifted by a small island. He came from behind me totally unnoticed as I cruised the surface. He passed on my left side, going with me, not five feet away. I jumped involuntarily and in my excitement made a lot of commotion, trying to line up my gun and then watching to see if he would give me a broadside shot. He turned slightly and I almost waited too long. Almost- but not quite. The shot was mid body but a solid shot and we had fresh wahoo for dinner for the entire camp.[dix wahoo]

The following day I watched a very special event unfold as Ana scored on a wahoo 30 feet directly below me. She had been stretched out horizontally in the water, relaxed and waiting but with gun extended. She had been down over a minute and I knew that any second now it was time for her to come up. But then I saw her “point” as her muscles tensed and her attention locked on as she went to total focus straight ahead. I could not see what was coming until I started down to watch. A beautiful wahoo was slowly swimming straight at her, head on, but still out of range. Ana was out of air but waited motionless as the distance closed. Would the fish delay the approach long enough, 4 or 5 seconds, so that Ana would have to break for the surface? The fish delayed almost long enough. Almost- but not quite. He turned broadside at 10 feet and Ana made a perfect shot and started the climb for air and sun and life. In the clear water it was great to watch this intense and primeval adventure play out in slow motion. [ana-ono 1]

I had one more big wahoo encounter late in the evening just before dark. The biggest wahoo of the trip came directly at me as I was suspended vertically at about 25 feet, peering into the dark water. Both the small silhouette of the straight in advance and the low light allowed the fish to approach much closer before I saw him. Externally my body froze but internally all systems went redline. I extended my gun and he turned and gave me the ideal shot. I said to myself, He’s mine, as I pulled the trigger. Almost—but not quite. The shaft barely nicked the top of the fish and he was gone. In my excitement I had forgotten that my shaft had been bent earlier in the rocks by a blue trevally and it still had a slight upward curve. The shaft, I thought, was straight enough. Almost – but not quite.

Another great thing about hunting wahoo is that other surprises sometimes present themselves. In one wahoo area I watched an amberjack come up and check the flasher and immediately turn and go down. I dove to 25 feet and waited the entire dive and saw no movement. Just as I lowered the gun and started up, the amberjack powered from the edge of visibility to one meter away in an instant. He was two feet inside my gun tip. I withdrew the gun to the rear as far as I could and still touch the trigger. I shot from the hip, reaching back to push the trigger with my thumb. The recoil of the unbraced gun almost broke my wrist. Almost- but not quite. Fortunately I was using old, low power bands. But the snap shot was lucky and I stoned the 46 lb. bohala. I suddenly realized, however, the potential for disaster of a big gun with heavy bands shot in an awkward position.[dixyellowtail]

While hunting wahoo other surprise gifts we received were seeing sharks, two sailfish go swimming past out of range, a pod of dolphin that came close and inspected us, and a monster bohala down deep that ate an entire wahoo head in one gulp while I watched in amazement. We also had pargo and one beautiful dorado that ventured too close for their own safety. Blue trevally, though not large fish, are a fun challenge—beautiful and very powerful fish. With an uncanny awareness they seem to know how to stay almost out of range. Almost – but not quite. One that I shot went down and bent my spear in the rocks, and I learned that even with this size fish, the choice is usually a stone shot or a bent shaft. Losing or bending equipment is expensive and in isolated locations can end or ruin a great trip, so I passed on many shots that had little chance of an immediate kill. One more piece of equipment lost, in addition to Ana’s third knife this year, was my new slip tip with Dyneema.'>Spectra line. I like the 1100 lb. test Dyneema.'>Spectra but I learned it is no match for wahoo teeth. One fish that I shot too far forward managed to get the Dyneema.'>Spectra in his mouth, mow through it and take off with my new slip tip. The Dyneema.'>Spectra was almost strong enough. Almost-but not quite.[dix_ulua]

Low budget trips in small boats to offshore waters often have an extra element of unpredictability, also called danger, not encountered with expensive trips on well-maintained, twin engine craft. With me, the choice is to go small boats and minimize the risk, or not to go at all because of the prohibitive costs. The very nature of our sport is such that we willingly accept a certain degree of risk, but sometimes we overlook the danger and the repercussions of just a small mechanical failure.

Early morning the third day the panga dropped us off for a drift dive to hunt wahoo a couple of hundred yards from the shore of a small island. The wind and the current were running opposite directions. We would be carried by the current to the end of the island in twenty minutes and then swept to open seas—next stop Hawaii. The wind was carrying the boat in the other direction and when we saw them drift too far away we knew there was an engine problem. They could not start the motor to pick us up. Immediately I looked toward the shore and made a quick assessment. I forgot about the boat and I realized it was questionable whether we could make the beach or not before the current took us past and out to never-never land. I told Ana we could make it no-sweat but I knew we were in a critical situation. . I don’t dwell on being lost a sea but here in Panama I knew it could be my last adventure. There is no search and rescue, no coast guard, very little boat traffic, big biters and a lot of wind chop. It was swim time. I picked a spot and we started a constant, relaxed pace that we could maintain. After 15 minutes I still could not tell if we were any closer to land - it seemed like we were staying in place and just moving down the island. Another 15 minutes of swimming and I still was not sure that we were making headway. The boat was totally gone and I was grateful for the pool training time we had put in before the trip. Over an hour passed, and when the bottom came into view I knew that we were moving out of the main current and would be able to hit the last beach of the island. After one hour and 15 minutes we crawled up on the beach, giggling and grateful. We had been almost swept out to sea. Almost Dead. Almost- but not quite.

With perfect timing or divine intervention or good luck a fishing boat found our panga and then came and rescued us and towed us back to base camp. I decided right then and there my going way out in a small boat with a single outboard, maybe not well maintained, was almost asinine. Almost—but not quite. But I promised that I would never use this boat again. At least not until they got it fixed in a couple of weeks.

Speardivers especially know the “Almost, but not quite” in terms of almost close enough, almost clear enough, almost big enough, almost deep enough, almost too deep, almost too long, etc etc. The “Almost” is that divine dissatisfaction that pushes us to be better, keeps our dreams alive and that bring us back to Mother Ocean time and time again for new adventures. Every dive and every day diving is unique and different and full of surprise and wonder. For those of us who like to hunt and are in awe of the ocean and its creatures, the incredible excitement of seeing, just seeing a large wahoo, or dorado or sailfish pass close by is Almost enough. Almost—But Not Quite. BAM!

January 30, 2003

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