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Hogfish prevalent in clear Gulf water

Published August 26, 2006

With high air temperatures and unusually clear conditions offshore, many Nature Coast enthusiasts have been diving lately. Visibility is seldom very good during the late summer, but that has not been the case lately.

Out on the deep Gulf, spearfishers have encountered 40 feet or more of visibility, and those working the shallows have reported being able to see the bottom from the surface in 25 feet of water.

Hogfish, a favorite of underwater hunters, have been prevalent in depths of 50 to more than 100 feet.

Divers working the Florida Middlegrounds, 65 miles off Pasco and Hernando counties, often bring in the biggest hogs found anywhere in the world. For an inshore hunter, a 5-pounder is considered big and a 7-pounder is a trophy. Out in the Grounds 15-pound hogfish are fairly common, and some that are more than 20 pounds are caught each year.

Since underwater hunters are able to view many fish in a given area, they can be selective and target the biggest specimens. In the St. Petersburg Open spearfishing tournament last weekend, there were many amazing fish taken. The most notable was John Schmitt's winning grouper. The big black weighed in at 79 pounds and was taken in 150 feet of water. Several other divers also weighed in grouper more than 50 pounds.

The biggest snapper weighed 16.9 pounds and was brought in by Julian Cruz. Nature Coast hunter Ricky Hampton won an underwater wrestling match with a giant amberjack and took home first place in that division with a very impressive 94.9-pound monster.

D.J. Strott had the biggest hogfish with his 16.22-pounder, and Sasha Bratic was the cobia king with a 30.2-pounder.

Other notable catches were John Hermes 7.6-pound spiny lobster and Rich Zacker's tournament record sheepshead of 11.6 pounds. Zacker found the big striped fish while diving around the bridges of Tampa Bay.

As with nearly every type of fishing tournament, there were tales of the big one that got away. Richard Daniel reported dropping down on a small wreck in 200 feet of water, far beyond the depths many experienced divers care to go. Once on the bottom he found a huge mass of bait hovering over the structure. The bait was so thick that he could barely see through it.

As he worked his way around he found that the goliath grouper had taken over. Numerous goliaths in the 200- to 400-pound class were the only big fish he saw at first. Just as he was about to give up and begin his ascent to the surface, the bait school opened, revealing "the biggest black grouper I have ever seen," according to Daniel.

He later stated that the fish was easily more than 100 pounds. As any diver will tell you, black grouper that size are very difficult to approach or even get close to. The problem was that as the huge fish and Daniel looked eye to eye, his gun was pointed directly up. Knowing that the fish was sure to spook at any second, he froze and held his breath to keep quiet. As he slowly tried to lower the gun toward the fish, it bolted and disappeared out into the sand leaving a trail of stirred up sediment.

Regardless of whether you are an experienced scuba diver, freediver, or shallow-water snorkeler, the clean water has provided a great incentive to hit the Gulf and explore the underwater realm. There is no better way to learn the habits and mannerisms of your favorite species, not to mention that diving is a good way to find new fishing spots.

[Last modified August 26, 2006, 06:25:04]

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