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Fishing up close and personal

In the St. Pete Open, divers forego the use of rods and bait to chase giant fish with scuba gear and spearguns.

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 18, 2000


GULF OF MEXICO -- Chad Carney and Steve Bryan look forward to August. They spend most of the spring and early summer scouting deep-water wrecks and ledges for fish.

Not just any fish -- big fish.

"It takes a big one to win the Open," Carney said. "You are competing against all the top spearfishermen. And these guys know what they are doing."

Carney and Bryan keep meticulous records of their dives and catches, hoping this information will come in handy when the 35th annual St. Pete Open spearfishing tournament begins Saturday. More than 100 divers had entered before tonight's registration party, with competitors coming from as far away as California and Denver. "This particular spot has produced some big fish in the past," Carney said as he studied his bottom recorder. "But you never know ... things change from day to day."

With all the area's top spearfishermen hunting for trophies at the same time, a good dive spot is the key to victory.

"There are few secrets anymore," Carney said. "But it still pays to check a place if you haven't been there from time to time."

This particular spot, dubbed "The Box Cars" for the remnants of old railroad cars littering the bottom, is about 25 miles southwest of John's Pass. This site is popular with local divers and, as a result, fished heavily. "I haven't been here for a while," Carney said as he readied his spear gun. "But you never know ... this just might be a place to hit this weekend."

In recent years, the St. Pete Open has been dominated by divers with access to "go fast" boats that can run to the Middle Grounds and back in time for the afternoon weigh-in.

Big fish traditionally come from deep water, where only the most experienced and best equipped divers dare venture. Carney, a spearfishermen with more than 20 years experience, likes to run offshore when he can, but he also knows tournament-winning fish can be taken within a few hours' run from land.

So he slipped over the side and dropped 100 feet to the wreck. At this depth, he would have only about 20 minutes to locate and capture his prey.

A school of amberjack greeted Carney about 20 feet from the bottom. The fish were small, too small to spear, but he could see larger jacks swimming just out of reach. Carney moved toward the larger fish, but a small gag grouper scurried from beneath the wreck and into the line of fire.

The spear found its mark, but the fish managed to slip away. Carney followed the trail of blood and cornered the wounded gag under the wreck. The fish was too far under the structure to reach, so Carney moved to the other side, seeking better access.

That's when he saw the monster. At first, Carney wasn't sure if the behemoth hiding a few feet away was a true black grouper or a just a monster gag. The fish turned its head, it twitched, and Carney knew he had to act.

The spear caught the fish just behind the eye but didn't kill it. The animal tried to move deeper beneath the wreck and stirred up a cloud of silt. Carney, out of time, knew he had to leave. He found a blue dumbbell somebody left on the bottom and placed it at the entrance of the hole.

"I shot a big fish," he told Bryan. "But I couldn't get it out of the hole. It is all yours."

St. Pete Open Tournament rules require entrants to spear and retrieve fish on their own. But on a scouting mission like this, it's wiser and safer to use the buddy system.

Bryan disappeared over the side and Carney watched his bubbles from the surface. "It doesn't look good," Carney said. "I don't think he can find the hole."

But the bubbles stopped, and Carney waited 10 minutes while his friend battled the fish below.

"Here he comes," Carney said. "It doesn't look like he has the fish."

Bryan, his spear held high, kicked over to the boat. "I found the dumbbell and the fish," Bryan said as he handed the monster to Carney.

The 39-pound gag would be a trophy in anybody's book.

"That is a nice fish," Carney told his friend. "But you would have to put two of those together to win the Open."

35th annual St. Pete Open

WHAT: World's largest spearfishing tournament.

WHEN: Today-Sunday.

REGISTRATION: 7-9 tonight at Tierra Verde Resort, by the pool.

NEW CATEGORIES: Women and junior (under 17 years old).

FOR INFORMATION: Call Paul Renner at (727) 906-8070 (evenings), Bill Hardman (727) 344-3483, or visit the Web site www.spucspearfishing.com.

Tournament records

GROUPER: 111.5 pounds, Gary Zumwalt, 1991 (world record for eight years).

HOGFISH: 20.4 pounds, Steve Townsend, 1990.

SHEEPSHEAD: 9.3 pounds, Ray Hinton, 1980.

AMBERJACK: 85 pounds, David Fair, 1994.

SNAPPER: 54 pounds, Dick Newman, 1981.

LOBSTER: 12.3 pounds, Scott Wilner, 1992.

TRIGGERFISH: 10.4 pounds, Bob Elser Sr., 1997.

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