Since he began commercial spear fishing in the late 1990s, Ritchie Zacker might have more time in the water than any other diver. For him to see something extraordinary means a unique set of circumstances existed.
Just over a week ago Zacker and crew were offshore on a beautiful winter day spearing grouper, snapper and hogfish in shallow depths. They anchored in 30 feet of water over a big rock pile, and Zacker suited up, prepared his speargun, stringer and other gear for the dive. After getting his bearings in the water, he was astonished at what was happening below.
“When we rolled over the boat, we were right in them,” Zacker said. “It was sheepshead everywhere from top to bottom. I don’t even know how many fish were there. If I said thousands that might be low.”
Sheepshead provide moderate value at the commercial market, so when Zacker got to the bottom he found himself rapid firing into the striped white meat fish.
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“Shoot, reload. Shoot, reload. I was only moving to grab fish after shooting them and picking out the bigger ones. At the end I was spending more time just trying to get them on the stringer than I was shooting and reloading.”
Seeing sheepshead congregating offshore isn’t unusual. In the winter months, they gather in preparation of their yearly late winter/early spring spawn.
“I’ve seen a lot of spawning aggregation, but nothing like that before,” Zacker described.
The size of the sheepshead made the amount even more impressive. By the end of the 25-minute dive, Zacker said he had 29 sheepshead on the stringer, stopping because he couldn’t fit anymore. Six of the 29 were bigger than 8-pounds, which is a massive sheepshead.
When he returned to the surface, even his partners couldn’t believe what they saw.
“It took two of us just to get the stringer in the boat!”
Next weekend Zacker will be searching for a big sheepshead in Tampa Bay when he competes in the Interbay Spearfishing Championship. The unique tournament restricts competitors to inside the Sunshine Skyway in a variety of categories.
“The bay water cleans up faster this time of year, so the visibility should be ok,” Zacker said. “There’s a good chance offshore is low visibility after those big fronts. I expect sheepshead in the bay to be congregating on the bridges for the next few months.”
Source: U.S. Naval Observatory dat