Now with 50 years of history, the annual St. Pete Open brings together a huge cast of characters for one weekend of spearfishing glory. Last weekend was that time, and over 300 shooters headed into the Gulf of Mexico for their chance at taking home a prize from one of the many categories.
This tournament is known for divers pushing the limits, and heading deep where big fish live yields the top results. For Bradenton mortgage broker and diver Courtland Hunt, going the extra mile early Saturday morning would bring him back an impressive catch that put his results on the podium.
"We left the Magnuson Hotel and Marina on Saturday morning at 3 a.m.," Hunt said. "We arrived at our destination about 90 miles from the mouth of Tampa Bay just before sunrise in 170 feet of water."
The team aboard the Deep Trouble suited up to dive with their targets below. Hunt began his descent when a school of large amberjacks appeared near the bottom. Eventually, he saw a bigger fish within his sights, and took his shot.
"They were swimming around us for a long part of the dive. Toward the end of the dive I saw a bigger one and I took the opportunity. I put an amazing shot on it, in one eye and out the back of its head.
"He was stunned until around 100 feet when he came back to life and pulled me back to the bottom before I had to shoot him again. I knew I had to act quickly since I was running out of air and being that deep, situations can turn deadly. I stunned him enough to get him back to the surface."
Hunt's amberjack would tip the scales at 73.3 pounds. Perhaps his biggest competition for the largest amberjack in the tournament was diving next to him. Teammate Steve Keen also took advantage of the school of large amberjack, spearing a 68.5-pound fish. Hunt's would hold up for first, while Keen's would take second place in that division.
On their 2nd and final dive, Hunt was on the search for another prize -- this time diving 15- to 25- foot ledges. Diving such depths meant only 5 minutes of bottom time.
"It was like an alien world," Hunt described. "That bottom is something you only see more than 100-miles from shore."
On that dive, Hunt would bag a beautiful 15.3 pound hogfish while his partner Jim Brennan shot a 12.15-pound mutton snapper, which would land him in second place of the snapper category.
The first place grouper would go to Travis Kelly with a 89.3-pound black grouper. First place in the snapper division was a 38.8-pound fish speared by John Schmidt. Chris Hillen won the hogfish division with a 19.1 pound fish. The largest cobia/barracuda went to Brandon Hendrickson with a 30.9 pounder. Bagging the largest lobster of the tournament was Hunter Daniel with a 7.9 bug. Winning the largest sheepshead category was Ritchie Zacker with a 8.5 pound fish.