Rough seas make for a challenging weekend of spearfishing at St. Pete Open

The world’s largest spearfishing tournament doesn’t stop for anything. In what was one of the the roughest days in the history of the long running St. Pete Open, huge fish were still brought back to the scales by participants who will never forget what they experienced that day.

Nick Smith was one of those who headed out into the rough sea conditions last weekend as a line of storms spun up in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We rode out 65 miles offshore from St. Pete,” Smith said. “One hundred percent would not do that again. The waves were way too large and too dangerous,” he said.

Smith returned home safely in his 27-foot ProKat after deciding the seas were too much for divers to leave the boat.

Reports from the buoys confirmed Smith’s observations. Those west of St. Petersburg measured seas over 5 feet with winds gusting to over 40 mph at about 11 a.m. That was the roughest day since July 12, when Tropical Storm Barry was west of Florida and spun up over 10-foot seas.

Troy van Blankenburg was 30 miles off Hudson in a 27-foot Sea Hunt.

“We would definitely go a different route in the future,” he said. “We actually shot some fish OK, but the vast majority of our weight was cudas. We all left with prizes valued around $100 each, so I’d say we did well, and only broke the antenna on the boat on the drive home.”

Those who ventured south dealt with slightly better weather, but it was still extremely rough. Teammates Tommy Merrell, Hunter Cowie, Brett Booth and Josh Reynolds, who reside in the Florida Panhandle, trailered down to leave from Venice in a 33-foot Contender.

“It was one of the roughest rides ever,” Cowie said. “The St. Pete Open makes you do things you normally would never consider doing.”

After struggling to locate fish on their first destinations, the teammates improvised.

“We actually found a couple spots that were special,” said Merrell, the team captain. “Every aspect of our plan was changed with the miserable conditions. We couldn’t get to where we planned on going and boy am I glad. It must have been our turn because every fish seemed to have been dropped in our laps.”

They hopped in on their newly found spot, and that’s when Cowie saw something special.

“We don’t have nearly as many black grouper up north. I was freaking out,” said Cowie, who dives commercially with his teammates. “I’ve never even seen a grouper that big, and there were three in front of me and I picked the one closest to me.”

Cowie took a shot and harvested a black grouper that would weigh in at 71.9 pounds. Merrell hit the biggest fish of the bunch, which would end up topping the scales at a massive 104.7 pounds. They would bring home first and third in the black grouper division, with previous champion Pat Bennett pulling off second with an impressive 81.85-pound black.

Closer to home, Ritchie Zacker once again brought home some hardware in the sheepshead division, taking first place at 6.75 pounds, beating a three-way tie behind him at 4.7 pounds.

“I woke up to a monsoon and later dove in it,” Zacker said. “There was only four feet of visibility as well.”

Despite the weather, participants put up quality fish across all divisions. The hogfish division was won by Brett Booth with an 18.15-pounder.

Shawn Durrance took the (non-black) grouper division at 38 pounds.

An 8.1-pound lobster was brought home by Armando Suarez for first in the tastiest division of the tournament.

The cobia division was won by Chad Harreld with a 31.1-pounder.

Anthony Segrich’s 79.6-pound amberjack won the pelagic division, while Jerry Patterson won snapper with a 13.05-pound fish