ST. PETERSBURG — Hundreds of fishermen packed the ballroom of the Magnuson Hotel at Marina Cove Sunday morning, discussing who caught the weekend's biggest fish during the St. Petersburg Underwater Club's 48th annual St. Pete Open, the world's largest spearfishing competition.
Stories of 80 pound groupers, close encounters with sharks and secret spots where the fish seemingly jump onto the end of a spear weren't told with the usual bravado that accompanies tall tales. These stories were all true, told between sheepish smiles and prodding from friends and family.
“These guys are pretty humble, but they're tough,” said Bryan Anderson, president of the St. Petersburg Underwater Club. “When they're out fishing, they're fighting off sharks not just sitting on the dock making up stories. It's a lot of work and there's a lot of respect for each other in this sport.”
The St. Pete Open has maintained it's reputation as the largest competition of it's kind because of the tough demeanor of its entrants. This year, 329 spearfishers from across the globe spent two days fishing while free diving, scuba diving, and even standing on the shore, racking up pounds come rain or shine. Some of the biggest fish in the world have been caught during the competition, which started with barely 30 people, Anderson said. But beyond the high caliber of fishermen, the one thing that really separates the competition from others is that it has not once been cancelled.
“This one's special because they're going to do it regardless of the weather, whether it's high tide, low tide or a hurricane coming” said Justin Moraine, who traveled from Fort Meyers for the competition. “It really separates the men from the boys.”
Moraine walked away with a first place trophy for spearing an 82.15 pound grouper, which he plans to serve at his wedding Oct. 19. But it didn't come without a battle. He picked up a few scars from where an angry fish bit through his wet suit.
The fishing conditions in St. Petersburg are ideal, with plenty of limestone ledges and ship wrecks to attract fish. But the good fishing also attracts predators like sharks, said Sasa Bratic, who won a first place trophy in the free diving category with a 50 pound haul.
“I grew up fishing in Bosnia, on the Adriatic Sea, but now more than ever it seems like every single spot we go to we get chased away by sharks, big ones,” said Bratic, of Tarpon Springs. “They'll eat fish out of our hands, and probably eat our hands next time. In those cases, put your best friend between you and the shark and get on the boat as fast as you can.”
With 98 sponsors, the competition is also a big boon for the local economy, Anderson said. Though the competition attracts several hundred of the best spearfishers in the sport, thousands of spectators, friends and family members come to watch, shop, eat and play. The club was started in 1952 by Bill Jackson, the 97-year-old outdoor sporting goods mogul from St. Petersburg, and each year's competition includes plenty of opportunities to win gear, kayaks, and $50,000 worth of prizes.
The competition will only continue to grow, Anderson said, but that doesn't mean getting into the club of about 58 members that hold world records and numerous accolades will get any easier.
“To join you have to dive with at least three members, it's an invite-only type of thing,” Anderson said. “I think people are drawn to the open because of our heritage, our history. We have people here that have fished alongside their fathers and grandfathers, but this is definitely not for the casual fisher. This gets to the core of a fisherman.”