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Free or breath-hold spearfishing requires extreme athleticism, skill and knowledge. The inability to see the bottom from the surface and fish moving deeper in the summer add to the complexity.

On Thursday, the country's best free divers will compete in the U.S. Freediving Spearfishing Nationals in Tarpon Springs. Twenty-two teams of three free divers have come from Hawaii, California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Arkansas and Florida. The bay area has three teams competing.

For six grueling hours, free divers will shoot seven categories of fish: grouper, snapper, hogfish, sheepshead, triggerfish, amberjack and cobia. The highest aggregate weight will determine team and individual winners. Individuals also will compete for largest fish in each category.

Non-participating anglers and divers should avoid the narrow area between 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. The competitors have been scouting all week and will be aggressive, said FSDA tournament director David Shelton.

The tournament area is offshore from Bayport, a 6- by 25-nautical mile section between latitudes 28 degrees 30 minutes and 28 degrees 36 minutes and from shore out to longitude 83 degrees 21 minutes, about 60 feet deep. The weigh-in is scheduled for 5 p.m. at the Port Tarpon Marina.

_ Chad Carney teaches scuba & spearfishing and runs charters out of St. Petersburg. Call (727) 423-7775 or e-mail