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Spearing fish, catching good-natured flak

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Well past noon, more than two hours into the 2001 U.S. National Free Diving Championships, Wayne Butts started to worry.

"I need a fish, a good fish," the Clearwater spearfisherman declared. "Otherwise you can call me Otis."


Free divers are a tad peculiar. You would be too if you spent hours holding your breath and chasing fish across the ocean floor.

"Mabel that's what I call it," teammate Chris Gardinal announced. "If he doesn't get a decent fish soon, then he's a Mabel."

Free diving is a team sport. The winner of spearfishing tournaments is chosen by the cumulative catch of three divers over a six-hour period.

"It really is a matter of luck," Jamie Joanas said trying to cover for his friend. "It is all about being in the right spot at the right time."

The 22 teams competing in Thursday's national championships were relegated to a relatively small area north of Tarpon Springs. The water was warm, the visibility fair, the average depth _ 60 feet.

"They had to limit the depth," Butts said in an aside. "Or else the Cubans would head out to 100 feet of water and clean up."

There was much talk about the free divers from Florida's neighbor to the south before the tournament. Cuba has traditionally produced some of the best breath-hold divers in the world. They are as highly regarded as those from the Mediterranean and the South Pacific.

But Butts and his friends, the reigning state champions, knew the Hawaiians and Californians would be tough to beat. Rumor had it the boys from the 50th state had been scouting the waters off Bayport for nearly a month. And the cagey Californians reportedly had been shadowing local crews for weeks. Then of course, there were the teams from Miami and Palm Beach.

"The competition is tough," said Butts, a 42-year-old pharmaceutical rep from Clearwater. "All three team members have to shoot well if you want to win."

And that means bringing home more than a couple of sheepshead, which was the extent of Butts' contribution as the halfway point approached.

"I've got to get it together," he said. "I've got to get some fish."

The team's boat captain, Brad Kenyon, had put the divers on a half-dozen good spots. The natural rock outcroppings would probably be passed over by most fishermen. But Kenyon, an accomplished free diver, has spent the better part of 30 years scouring the Gulf of Mexico for the tiny piles of rock that grouper call home.

Butts, Gardinal and Joanas, representing the prestigious St. Pete Underwater Club, had been diving with Kenyon for years. They knew all it would take was one good ledge loaded with fish to put them over the top.

"If somebody gets a cobia or amberjack, they'll win diver of the day," Joanas said. "But grouper are the money fish."

Gag grouper, the prey of choice for most blue water hunters, have learned to identify the sound of a speargun cocking and know when to make themselves scarce. But grouper are the tournament "money" fish, and respectable free divers hope to catch their limit if they want to hold their head high at the weigh in.

Which is precisely why Butts didn't want to show up with two scrawny sheepshead.

"This is it," Butts said as Kenyon stopped at another spot. "This is where my luck turns."

Butts grabbed his gun and slipped over the side. He took a few deep breaths, filling his stomach, chest and neck with air, then dropped down on the rocks below. Two minutes later, he returned holding a fat gag.

"I have got to go back down," Butts said as he handed off the fish. "I lost my gun."

The grouper, once it was speared, swam through a hole in the rocks and emerged on the other side. Butts tried to pull the fish back through, but it wouldn't budge. So he unhooked the line from the speargun, swam to the other side of the rock and grabbed the fish, then returned to the surface, all on one breath.

The only trouble was, when Butts went back to get his gun, the ripping current had carried it away. But he didn't care. The fish had turned the tide.

"I guess we will have to start calling this spot "Lost Gun Ledge,' " Kenyon said.

Butts laughed. He had a spare gun. The sea gods were with him. He would get his limit.

"At least you can't call me Otis," he said.

Wayne Butts shot his limit of grouper, which helped the St. Pete Under Water Club Team finish fourth of 22.


CHAMPIONSHIPS FIRST PLACE: Massachusetts Team _ Andrew Geist, Scott Turgeon and Claudio Aalgdames

SECOND PLACE: Greater Los Angeles Divers _ Bill Ernst, Gerald Lim and Rene Rojas

THIRD PLACE: Hawaii Council of Dive Clubs _ Jason Hijirida, Ryan Paik and Keobel Vitarelli

TOP FLORIDA TEAM (FOURTH OVERALL): St. Pete Underwater Club _ Jamie Joanas, Wayne Butts and Chris Gardinal

Top diver awards

First _ Turgeon

Second _ Andrew Geist

Third _ Miguel Guinovar

Biggest fish

Rojas _ 14-pound grouper

Up next

ST. PETE OPEN SPEARFISHING TOURNAMENT: Aug. 17-19. Call Chris Gardinal at 864-1095 or check Web site