This years Nationals were held in Clearwater Florida and hosted by the Florida Skin Divers Association. It was relatively close to home with familiar fish and conditions. The National Championship moves around the country each year on a 4 - 5 year regional rotation depending on which clubs are willing to put in the massive effort to host them. It was last hosted by FSDA back in 2015, where I competed and finished 5th individual. I was both excited and nervous to be back in “home” waters again. This year, I was diving with my girlfriend, Sam Mase, as my partner in the mixed division. The 2018 event presented some new challenges and some very welcome advantages.
I was coming fresh off a very unexpected first place win in 2017 in Northern California. Something about winning once makes anything less than a first place finish just another loss. I had a lot of pressure on me this year. Not really from sponsors, family, or friends but really only put there from myself. Even though it was held in my home state, it’s still three hours from my home. Boats would have to be rented and housing secured. Boat competitions are by far my favorite as that is my preferred style of hunting but they also make for a much more expensive trip. Last second, my oldest friend Austin Williams gave us a place to stay at his house. That solved one problem but now I needed a boat. I prefer to have one boat that I can use everyday to scout. Sometimes just in the afternoon, sometimes long hard days. The Schwan family came through in an unbelievable way and let me use their 26 ft Pursuit and teenage boys Jacob and Caleb as crew. I worked Jacob to the bone. We were not known as the fun boat. It seemed like everyone else was out shooting cobia and African pompano and we were just looking at fish all day. Sam, Jacob, and Caleb really put up with a lot as I chased a podium finish.
The way most people scout and compete at nationals is on an amateur level compared to what I’ve seen done at the Pan American and World level. I was really determined to work this competition as if it was an international event. This meant scouting hard. Scouting consists of begging, borrowing, and stealing any local knowledge you can get. For divable bottom we had two main options: artificials, both public and private, and natural bottom, nearly all private. My answer to learning about both: Strikeline Charts.
The Gulf of Mexico is famous for its massive amount of shallow divable area. Its famous for extremely low relief secret fishy spots. What I didn’t realize going in was just how much of this bottom there is out there. Once I downloaded the Strikeline Charts into our GPS I was a bit overwhelmed. Usually we scrounge up numbers, check them all and then scan the bottom for more. That wouldn’t be the case here. We uploaded 3,500 spots in the general area of Clearwater. First step was to eliminate anything outside the zone. Second step was to get to work. I averaged 100 dives a day and could check 60-70 new spots a day. I was a machine. Many times I had less than three minutes between surfacing from my last dive, getting on the boat, moving to another spot and diving again. The Strikeline numbers were so good that we didn’t even bother to check the sounder. Each time we came up to a green X on the GPS, I would dive in and some piece of structure was there. I wasn’t interested in potential fishy spots. I wasn’t interested in only one or two shootable fish. If the spot wasn’t loaded, we moved on. My first round of selection collected maybe one in ten spots. I would then go back each day and eliminate them if they weren’t holding 100% of the time. I spent the first few days diving only Strikeline natural bottom numbers. I then moved into the public artificials. I was shocked by how many fish were on them. Large gags, giant mangroves, some hogs and sheepshead, and then the typical large structure pelagics like barracudas and jacks. I knew they would be a critical part of the tournament. I spent about two weeks in Clearwater and ten days in the water scouting. I guarantee I worked harder than anyone else there.
Two days before the tournament, my plan was in place and solid. It consisted roughly of hitting the public artificials first and then moving off into the smaller natural bottom. I got a message from Sean at Salinity Gear saying he might have something I would be interested in. A cobia and a large cubera on one of the shallow artificials for the day 2 zone. I hate to change my plan and think of both those fish as very unreliable. The spot was nowhere near my cluster of points either and I was reluctant to even investigate. Sam was resting so Jacob and I headed out for our last day of scouting. First we headed to Sean’s spot. On my first drop this 30 pound cubera swims right up to my face. I was stunned. Each of the next ten dives this was repeated. Somewhere in these first few dives a solid cobia started following me around. I now had to make a new plan.
What’s incredible about scouting is the way the fish interact with you when you aren’t shooting at the first thing you see. The gags swim right up and all line up in a row. The hogs all circle in front of your face. And the red snappers just stare at you. It isn’t that they know you don’t have a gun. It’s the difference in the way you are acting towards them. This is the way you want to hunt. I am a firm believer in not firing on reef fish from anywhere but the bottom. Pretty much everything will swim right back over to you once you’ve settled in on the bottom. Most importantly the real trophy. The one you never would have seen had you shot that first gag on the drop. One of the many things tournament diving teaches you.
Day one was my weak zone. I had spent the least amount of time scouting it and felt less prepared there. I had only one unreliable red snapper, no special pelagics, and only one red grouper. The day turned out great though. We started on the Veterans reef area and had a large rubble pile all to ourselves. Right away we picked a few nice mangroves with Sam shooting a monster. Unfortunately no cudas were home but I figured we would grab them later. We ran from here to my unreliable red snapper spot. He seemed to have a wide range up and down this ledge and I always saw him in a different place. He had an obvious spear wound on his head and was rightfully terrified of me. Despite visiting the ledge three times on comp day I never saw him. I found my big red grouper and to my surprise another big red grouper I had never seen before. I ended up as the only person to weigh a red grouper day one and I had two. I had a steady pick throughout the day on mangroves, hogs, mackerel, and groupers. Sam was crushing it too and landed a beautiful gag. I was pretty nervous about the cuda but eventually pulled a small one off a ledge. I now only had two slots left in my 20 fish limit. At the very end of the day on a plan b mediocre spot I found a red snapper. My next drop I got my last mackerel and had my 20 fish. We ran back to the large artificial to look for a cuda for Sam and with only a few min left she shot one bigger than mine. On the ride in I was feeling pretty confident. I definitely did better than I expected which is usually not the case.
Back at the dock we got quite the reality check by GR Tarr, Ritchie Zacker, and Cameron Kirkconnell. They each had multiple bonita. As you know bonita fish are big. The scoring system gave us one point per fish and one point per pound up to 20 lbs. So a 12 lb bonita next to my 1 lb mackerel was pretty huge. They each had bonitas, massive cudas, a few jack crevalles and the normal reef fish. Turns out there was a large private wreck that they all went to that I never knew existed. They were always the ones to beat and they were proving it. I was a bit bummed in 4th place men’s but Sam was beyond stoked in 4th place women’s division.
Day two I was much more confident but still a bit shocked at the previous days catches. I had my plan but no clue if those guys would come in with huge pelagic catches. We had an hour or travel time before we could enter the water. This made it more fair for the guys with smaller boats. Today, my teenage crew had the day off and Sean from Salinity Gear was driving. It was much rougher and I was happy to have some more experience in the captain position. I had a public wreck that consistently was holding small jacks. I knew from the previous day that pelagics would be extremely important. I also had my pet cubera. There was no way to be at both at once but I sort of made that happen. I timed the run from the starting point to the cubera at 12 minutes, and the run from there to the jacks at 20 min. I ran first right for the cubera and suited up. We waited there until the last possible second to be sure nobody was going there. With 20 minutes to go until the start, we left the cubera spot and made the run offshore to the large barge where my jacks lived. Three boats were already there and did not look thrilled when I pulled in just minutes before go time. I hopped in and did three really fast dives exactly where I knew the jacks hung out. Luckily on my third one they came in and I grabbed one. I did a few more dives then we raced back inshore to the cubera number. This little trip added 40 minutes round trip of traveling within shooting time. Something I would never have done except that I knew no one would be on it when we arrived. Unfortunately my pet cubera wasn’t home. I was pretty upset but that’s how tournaments go. We picked away at the mangroves and then raced back offshore to hit my cluster of natural bottom. From here I had a steady pick of hogs, porgy, sheepshead, grouper, and a red snapper. As the day went on it became rougher and rougher, visibility dropped and the current started ripping. I had passed on quite a few fish knowing the day before I finished early. Today my last hour was full panic mode. I still had no cuda and no second gag and no fifth mangrove despite seeing each of them all day. We raced to my starting jack wreck but there were three boats on it. We abandoned it for the Rube Alyn area which I had only partially explored. The Strikeline numbers within the artificial zone were phenomenal. Tiny pieces of structure that had rolled away from the main bits. I jumped in on one I hadn’t been to before and was thrilled to see it stacked with grouper. I lost Sam in the waves and it was nearly impossible to stay on the spot. Using all of my hunting ability I finally closed the gap on the biggest grouper in the school and rolled it. That would be the end of me doing things right for the day. With the shaft firmly stuck in the groupers head I pushed it through and cut the line. I now had 20 minutes left to get a cuda. I re-tied really quickly and knew I missed a wrap with the bloody frayed line. I figured I would stone the cuda anyways. I picked out a mediocre one from the school aimed for a stone shot and just clipped the gills and tore off. I was pretty panicky now thinking about all the time and money invested in this and the kook mistakes I was making. Next shot the cuda ripped line and the knot came undone taking my shaft. My watch battery was dead I had no idea what time it was but knew it was getting really close. I yelled for the boat and Sean threw me another gun. Sam already had her cuda and was on the boat with it. My backup gun was a tiny 75 pathos with one band I usually use in holes. The cuda were terrified now but I landed a shot on the first one I saw and got it in the boat just in time. He was embarrassingly small but legal.
I was happy it was over and I had a chance to fill my last second categories. Sam was thrilled with her fish and without even clearing off the deck we headed for the inlet. It was pretty obvious no-one quite had the luck from the day before. Maybe it was the worse conditions or maybe the A team just got lucky with those bonitas on day one. My good friend Justin Lee and Hecs Team diver won the day and bumped himself into 5th. Cameron dropped into 7th. GR remained in 1st with Ritchie tight on his heels in 2nd. I bumped ahead into 3rd ending up on the podium. Sam remained in 4th and may have been the happiest person there.
Every competition is about capitalizing on as many opportunities as you are presented with and maximizing the number of those opportunities through scouting. This time I definitely had my share of missed opportunities but what I’m really concerned with is making less and less of these each time.
At the awards banquet GR received a standing ovation from all in the room. No-one is more deserving than him, to win this in his backyard and have his name forever inscribed on the Owen Churchill trophy. The same for Ritchie, both local legends and phenomenal ambassadors for the sport. If I had to lose I was happy it was to them. FSDA put on a great event complete with a seafood feast, great awards, and zero protests. Thanks Bill Van Deman for all your hard work. Thanks to Hecs Aquatic for supporting Justin Lee, Spencer Haskins, and myself through this event and providing us with the best wetsuits in the world.
GR has always said the best diver is the one having the most fun. I think we can all agree that GR is the best diver in more ways than one.
Watch 2018 National Championship Video
Check out Strikelines Charts for the best points in Tampa and Clearwater
FINAL RESULTS (Top 20):