Think Tampa Bay doesn’t have good spearfishing? Think again.
There’s this perception that spearfishing in Tampa Bay is awful. Visibility is too low, there are no structures or reefs, the charters aren’t as experienced as those in South Florida.
Captain T.J. Shea doesn’t believe a word of it.
“The Gulf gets a bad rep on diving,” he says. “The truth is it’s the best for spearfishing. There are lots of quality fish to eat.”
The owner of 2 Shea Charters comes about as close as you can get to being born with a spear in his hand. He says he started diving when was 8 years old, and by 10, he was certified. He launches his boat out of Clearwater Marina and has more than 6,000 dives in the Gulf of Mexico under his belt. Yet he still has an incredible amount of enthusiasm for spearfishing in Tampa Bay. Maybe it’s because the fish he’s hauling back to the boat are monstrous.
On a recent trip out in the Gulf of Mexico, Captain T.J. took us about 60 miles offshore in his custom-built 45-foot Dorado to give us a taste of deep water diving and spearfishing. We visited four locations total before heading back to the marina. By the time we hit shore at sunset, I was sold. Spearfishing isn’t only great in Tampa Bay; the area might be one of the best-hidden spearfishing gems in the state.
It’s all about the captain when it comes to fishing. The right boat, the right gear and most importantly, the right locations, will make or break your trip. I won’t lie; it took us several weeks to find the right day to go out with Captain T.J. and his crew from 2 Shea Charters for our spearfishing story. But when we did get on the boat, the experience was unbeatable.
You don’t need to know how to spearfish to go out with 2 Shea. Captain T.J. and diving partner Leon Watts of Adventure Outfitters offer two options for prospective clients: learn on the fly the day of the trip or take a class prior to going out. Although both options are safe, Captain T.J. assures me that the latter is certainly recommended. All divers must have a valid certification card, however.
“You truly learn everything you need to know once you get in the water,” he says.
So how does this spearfishing thing work, I ask him. Big game fish, he tells me, are naturally inquisitive creatures. Upon entering the water, it’s common for the fish to pop out of their habitat and explore the diver. First mate Sean Edgecomb says they often circle you, at which point you have only one choice: which one is going to be dinner tonight. It’s less hunting and more shooting, he says.
The biggest concern is always visibility. Cloudy weather and chop can drastically alter how good your experience can be. Luckily, Captain T.J. kept us in close contact during our trip. His level of expertise certainly contributes to the experience you get when hiring a spearfishing charter.
Our trip started at 7 a.m. on a Monday. The air was light—not a cloud in the sky—and the water was still like glass. We knew we were in for a good day of fishing.
After a quick rundown of his rules, regulations and safety requirements, we headed west about an hour and a half offshore. Our first stop was a sunken shrimp boat called “Big Daddy.” It’s a location that Captain T.J. uses regularly, but I wouldn’t call it a secret spot. On a clear weekend afternoon, he says the area is teeming with divers looking to spear something good to eat.
Two at a time the crew dropped into the gin-clear water, and it didn’t take long for them to return with an armload of fish. Amberjack, grouper, red snapper; the fish were plentiful and robust. The key to good spearfishing, he tells me upon returning to the boat, is the structures.
The Gulf has a generally flat and desolate seafloor, making it much harder for fish to hide. But it also makes the structures you do find hardy with fish. The key is learning where the natural and man-made hideouts are and loading up from there.
On the boat, Captain T.J. is both serious and fun. He runs a tight ship, literally, but his goal is to make sure everyone has a great time. He’s not the old salt dog-type but more of an educator and facilitator. He’s encouraging and full of knowledge, two qualities that both amateurs and lifelong fishermen can appreciate.
As the day progressed, we hit a set of cargo doors that fell off a barge several years back and a natural sinkhole. New locations yielded the same results. The crew returned after each dive with a bounty of fresh fish. The back of the boat could hardly hold the haul.
Our last stop was an underwater ledge that is known for housing hogfish, one of the most common types of fish that are hunted by spear. Bright orange with an elongated snout and a series of long dorsal fin spines, it has a rich meaty flavor that makes it very sought after by fisherman from across the world. We only pulled in one that day, but Captain T.J. says hogfish are one of his most caught species of fish.
Our trip concluded with a much needed cleanup and the filleting of fish. While the crew tended to the boat, Captain T.J. took to the cutting board and divvied out the fresh fish. The sun pushed its tangerine and blood red textures over the horizon on Clearwater Beach as we departed. We’d spent about 12 hours out in the Gulf yet didn’t have to travel five hours south to Miami or eight hours to the Keys to get one of the best fishing experiences imaginable.
That’s a sentiment that was echoed throughout our day together. How long will the perception remain that Tampa Bay isn’t suitable for spearfishing? Why do locals keep traveling south to spearfish when they can get a great trip here?
It won’t take long if 2 Shea Charters keeps delivering the same results that we saw on our trip. For every fish that’s hauled into the boat from the blue waters and every tall tale about aggressive Goliath grouper, there’s a legend that will spread as far as the Atlantic, up to the Pacific and beyond.
HOOKED ON SPEARFISHING?
2 Shea Charters runs out of a marina in Clearwater, located at 198 Seminole St., Clearwter, FL 33755. Captain T.J. Shea specializes in spearfishing but also offers diving and fishing charters. To schedule a trip with 2 Shea Charters, call 813.385.2169 or visit fishanddivetampa.com.
To schedule a dive lesson or to suit up for your next trip, visit Adventure Outfitters at 4336 S. Manhattan Ave. Tampa, FL 33611 or contact them at 813.832.6669 and adventuretampa.com.