PALMETTO – In its 33-year history, the Crosthwait Memorial Fishing Tournament had never seen a fish like this.
The action started May 13, when crews for the 15-offshore boats left following a brief captain’s meeting. The afternoon weather was perfect, allowing the heavy hitters to run to the depths of the Gulf of Mexico.
Defending champions, team Jumbo Shrimp and Capt. Paul Christie, knew what his team wanted to do: Catch big fish.
“Everyone has a plan,” Christie said. “This time we actually did it.”
The first part of that plan involved targeting Warsaw grouper. Their value in the tournament would max out at 100 points regardless of weight, so Christie was going to be happy with one around 70 pounds.
“All we wanted was the points,” he said.
Christie’s brother-in-law, Anthony Panipinto, lowered a line more than 600 feet into the Gulf of Mexico where it would be inhaled by a monster.
“It wasn’t that big of a bait. At first I was convinced he hooked the bottom, but he was swearing he had a fish,” Christie described. “We were all helping, trying to get the fish to move up and it wasn’t really doing anything. The line was slowly coming in and it took a little while to realized it was hooked, that’s when I knew it was a fish.
“We were just hoping the hook and line wouldn’t break and it wouldn’t get into the structure below.”
After 30 minutes of back and forth, the gigantic Warsaw on the other end surfaced, allowing Christie to see just how big it truly was.
“We’ve caught a lot of Goliath grouper, but never a Warsaw or Goliath that big.”
The next problem involved getting the fish into the boat. It didn’t fit through the tuna door, so they had to rig a makeshift pulley over the t-top.
“As we’re doing this I was paranoid that anything that can go wrong will go wrong like a big shark coming up to the side of the boat to eat it. We all pulled on the rope and got it up to the gunnel, and then it fell in the boat.”
The beast was placed in the largest hatch of the boat where it barely fit.
Team Jumbo Shrimp kept fishing, and Christie’s plan continued to come together. By Saturday morning, the crew added a 27-pound tuna, 29-pound kitty Mitchell grouper and two swordfish. At 2 p.m. Saturday, they landed a 40-pound wahoo, the sixth and final fish needed for the multispecies weigh-in. By Saturday night, they were headed home to sleep in their own beds.
For Sunday afternoon’s weigh-in, the crowd at the Bradenton Yacht Club was already at fever pitch with big fish coming to the scales. Christie’s crew was saved for last, for good reason. The Yacht Club’s crane was called into action in order to lift the Warsaw out of the boat.
When the weigh-in crew finally brought the beast to the scales, cameras and phones were hoisted high as everyone wanted a picture. “347-pounds!” was announced to a raucous ovation.
Jumbo Shrimp’s catch brought home 537 points and the title for a repeat victory worth $10,000.
Second-place team Seaveeche and Capt. Danny Pool trailed by only 16 points, ending with 521. They also brought in a Warsaw grouper at 76 pounds along with a true black grouper of 25 pounds, an amberjack of 76 pounds, swordfish worth 100 points and two blackfin tuna of 32 and 28 pounds.
“The weather was absolutely perfect, and this is always our favorite tournament to fish,” Seaveeche’s Jay Travis said. “We’re always looking forward to it and will be back next year.”
Third place went to team Sea Saw/Blenker Boatworks, which also joined the big Warsaw grouper club by weighing in a 167 pounder. Their other fish included 31- and 30-pound blackfin tuna, 86- and 63-pound amberjack and a 20-pound black grouper.
“On Friday night, we had our filler fish, the Warsaw, two big amberjack and two big tuna,” Sea Saw’s B.J. Grant said. “We spent Saturday looking for big carbos, wanting a pair of 40-pounders. They are a tough species to target on the west coast.
“We caught giants last August and September but most likely they were still down near the Dry Tortugas for their spawn, so we ended up with a pair of smaller fish. I’ll be back to target them again later this summer.”
Fourth went to The Ripper and Capt. Matt Taylor. Their catch included a blue marlin, swordfish, 21- and 20-pound tuna, and 10- and 9-pound mahi. Fifth went to Knot Home and Capt. Gene Tharpe. Their catch included a pair of large kingfish at 47 and 34 pounds, a 30- and 28-pound tuna, and pair of red grouper of 12 and 8 pounds.
This article originally appeared in the Miami Herald on May 22, 2016.