Ciulla and dive partner Louis Devaliex were competing in the third annual Big Bang Open and the former was watching as the latter struggled to reign in a 20-pound amberjack he had speared at a depth of about 140 feet.
The amberjack dove for the cover of a nearby reef but hidden within the reef was a massive grouper, which darted out and devoured the jack.
"It was insane," Ciulla recalled in a story on the TC Palm website. "To see how big the grouper was, it was huge."
Though Ciulla was already near a depth-limit he considered to be safe, he could not resist pulling the trigger when the grouper presented a broadside target.
It was a perfect shot, behind the gill-plate. The grouper peeled line from Ciulla's reel as it dove. Ciulla, who was pulled downward to about 175 feet, could not stop his reel handle from spinning so he wrapped the line around his right wrist and tried motoring upward with his underwater scooter.
But he went nowhere.
"He was so strong. We were both at a standstill in the water column for about three minutes," Ciulla said.
Daveliex was ready to offer assistance but finally the grouper succumbed and the divers began their slow ascent and decompression maneuvers.
The grouper weighed 82.625 pounds, gutted, so it was much larger as a whole specimen.
Ciulla, who also set a tournament record for heaviest fish speared, called his catch "the fish of a lifetime." He plans to have it made into a mount and displayed prominently on the wall of a restaurant he's close to opening.
Presumably, it's a seafood restaurant.-- Pete Thomas
Photo of John Ciulla with his prized catch provided to TC Palm by Ciulla