Face to Face

Brian Lee July 26, 2011

Sport or savage, spearfishing is a proven technique that has been around since the beginning of time. Prehistoric cave drawings depict speared fish and we know ancient Egyptians were well versed in this method of fishing. References to fish spears also appear in the bible, with early civilizations around the globe familiar with hunting fish with nothing more than a sharpened stick.

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Photo: Brian Lee

As a certified freedive instructor with Freedive Instructors International and captain of the USA Spearfishing Team, I’ve had the privilege of traveling the world in search of the most fertile waters. With international experience observing and hunting exotic pelagic and demersal species acquaintances often ask, “If you had to choose one destination to spearfish for the rest of your life, where would it be?”

Here in the Sunshine State there’s a noticeable separation between recreational rod and reel fishermen and spearfishermen. This I cannot understand, as we are all anglers simply using different tools to accomplish the same task.

My answer is always the same, “Florida.”

While it’s certainly exciting to visit a foreign destination, when I return from a trip abroad I simply can’t wait to round up my friends and get back into our local waters. There’s something to be said about fishing familiar grounds where predators are plentiful and the water is relatively warm year-round. In addition, our fisheries are well managed compared to many international locales and the abundance and variety of species available is about as good as it gets.

Here in the Sunshine State there’s a noticeable separation between recreational rod and reel fishermen and spearfishermen. This I cannot understand, as we are all anglers simply using different tools to accomplish the same task. We all care about the natural resources we have before us and we are all willing to protect them. If you think about it, spearfishing isn’t as degrading to the environment as traditional fishing with rod and reel. When spearing, there is no terminal tackle ever left behind and bycatch is eliminated as we stalk and shoot only our intended target. One thing is certainly clear; with a huge surge in spearfishing the gap between recreational anglers and spearfishermen is diminishing as an increasing number of dedicated anglers are spending time underwater.

If you’ve never had a chance to peer into the sea, it’s truly amazing to witness game fish in their own environment. By spending time underwater you will get a much better comprehension of the layout of area reefs and wrecks and more importantly, you gain a tremendous amount of insight into fish behavior. Spearfishing clearly makes you a better angler. While it’s obvious that I’m a spearfish junkie, I also enjoy probing the seas with traditional fishing tackle. On many days we start trolling early in the morning and as the sun starts heating things up, we throw on our gear and jump in.

At the most basic level, spearfishing involves holding your breath and swimming to a depth where targeted game fish are likely to be holding. The benefit of freediving is that it enables you to stalk spooky predators without the use of obtrusive SCUBA equipment. Before we get ahead of ourselves, it’s important to understand that freediving can be a dangerous activity and shouldn’t be attempted without the proper training. Shallow water blackout is the loss of consciousness due to a lack of oxygen reaching the brain, and the greatest danger to freedivers. Unfortunately, this life-threatening condition has killed too many freedivers over the years, although with the proper training many of these deaths could have been prevented.

There are numerous freediving instruction facilities that offer classes on specialized diving and breathing techniques. Not only covering safety precautions, freediving classes benefit both novice and advanced spearfishermen by allowing them to spend increased periods underwater. You’ll also gain the confidence to dive deeper.

While the necessary equipment is indeed basic, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of technology and methodology used in the design and selection process. First, your mask should be of low volume, meaning it should hold less air space than a typical dive mask. This will make it easier to equalize and adjust to the surrounding pressure. Your snorkel should be a basic J design to eliminate any excessive drag during your dive. A weight belt will help you achieve neutral buoyancy and limit your oxygen usage. Your weight belt should be made of soft, pliable rubber material so the belt can stretch as your body contracts and expands during descents and ascents. It should also feature a quick release buckle for emergency situations.

While you may be spearfishing in tropical waters, wetsuits should be utilized for both thermal and exposure protection. The wetsuit you select should also be designed to expand and contract with your chest movements. Camouflage patterns are quickly gaining popularity with underwater hunters looking to mask their silhouette.

You may think that fins are pretty much standardized, but this is simply not the case. Experienced freedivers use long blade fins to provide fast, efficient kicking strokes requiring much less energy than conventional fins. Dive computers and advanced watches are also used to monitor maximum depth, bottom time and surface intervals. Last but not least, dive flags must be displayed anytime a spearfisherman is in the water.

Interestingly, there are many species of game fish that can be legally taken by hook and line that cannot be taken by spear. Tripletail, permit, pompano, snook, redfish and African pompano are just a few of the species that are off limits. There are also places that are illegal to spearfish where conventional fishing is allowed, such as off a public swimming beach, near any commercial or public pier, or any part of a bridge from which public fishing is permitted. Be sure to visit myfwc.com for a full list of prohibited species in addition to the latest spearing rules and regulations.

As a responsible hunter, I take pride in spearfishing and consider myself a steward of the sea. I only take what I can eat fresh and spend most of my time looking for trophy fish. The stereotype of a spearfisherman swimming to depth and shooting everything that swims is grossly incorrect. We wait, we observe and we stalk. On occasion, the fish get lucky and we never even cross paths. But hey, that is why it’s called fishing.

Pick Your Weapon

Now that you’ve completed a training course and are outfitted with the proper equipment, it’s time to select your weapon. There are several types of spears available and your selection will be a result of your preference, geographic location, and required stopping power.

A pole spear offers the ultimate in simplicity, with nothing more than a spear attached to an elastic loop. While cost effective, pole spears are limited in their range and accuracy.

A Hawaiian sling has a design similar to a slingshot and offers a bit more range and stopping power. However, the most popular option for serious underwater hunters is a speargun. Powerful and accurate, spearguns are available in a range of power and sizes. We typically fish with shorter guns between 90CM and 110CM with one or two bands around shallow reefs and ledges. Small, short guns are easy to maneuver and swing around for that quick shot on manageable reef fish. Don’t be fooled though, as big targets can be taken if you have an accurate shot.

Mid-sized guns between 120CM and 130CM outfitted with two or three bands are the most versatile option for Florida spearfishermen. Longer guns over 140CM with four to five bands are used when stalking powerful tuna, wahoo, kingfish, amberjack and cobia.

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