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Hunters of the Abyss

With speargun in hand and a lungful of air, you, too, can hunt with the fishes.

November 1, 2000
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I’m 20 feet below the surface and 2,000 feet above the bottom. Fish scales twinkle all around me. The source of this aquatic confetti? Right above me, there’s a school of 20-pound yellowtail feeding under a kelp paddy. Me? I’m freediving, hovering over the abyss while holding my breath, no oxygen mask at my disposal. My speargun’s cocked. My senses are hyped. The hunt is on.

Head on a swivel, I flick off the Omer speargun’s safety and move with Zen-like grace to conserve air and avoid spooking the school. It’s been almost a minute since my last gulp of air. The need to breathe is becoming all consuming, but primal instinct reigns supreme. I wiggle my fingers to attract the circling school. Then, I cut them off like a pilot in a dogfight. Fifteen feet in front of me, they cross the kill zone. I need air. I try to relax, aim high – God, they’re beautiful. I tickle the trigger. Whoa! A big mahi-mahi, another hunter, swims between me and the yellows. No time to think. Need to breathe. Aim…squeeze…thwwwpt…

Spearfishing isn’t ordinary fishing. There’s no staying atop the boat, dropping a line, and hoping for the best. It’s hunting. Drop over the gunwale and you become part of the food chain, connected to the ocean on intimate terms. You become the hunted as well as the hunter – sharks, seals, and other predators may find spearfishermen to be a tasty treat. Why would any sane person set himself up as lunch in the quest for dinner? “You never know what you’re going to see on the next dive, and that thrill is exhilarating,” says David Smith, of McClean, Virginia, who freedives off the shores of Delaware, Virginia, and North Carolina. “Fish spend 24 hours a day avoiding being eaten – and they’re good at it. Trying to beat them at their own game poses an interesting challenge.”

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To experience that challenge firsthand, we joined some of the world’s best bluewater hunters. The tips and techniques we learned are fascinating. Ready to hunt the abyss? Read on.

A Wave of Popularity

Top undersea hunters, including Californian Terry Maas and Greek champion Andreas Agathos, routinely hold their breath for two minutes or more and dive to 100 feet. But you can participate if you can remain at 25 feet for about a minute. John Ernst, who has won so many spearfishing championships that a prestigious trophy is named after him, says the average depth of tournament-winning kills occurs at only 35 feet.

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Don’t think this sport is only for spring chickens, either. Many of the world’s best breath-hold divers are in their 50s. Jay Riffe, now 53, nailed a world-record, 278-pound yellowfin tuna off Baja in 1991, at the age of 44. Age, apparently, isn’t important when you’re stalking big fish. Or being stalked by them. “But,” Riffe cautions, “you have to be comfortable in that kind of situation.” In other words, an adventurous spirit is most assuredly an asset.

Of course, not all spearfishing takes place in the deep. But the clearest water – a key element in this sight – based game-and the biggest, meanest fish are primarily found offshore, under mats of seaweed and above deep pinnacles and submarine canyons.

DEEP OPS

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To hunt the blue water properly, you need the right boat. The Viking 35 we used sports an all-weather dive platform. A dry-riding boat with a self-bailing cockpit that sheds boarding seas is essential if you want to safely get to where the big ones live. And you’ll want a roomy cockpit as a base of operation. Large ice chests, used to stow your kills, take up a lot of space. Bill Wagner, president of the San Diego Freedivers, places such a high value on cockpit space that he removed the motor well from his 21′ Chris-Craft Walkaround and installed its 175-hp Mercury outboard on a bracket. He eliminated two built-in fishboxes to create even more room. A 180-quart ice chest carries his fish.

A center console, such as Captain David Parsons’ diesel-powered 34 Sea Vee, Hakuna Matata, fills the bill for adventures launched off the balmy coast of South Florida. But for Pacific and Northeast spearfishers, a cabin in which to warm up between hunts is essential. Chilled limbs make for slow reflexes. Spearfishing guru Maas, who holds the Pacific bluefin spearfishing record (398 pounds) as well as the North American black marlin record (188 pounds), agrees. He warms up after long sessions in 69-degree water aboard his 26 Wilson Walkaround. By running the hot discharge water from his Volvo Penta diesel down into his wetsuit, he creates an instant custom-fit hot tub. A Y-valve makes this possible. “Sometimes that warm water saves my life,” he says. A swim step is essential. The step on Maas’ boat runs the width of the transom. For added safety, he deploys a 150′-long drift line with a float that’s tied off and trailed aft in the current. If the current pushes a surfacing bluewater hunter – often struggling with a large catch – past the anchored boat, this line can be a lifesaver.

Dive flags are another critical piece of safety equipment. But don’t count on fellow boaters to recognize their significance. “A month doesn’t go by in which we haven’t had a close call,” says Wagner, who has had one of his divers hit by a 38′ sportfisherman, even though his boat and crew were marked by flags. Keeping a sharp lookout is critical, even in sparsely trafficked offshore waters. Attach the standard red dive flag with its white diagonal stripe on a float tied to a weight belt. Also, fly the international code flag Alpha from the boat. This “diver down” symbol is blue and white with a chevron cut from its edge. Both flags warn fellow boaters to stay back at least 100 yards. But also remember that not everyone is literate in the marine flag lexicon, so stay alert.

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More tools of the trade? Maas recommends specialty ground tackle. “We anchor on deep pinnacles, 70 or 100 feet down, with a huge six-prong, 30-pound anchor, 3/4″ anchor line, and a lot of chain.” He also uses an anchor retrieval method rather than a windlass, which is familiar to most wreck fisherman. To weigh anchor, he simply drives the boat upwind at an angle to the rode until the anchor pulls free and rises to the surface.

No self-respecting spearfisherman uses scuba gear. Too unsporting. But you will need a high-quality mask, snorkel, swim fins, a wetsuit, and a weight belt. Since many wrecks are festooned with old fishing line, don’t go below without a dive knife so you can cut yourself free from a tangle.

THE ARTILLERY

Then there’s the speargun. These are available in enough variety and killing power to satisfy Charleton Heston. You can use a pole spear, also called a Hawaiian sling. These look like a long dowel with three prongs and are operated by the hunter’s arm strength. But larger, more powerful rubber-band-powered guns are the weapon of choice for serious deepwater nimrods.

In Hawaii and along the East Coast, most freedivers use lightweight, single-band guns that float. That’s important because after you shoot a fish, you need to release the gun and pull yourself hand-over-hand down the shooting line to grab the fish. Carbon-fiber models, like the Omer I used, are especially light and maneuverable. Additionally, carbon fiber adds strength to the gun. This allows the gun to be loaded with larger rubber bands, providing even more propellant energy.

In California, where American spearfishing was born in the 1940s, the guns have always been heavier, engineered with either metal or teak stocks and precision-machined slip-tip spears. Most big-game guns carry a reel made of metal or high-impact plastic with several hundred feet of 300-pound test monofilament leader connected to the shooting line. But if you’re going for monster fish, don’t even think about a reel. Instead, attach the shooting line to a drag line with buoys. When you shoot a fish, the spear and line become completely detached from the gun. The fish then drags the buoy-instead of the hunter-until lactic-acid poisoning kills it.

There are numerous brands of spearguns on the market, including those from Riffe, JBL, Bandito, Omer, and Picasso. Prices range from about $200 for a simple pole spear up to $1,600 for one of William Kitto’s custom tuna guns.

But before you start buying guns, you need to know where you’ll be hunting and the kind of fish you’re after. For pelagic monsters like tuna, you’ll want a big rig with plenty of power such as Riffe’s 67″ Baja Plus. This is made of heavy-duty teak and uses four bands.

The best way to get started is to borrow a gun from an experienced buddy, then try out a different one. After testing a bunch, decide what’s best for you. Or if there’s a freediving club near you, join it and learn from others. You can also sign on to one of the numerous Web sites devoted to freediving (www.spearfishing.com offers helpful links) and find advice the virtual way. ****

BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD DIVERS

Another rule is to relax. Before a sizable fish will come anywhere near you, you have to look graceful, as if you belong in the sea. “Fish sense everything about you,” says Maas. “They’ll only come near you out of curiosity. If you project any excitement, they’ll go the other way.”

The consensus among accomplished freedivers is to start out snorkeling without a gun. You need to practice being 20′ to 35′ below the surface while holding your breath, being fully suited up, vulnerable, and dangerous. As you progress, you’ll start making contingency plans for the big what-ifs: sharks, sea lions, and other predators. Many freedivers carry powerheads – explosive spear points – that they slip onto their spears in threatening situations. “Like any potentially hazardous endeavor, such as flying, you plan your emergency procedures,” explains Maas, who didn’t have time to put an explosive head on his spear before he killed a 1,000-pound tiger shark with a conventional spear after it charged him.

What should you do if a scary predator has you in his sights? The experts say to get belligerent and coldcock anything that gets too close, either using your gun, fists (wear gloves), or feet. Some divers make sure they can unscrew the barbed tip from their spear shaft, so they can shoot at an aggresive predator, retrieve the spear quickly, reload, and shoot the aggressor again. You can hunt the abyss with a camera instead of a speargun if you like. But you need a killer’s instinct for your own protection.

A VIEW TO KILL

My shot went high. The spear pierced the big mahi-mahi just over the eye. Not a kill shot. The yellowtail school bolted as the wounded mahi went ape in the billowing crimson. I surfaced to breathe, then dove back down and inched my way to the fish, pulling in the shooting line. The spear held. The fish panicked. Eyes wild, its color changed, flashing through innumerable greens, yellows, and blues. I closed my grip around the base of the tail and pinched it under the gills with my other hand. It finally gave up. We were both exhausted on the way up to the boat. But by the time we got there, only one of us was still alive.

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