The dangerous allure of spearfishing
If there’s a more difficult way to catch open-ocean, fast-moving fish than with a speargun, nobody knows what it is. Known as blue-water hunting, it takes place miles offshore, where the ocean is deep blue and the fish are few and far between. It is fishing’s equivalent of African big game hunting, only with sharks and no powerful rifle. On the plus side, if you do manage to kill something, you get to eat it, rather than stuff it and hang it in the den. In short, hunting big, powerful game fish like tuna, yellowtail and even marlin with nothing but a speargun is the ultimate way to put yourself at a major disadvantage to the fish.
“Spearfishing is tough because as humans we’re totally out of our element in the ocean. If you throw a human in the water and tell them to get a fish, it’s not going to be very productive,” says Ryan Moore, a local “spearo” sponsored by Riffe International, a premier spearfishing company based in San Clemente. “So you have fins to move around, a wetsuit to stay warm, a mask to see, weights to help dive, a snorkel to breathe. And on and on. There are so many pieces of gear that have to come together effectively to be a hunter in the water.”
And even then, he says, you’re still on the fish’s terms. Consider that tuna can reach speeds of almost 50 mph and the best bluewater gun has an effective range of under 30 feet. Normally, you’ll have to get within 10 to 20 feet of your prey, without cover, without it identifying you as a threat, and on one breath, sometimes diving to 100 feet or more. Translation: Even if you’re very lucky and very good, you’re still probably eating chicken for dinner.
And if you do manage to spear the fish, you’ll still need to land it. Because of the power of big, pelagic fish, and the distinctly anti-human environment they stubbornly inhabit, most bluewater hunters use what’s known as a breakaway system, in which the spear is attached to a long bungee, which in turn is attached to a large float. The spear is shot into the fish, and the bungee and float keep it from sounding while the spearfisherman chases the float or holds on for a ride. Picture that scene in “Jaws” when the barrels get ripped off the deck. Really big tunas and marlin take more than one float. Often, after a long fight, it takes another shot, a backup shot with another gun, to finish off the fish.
Despite all that, and the low odds of success, spearfishing is a trend that has grown exponentially in the past few years thanks to the popularity, especially among youth, of becoming a “complete waterman,” able to handle even the most hostile of ocean environments or situations. And there’s no denying that bluewater spearfishing is as dangerous as it is tough.
“The danger is very real. People do black out. They do get tangled in lines. And there are sharks out there,” says Moore.
In fact shallow-water blackout, the loss of consciousness due to lack of oxygen after holding your breath too long, kills hundreds of spearfisherman every year. Most bluewater hunters carry two knives to prevent the dangers of tangling in a line attached to, say, a 200-pound speared and freaked-out tuna intent on escaping into the depths. And when sharks come around, the bluewater hunter is either battling a bleeding and wounded fish or drifting in a column of bloody fish guts known as chum – again, picture the “Jaws” scene where Brody is shoveling chum over the stern to attract the great white, only in this version, Hooper jumps over the side with a spear.
But the uncontrollable might also be part of the reason spearfishing has gained such popularity. In a world that’s becoming more technical, more artificial and more frenetic, going far offshore into a primitive environment with little more than a spear and the simple goal of bringing back a big fish for dinner offers the rawest form of escape.
To that end, Moore routinely travels to remote and desolate places to hunt big fish. But last summer, Moore and other bluewater hunters didn’t have to venture far at all. Thanks to El Niño, it was the strongest Southern Californian fishing season he’s ever witnessed. Moore shot many yellowtail, mahi mahi and bluefin tuna, one over 80 pounds, in the waters off Orange County. He says this summer is shaping up to be, if not as good, pretty darn close.
Moore also believes that spearfishing is finally getting its due as a sustainable fishing method. There is no catch-and-release form of spearfishing. But, ironically, that’s one reason it’s the most responsible way to fish. “If you look at it compared to all the other types of fishing, it’s obvious that it’s the most selective. You choose the individual species, you know the size, and there’s no by-catch,” he says.
Plus, because bluewater spearfishing is so darn hard, it’s not uncommon for even the best bluewater hunters to spend all day in the ocean and never even pull the trigger. Moore says that means most bluewater hunters take very few fish but that it also makes landing a fish all that much more rewarding.
“When we come home with a big fish, it’s a celebration. We have a strong connection to that fish,” he says. True, because to get it you’ve likely looked it right in the eye and were within feet of the animal when taking your shot. Pulling the trigger is intimate, weighty, personal.
Like saltwater fly-fishing, however, bluewater spearfishing will have you shelling out hundreds of dollars for gear, at the very least – good gear will cost you thousands. For instance, a top bluewater gun will be made of teak, be in the 60-inch-plus range and cost well over $1,000. Another $650 for bungee and float, $500 for a wetsuit, $400 for long blade fins, $150 for mask and snorkel, $50 for weights and weight belt.
So why spend so much to make fishing even harder? Easy, says Moore. It’s a lifestyle, not a sport. Akin to surfing, rock climbing and other nature activities heralded as more spiritual than sporty, bluewater spearfishing is done for the experience. Because let’s face it, these guys aren’t in it for the fish. Tuna is cheaper at a five-star restaurant, safely delivered, cleaned and cooked. But what’s the fun in that?