Spearfishing 101

by Capt. Eric Billips

Spearfishing 101

What do you get when you combine diving + hunting + fishing?  SPEARFISHING!  Spearfishing is one of the fastest growing trends in adventure sports right now.  But, like other hardcore adventure sports, to get into it, you need proper training and knowledge of local rules and regulations.  So, jump on my shoulders for a tutorial, on the art of spearfishing.

The history of spearfishing dates back thousands of years.  It was the primary form of fishing for many countries, especially during Paleolithic times.  The Cosquer cave in southern France has cave drawings from over 16 000 years ago depicting men spearing fish and seals.  Even the "God of the Sea", Poseidon, is usually depicted carrying a trident.  The history of modern spearfishing is more applicable to present day hunters, free-divers, and all diving in general.  Spearfishing really started gaining popularity in the 1920s.  The coasts of France and Italy were loaded with adventure seekers who were popularizing the sport.  These hunters were constantly looking for advantages in the water.  Because of this, the modern dive mask, snorkel, fins, and wetsuit were developed.  In the 1930s, Italian sport spearfishers started using rebreathers.  This caught the attention of the Italian military and was the genesis for modern day scuba diving.

Capt. Eric Billips- FishMonster MagazineThere are two types of spearfishing.  Free diving, or breath-hold spearfishing, and spearfishing on scuba.  There are many debates that have taken place at oceanside dive bars about which method is better, harder, more exciting, etc.  The debate refers to the countries that allow both spearfishing by breath hold and on scuba.  The United States happens to be one of these countries.  The debate is typically warm-hearted and harmless.  Most seasoned spearos here in the States are both breath hold hunters and bubble blowers and understand the reason both forms are allowed.  But, occasionally, the debate can be heated and misunderstood.  Certain countries do not allow spearfishing at all, and some allow breath hold only, while others allow both breath hold and scuba hunting.  There are multiple reasons for this--one is geography and overfishing.  Many countries that don't allow tank hunting have very limited shallow water areas surrounding their country.  Many areas’ coastlines drop off to extreme depths just a few miles off the coast.  This would allow over-fishing regardless of gear type.  But, we are very fortunate here in the United States.  We have thousands of miles of shallow bottom area.  We also impose regulations regarding size and limits.  Here in the United States, spearfishing is spearfishing.  Call yourself a spearfisherman regardless of your gear, and be proud.

Whether you decide to spearfish by freediving or on scuba, you need to get the proper training.  This statement could not be more important to abide by.  If done correctly with proper training, spearfishing is a fun, rewarding. and safe sport.  If done without proper training, it can be deadly.  So, after reading this, if the sport of spearfishing interests you, I'll supply a few training agencies for both freediving and scuba that you can contact to get the proper training to ensure safe, sustainable, and successful spearfishing.

For the sake of simplicity, we are going to focus on spearfishing on scuba for this article.  I will definitely follow up with an article on freediving.  Stay tuned to this magazine/website for that.

The first step is becoming a certified scuba diver.  Once that is complete (and you log some dives), you can now dive into underwater hunting.  Like any other sport, spearfishing requires a certain skill level.  Before you decide to take on the added task of hunting underwater in a sometimes unforgiving ocean environment, you have to ask yourself if your dive skills are ready for it.  Divers should have at least an intermediate skill level.  You should be comfortable with your air consumption, buoyancy and navigation skills.  Also, when spearfishing, compared to just recreational diving, you'll be swimming at an increased rate.  Plus, the added adrenaline rush of shooting, fighting, and stringing up fish, can overexert a diver in poor physical condition.  So, get certified, get some experience diving, get in good health, and then take up the exciting sport of spearfishing.

Once you're a decent scuba diver and decide to get into spearfishing, you need to purchase some gear.  All your recreational scuba gear will work for spearing, but there are some upgrades and necessities that will give you some advantages and keep you safe.  So, before your spearfishing class begins, pick up the following:

  • Black skirted mask: This works like your standard ball cap by preventing light from entering the mask through the sides and helps with stalking prey.
  • Long blade fins: These fins will give you the added power needed to ambush wary fish.
  • Camo wetsuits: Not critical, but they are super cool looking and do aid in confusing fish.
  • Gloves: An absolute necessity;  there are sharp objects on the guns, stringer, and fish.  You will surely cut your hands on one of them if you don't have a good set of gloves.
Here, also, is some miscellaneous gear worth picking up.
  • Safety sausage: This cheap device could save your life.  It’s easy to get off course when chasing fish.  If you come up and you're in current and can't get back to your boat, inflate this device and you will be seen, picked up, and live to spear another day.
  • Mesh bag: Roll it up and put in your pocket.  You never know when you'll come across some tasty lobster and you'll need a bag to put them in.
  • Camera: You'll see some of the ocean’s craziest critters while spearfishing.  Always have a camera to bring back your experience to the landlubbers.

Now, its time to talk about spearguns.  There are two types of guns--banded and pneumatic.  The pneumatic is a dying trend and only a few old salts continue to use them.  With banded guns being the popular method, we'll focus on them.  The banded gun uses surgical tubing to propel the spearshaft.  The tubing has metal, braided wire, or mono wishbone, at the end of each band.  The tubing is stretched to the base of the spearshaft and the wishbone is fitted into notches on the shaft.  Banded guns come in various lengths and material.  The surgical tubing size corresponds with gun length and the hunter’s individual strength and reach. More times than not, you'll be hunting with a wood banded gun, around 48 inches in length.

One of the most asked questions I get when I bring up spearfishing is, "What about sharks?"  Spearfishermen are rarely threatened by marine life.  There are instances, but many of those could have been avoided or were a direct result of feeding or harassing the animal.  There are a few species that seem to get brought up in any spearfishing conversation.  The first, and most common, is the shark.  Shark attacks on spearfishermen are almost non-existent.  But, sharks are apex predators and you are in their environment.  They may come in for a closer look if you have their menu items hanging on your stringer.  If you feel a little uneasy, simply get out and move to another spot.  Eels are another critter that people wonder about.  They do look menacing and can sport a nasty bite, trust me, but divers who have been bitten by eels were either feeding them or reaching in holes for lobster.  Eels will seldom ever leave their home and are quite shy.  Finally, barracuda, with their gnarly looking teeth, certainly must mess with spearfishermen?  Nope.  They are very curious, and may swim pretty close to get a look, but seldom do anything more than that.

I could go into techniques, safety, hazards, rules and regulations, what fish to shoot, etc., etc., but that really should be something you learn when you go through your course.  This article is to give you the basics about spearfishing and the best and safest way to learn, and, hopefully, wet that adventure whistle.  It’s by no means a replacement for proper training, so I'll leave those details to your instructor.

Now, let’s recap.  If you want to scuba dive, hunt, and fish, all at the same time, and bring home fresh fish with a sustainable method, then spearfishing is for you.  First, get certified in scuba diving.  Next, get some experience in diving; go to Hawaii, the Bahamas, or the Florida Keys and dive, dive, dive.  Then, it’s time to get into spearing.  Grab some needed gear to help you and keep you safe.  And finally, sign up for an underwater hunter course.  After you've completed your course, I assure you, your scuba diving life will never be the same.  You'll constantly want to be diving, while hunting, while fishing.  You will have the fever and the only prescription will be...more spearfishing!

To get scuba certified check out www.padi.com.

To get "underwater hunter" certification check out www.islamoradadivecenter.com or www.spearfishthekeys.com.




Capt. Eric Billips
Capt. Eric Billips

Author

As a Captain and  PADI Master Instructor Capt. Eric is an advocate for safe spearfishing and protecting our oceans resources, Eric has authored books, conducted seminars, and continually teaches this lifestyle at his dive shop. “The Islamorada Dive Center” a full service PADI dive resort located at the Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina 305-664-DIVE (3483)



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