UNDERWATER FISH WRANGLING
By Pat Williams
Spearfishing has got to be the most polarising method of securing a haul of fresh fillets.
Some of those unversed in the subsurface arts may have preconceived notions that spearing fish is somehow ‘cheating’ or ‘not playing fair’.
This couldn’t be further from the truth and almost anyone who’s tried their hand at spearing or been introduced by someone more experienced drops any prejudices quickly.
Looking at it from an ethical perspective, spearfishing has got to be the most sustainable method of meat-gathering there is. It’s totally selective, there is zero bycatch and almost zero impact on the marine environment, other than extraction of a highly targeted catch.
From an individual perspective, there’s nothing easy about spearing either, as those new to the sport learn immediately.
It requires skill and fitness to consistently bag quality fish by spear, plus a set of brass balls to dive beneath the surface and suddenly give up your place at the top of the food chain.
THE LEARNING CURVE
The high degree of difficulty that’s intrinsic to spearing ensures that success is extra rewarding when it does come.
Safety is the most important lesson that newby spearos need to stamp into their brains, and the best way is to commit to only hitting the water with a dive buddy; someone to watch your back and help make calls regarding conditions
Shallow water blackouts are a real threat even to experienced divers, and you’ve only got a short window to react and evade brain damage or even drowning if a blackout occurs.
It’s ultra important to recognise the signs of a blackout and to watch your dive buddy’s back at all times, particularly if you’re both still learning the ins and outs of the sport.
Researching your dive spots prior to getting wet is another important factor for those learning the ropes. The most crucial aspects are easy, safe access to and from the water.
Many newcomers start out in calmer waters around jetties and within protected bays, before advancing to more exposed open ocean spots fronting headlands and over reefs and wrecks further offshore.
A dive knife strapped to your belt or ankle is a key bit of kit, not only for dispatching your catch, but as a last resort for freeing yourself if you were to ever find yourself tangled up in a speargun line, other rope or netting while underwater.
BUILD YOUR SKILL SET
Fitness is the fast track to feeling at ease under water and boosting your spearfishing skill set quick.
The stronger your swimming and the better you get at managing air, the better your diving will become and before you know it you’ll be able to stay under water longer, stalk fish and start getting some runs on the board.
Any sort of cardio work helps to some degree, but there’s no substitute for simply getting out regularly and spending more time in the water.
Visibility is another crucial slice of the game; you’ll never spear a fish you can’t see.
It’s definitely worth finding some clear water to practice in. Learn which factors affect the visibility at your local spots, and learn to time your sessions to coincide with favourable conditions.
Although it sounds counter-intuitive at first, you’ll quickly come to appreciate how much easier spearfishing becomes with dive weights. While strapping heavy lead weights around your waist might sound like hard work, it actually makes things far easier as you’ll find you’re no longer expending as much energy to swim deep and stay down there.
You end up expending less energy, burning through less oxygen while getting further. Your catch rate will shoot through the roof once you can comfortably spend a couple of minutes beneath the surface on a single breath.
Spend a little bit of time ironing out the basic snorkeling techniques to de-fog your mask and clear your snorkel and you’ll quickly feel a lot more comfortable in the depths.
Nothing but practice will get you to the point of easy three-minute plus breath holds that a lot of salty longterm spearos seem to execute with such ease. But there are a few things you can do to get comfortable for longer stints beneath the waves.
A quality set of dive fins are another essential item that allow you to move around smoothly while conserving oxygen and energy.
Staying warm in a quality wetsuit, while actively focusing on moving slowly and keeping your heart rate low will all help you to feel comfortable for longer and increase your maximum breath hold time fairly quickly.
Once you’re at a point where you can stake out a spot on the bottom behind a rock or structure for a minute or two and wait for a fish to come along, you’ve got a massive advantage over those who patrol from the surface and have to chase down any fish they spot.
Some old school guys will tell you that it’s worth taking baby steps and learning to spear with a hand spear before progressing to a speargun.
There’s some truth in this, but you’re also certainly at a huge advantage the moment you invest in a proper spear gun. You’re looking at around $300 for a good quality gun.
On top of this, there are at least a couple hundred bucks worth of accessories required before hitting the water.
Unless you’re plying tropical waters, you’ll notice that your body temperature tends to drop pretty quickly when diving. This is due to the fairly low level of energy expended while cruising along the surface. If you’re only in the water for short stints, you can get away with using a 3/2mm steamer, although most divers tend to go for a 4/3mm.
If you’re hunting in cooler waters way down south, or like to spend hours in the water at a time, you may need to invest in a set of rubber booties and a hood to keep your body temperature up.
A high quality mask and snorkel is absolutely necessary. Don’t bother with the cheap department store specials, head straight to your local dive store and pick out a tempered glass mask with quality matching snorkel.
Keeping a perfect seal between the mask and your face is the key to keeping water out. Shaving your face right before leaving home and applying Vaseline to your cheeks immediately before putting on your mask is a handy tip that will improve your comfort in the water and keep visibility at a maximum.
A belt with a dive knife and a couple of dive weights attached are the final bits of kit you need to get started. You can probably start with two dive weights, but might want to add one or two more depending on your body weight and the buoyancy of your wetsuit. More experienced divers will probably want to invest in a buoy and line to keep fish while in the water.
The best way to try your hand is to tag along with a more experienced crew, you’ll probably end up a little out of your comfort zone at first, but that’s the quickest way to learn.
GOOD VISIBILITY – time your trips to avoid periods following big swells or heavy rainfall, both of which can stir up silt and reduce visibility for days.
STRUCTURE – look for spots that have defined structure to hold fish, such as coral reefs or the front of rocky headlands. You won’t find many fish over the top of a barren sandy expanse.
ACCESS – look for a spot with a safe area to get in and out. If you’re diving in the open ocean, you need to be very aware of what the swell is doing, as this can make accessing many spots unsafe. Be aware of the tide and what it’s doing, as some spots are only accessible for a few hours of the day.
Spearfishing is highly regulated around the entire country; ensure that you’re well aware of local regulations, as fisheries officers don’t care about ignorance of the law.
A valid fishing license for the state you’re fishing in is usually required, a fisheries officer may want to see your license if encountered before or after your session.
Spearfishing is generally not allowed in closed bodies of water such as rivers and estuaries, but is allowed in the open ocean, such as over deep-water reefs or in front of rocky headlands. Make sure that you’re aware of any marine parks in the areas that you’re fishing.
Make sure that you’re aware of local bag and size limits for your catch, as well as any species that are specifically banned for spearfishing, such as eastern blue groper in New South Wales.