Spearfishing combines the thrill of the hunt with swimming in the ocean and eating healthy, tasty fish. We figured that sounded like fun so, last weekend, paddled kayaks to a remote beach and caught some fish.
This was our very first time spearfishing. Chris (the Neptune lookalike above) and I have both wanted to try it for ages, but the sport has relatively high barriers to entry and very little basic guidance exists online. How do you go spearfishing? Google answers with some random, unhelpful videos and a few forum threads. So, we just took the plunge, planned a trip to Catalina Island and invited a bunch of our friends. Our experience this weekend informed this story, hopefully other people can learn from it and hopefully it encourages you to go. SPEARFISHING IS AWESOME.
Experienced guys will laugh at our tiny little fish, basic gear and shallow water fishing. But hey, you've got to start somewhere. This guide is for those who want to get started and hopefully fulfills a need for basic information for beginners.
Why Go Spearfishing? Has throwing a line in the water always felt a little boring? It's a pretty passive activity, mostly requiring patience. Screw that, get in the water and take the fight to the fish.
Doing so gives you the ability to target specific prey, then use your wits and athletic ability to track it down, stalk it and then go in for the kill. It's hard, but when you catch something, you feel an enormous sense of accomplishment. By becoming actively involved in catching the fish, you also participate in its environment and feel a strong connection with the ocean and its local ecosystem. Spearfishing makes you a predator.
You can rent pretty much anything you'll need, aside from the spears.
What You'll Need: The first thing you'll need is a fishing license from your local department of Fish and Game. In California, those are about $40 for the year and you can print them out as soon as you buy it online. The whole process takes about 60 seconds, so there's no excuse; your fee goes to preserving the fish and the environment they live in. Make sure you have it with you. Pay attention to any local regulations on fish you're allowed to take and their sizes. Ignorance of the law is not an accepted defense in a court of law.
A Spear: We opted for JBL Spearguns' Travel Pole Spears ($157). The bodies are made from strong, aircraft-grade aluminum and separate into two-foot sections for easy transport. Pole spears are apparently more difficult to have hunting success with, but conversely, that difficulty is said to speed your learning curve into the sport. That's actually about the only substantial advice we received before embarking on our journey.
Spear Tips: We used both JBL's three-prong Barbed Paralyzer ($34) and basic single-point spear tip with fold out barb. The Paralyzer reduced the need for pinpoint accuracy, but wasn't quite as good as the single-point at retaining fish once they were speared. As rookies, we only packed two tips per spear and quickly discovered that they blunt easily when you miss and hit the sand or a rock. Next time, we'll pack a bunch more. You can probably re-sharpen the tips at home on a grinding wheel or belt sander, but that's not happening in the field.
Stringer: Once you've caught a fish, you'll need a stringer to clip the fish onto, attaching it to your belt so you can swim back to shore or keep fishing. We used this one, which is affordable and effective. Really, you do need this.
The Catalina Express takes about an hour to get to Avalon from Long Beach and costs $78. Boats run eight time daily. Food, drinks and bathrooms are available onboard.
Weight Belt: To counteract the buoyancy of the wetsuit and make underwater swimming a more natural affair. Not strictly necessary if you're just fishing in shallow, 20 to 30-foot deep water, but a big help.
Snorkel Equipment: Apparently spearfishing is only sporting if you free dive, no scuba gear. You'll need a mask, snorkel, wetsuit and fins. We were able to rent all that from Descanso Beach Ocean Sports in Avalon for $22 a day. It's basic rental equipment, but it gets the job done. To that, you're also going to want at least some neoprene diving gloves with grippy palms and fingers. Those will protect your hands from rocks, coral and fish spines, while giving you much-needed grip both on the spear and fish. Obviously you'll want better equipment as you scale into the sport, but the rental stuff is totally fine (and cheap) to get started with.
Kayaks: We paddled into Goat Harbor, a remote campsite on a beach seven miles away from the tourist hoards in Avalon. At $68 for one night and two days, Descanso Beach Ocean Sports give you an affordable, fun way to transport yourself and your camping gear around the Island. They'll also provide you with dry bags, maps of the island and pretty much anything else you might need. Descanso can also rent you virtually any item of camping equipment — the trip you see here would be very easy and affordable to replicate. You can even have you, your kayaks and equipment delivered to the campsites via motorboat if you so choose.
A Dive Knife: You always need a good knife. I picked up a serrated, stainless steel Mora Companion for $18. Unbelievable quality and strength for the price and it was just the thing for cutting line, filleting fish and preparing dinner.
Campsites: Book a campsite through Visit Catalina. Goat Harbor was $16 per person.
In The Water: You've snorkeled before, right? It's not hard, but some basic competency will help you immensely with spearfishing. Practice diving and coming back for air while keeping your head in the water. You'll also want to be able to equalize pressure in your ears and the longer you can hold your breath the better.
Swimming on a reef, around rocks, in a cove or through kelp is where you'll find fish.
The pole spears are very easy to use. To do so, hook the rubber loop between the thumb and forefinger of your dominant hand and stretch it up the body of the spear as far forwards as you can confidently hold. In use, the spear will fill with water, giving it more momentum, range and a harder punch. When you have a fish lined up a few inches from the tip, release your grip and the rubber fires it forward, hopefully spearing the fish.
This Patagonia R1 vest wasn't warm enough to keep me in the water for long, but was just the thing for making chilly, wet sea kayaking comfortable.
The basic idea is to swim around your area, find some kelp or a hole or a rock where fish are hiding, then dive down and hunt them. A few weeks back, a more experienced fisher explained, "Even the slowest, dumbest fish in the ocean is faster and smarter than you. Don't try to chase them."
That's excellent advice, you need to sneak up on a fish unawares to catch it. Splashing, bubbles, noise and commotion all scare fish, so the sneakier you can be, the more success you'll have. The experienced guys are able to hold their breath for so long that they hide underwater, waiting for fish to come to them.
We dragged along a Beats Pill XL Bluetooth speaker to play music. Any beach camping trip needs music. It was loud enough to hear it over the surf and the battery lasted all weekend.
It worked best for us to "cock" the spear as we dove after prey. Just swimming around with it "armed" is tiring.
If you need to resurface for breath, try and keep your head in the water and eyes on the fish. If you go above the surface to breath, you'll lose the fish every time.
Try and spear the fish just behind its gills, on the side of its body. You'll need to get the tip of the spear within a foot or so of the fish for this to work. Once the fish has been hit, it will fight, prepare to grab the spear and hold it firmly through this. Getting your hands on the fish as quickly as possible will prevent it from getting away. Stick the stringer through its gills and out its mouth, firmly securing the fish, before you pull it off the spear.
Safety: Any time you're in the water, any time you're playing with dangerous weapons and any time you're a long way from other people, there's a lot of risk involved. We addressed this by always swimming in pairs, with one guy keeping an eye on the other while he dived, and taking turns. Two pairs of eyes are also better than one at finding and pursuing fish.
As an added measure, we had someone follow in a kayak at all times. That served both as a sort of lifeguard, spotter and communications hub between swimmers and a nice float to grab onto and take a break when necessary. Any group should have at least one person experienced in water rescues, CPR and first aid.
The Results: On this, our first ever time attempting to catch fish with spears, we bagged about 25 of them. That was just the right amount to feed all 10 of us dinner — fish tacos cooked right on the beach. Eating them, we all agreed that there were few more satisfying feelings than hunting fish underwater, then chowing down on them just minutes later.
In fact, it felt so good, that we decided to make this our new hobby. We'll be practicing on Malibu's shoreline in the near future and hope to work up to being able to pursue larger game in offshore kelp beds. You'll be reading about our progression into the sport here on IndefinitelyWild.
Video: Chris Brinlee Jr
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