(Editor’s Note: James Simsic, a homegrown Marathon conch, is The Weekly’s newest fishing columnist. Below, he introduces readers to the sport of spearfishing and gives them a few starting points — a fish to target, qualities to look for in a dive buddy and equipment for beginners. Simsic joins Capt. Ariel Medero covering rod-and-reel fishing offshore and at the wrecks and angler Bill Horn, a backcountry fly fisherman. Look for their alternating columns in every issue of The Weekly.)
The hogfish is the iconic symbol of spearfishing, hands down. It is the most commonly sought target of spearfisherman from the Carolina’s across to Bermuda down past Cuba and in every corner of the Caribbean. Everywhere you go in the Florida Keys, in fact, you will run into stickers, logos, and signage with the hogfish as the centerpiece of spearfishing paraphernalia. Because of the hogfishes eating habits (crustaceans), it is rarely table fare for the rod and reel fisherman. The hogfish also has a reputation for being the least smart fish in the ocean. This character flaw has put him on the top of the list for spearfishing targets for decades. And it’s the easiest place for a new spearfisherman to start.
Why? In some places where people practice the sport the species list is very focused but here in the Florida Keys the diversity of fish life is vast. Because this diversity is far and wide, our species knowledge has to be as well. This means the spearfisherman has to be educated not only about hunting, but also regulations. Once you have a good grasp on the species and food quality of the fish in the area, then the spear fisherman turns his attention to what type of fish to pursue and harvest. To me, this is the most fun part! Although fishing techniques can hone you in on a certain fish you can never make a certain mutton snapper bite your bait … but you can choose to pull the trigger or not!
With a broad understanding of the fishery, the next thing you must acquire is a good dive buddy. There are a couple of qualities that my dive buddy must always have. First, pick someone that you respect and trust your life with. This is a great way to spend some time with your family members! Twenty years ago I shot my first fish as my dad looked on from the surface where he had pointed out a suitable meal. The same holds true for a mother, an aunt or an uncle. You also have to make sure this new dive buddy also knows the rules and is either taking an active role in teaching you or learning from you.
The best way to learn how to become a good waterman is to watch someone else’s successes and failures. The worst thing you can do in this sport is to try and rush yourself to spearing a big fish before you are ready.
What do you need to spearfish? A mask, fins, and a snorkel … oh yeah, gotta have my gun! A pole spear, however, is where your underwater weaponry should start. It is what I used when I first learned to hunt fish. With their simplistic design comprised of a long shaft (varying in size) with a surgical rubber band attached at the rear and a spearhead at the very front, they can be easily shot and reloaded with your hands. There are no strings or lines involved, and no triggers to worry about. They don’t shoot very far at all, and therefore teach patience and fish observation.
If you are going to jump in headfirst you are going to want to equip yourself with a mask that has a dark skirt (the silicone part that attaches your face to the lens). This dark skirt will keep sunlight from coming through mask on an angle and give you a clearer picture for identifying fish. This helps immensely in less-than-ideal conditions when you are identifying fish from afar by small coloration details.
Spearfishing and freediving fins are much longer than longer snorkel fins. These will help considerably with your depth when starting off. The fins should be soft on the edges of your feet yet provide structure in the boot through the blade that propels you. Great entry-level fins are the Cressi Gara 2000 or something similar.
Stay tuned and we’ll get you honed in on the fish as we go forward with spearfishing from the surface down!