Gear and systems you’ll need to know, if you plan to hunt the deep currents offshore this summer.
Plunging into the blue abyss for the first time is something that I will always remember. It was a completely different environment than I was used to spearfishing in. Looking through your mask, all you see is blue, in every direction. It puts in perspective how vast the ocean really is. Things seem to appear out of nowhere; one second there is nothing there, the next you’re eye-to-eye with a wahoo.
The rush of bluewater spearfishing is attracting more and more people. Whether you’re moving out from the reef for the first time, or are new to spearfishing altogether, it’s important to understand how to rig up properly for this demanding environment.
As with any dive, safety is the most important concern. There are schools and dive shops along the Florida coast with experienced instructors. I recommend you find one, and while you’re at it, cultivate friendships with divers committed to safety protocol—this is not a solo sport.
Once you’ve got some free-diving hours, and a trustworthy crew, the next most important factor in bluewater spearfishing—and the main subject of this article–is having the right gear. You want to be ready when you see that fish of a lifetime. This preparedness starts well before you get to the dock. Bluewater hunters are very much like their terrestrial counterparts, tuning up gear in the garage, basement or wherever you store and maintain your equipment.
There are several key differences between spearfishing in shallow water and blue water that you have to keep in mind when rigging your gear. First, the depth: In blue water there is virtually no bottom so anything you drop, it’s gone for good. Secondly, you’re likely to encounter larger fish out deep. These two differences dictate what kinds of rigs you can use.
Although many different guns can be retrofitted for bluewater hunting, to do true bluewater spearfishing you need a gun that has enough power to shoot 20 or more feet accurately, with enough momentum to solidly impact large target fish.
To get these parameters you need a long gun that can accommodate a long shaft.
Shaft size and type are important from both an accuracy and power standpoint. A longer, heavier shaft is very stable and greatly improves accuracy at range if proper power is applied from the bands. Another component of accuracy is the gun itself. I prefer the gun to have a full length shaft track, which guides the shaft all the way out of the gun. The heavier the shaft, the harder it is to get it to move fast. In bluewater applications you need a heavy shaft to move fast, because you need both range and stopping power.
I’ll start by explaining what rig I use and then elaborate on some variations. I have a 55-inch competitor series Riffe with a 60-inch stainless steel shaft, powered by three 9⁄16- X 24-inch bands. The shaft is crimped to the gun with about 15 feet of 400-pound-test mono; this is the shooting line. Riffe has a hole drilled near the butt of the gun where you can connect the rest of your float system. I have an 8-foot bungee that when stretched to its max can be about 30 feet, coupled to this hole. Tied to the end of the bungee, I have 100 feet of float line, which is connected to a couple of old floats. This rig is perfect for fish less than 50 pounds or so.
The way to use it is, you shoot the fish and let the gun go, and you apply pressure on the float line as the fish swims away. As the fish weakens, you pull it to the surface via the rope. The buoys are more for drag and a last resort than for actually fighting the fish in this setup.
The most critical piece to any bluewater rig is the bungee. Different applications require different sizes and strengths, but the bottom line is you need one. The bungee provides necessary stretch to the rig, much like a Bimini twist and double line does on a fishing rod setup. It is a buffer between the two opposing forces of you and the fish. It applies pressure but not so much that the spear pulls out of the fish. When the fish makes a sudden burst, the bungee absorbs this in the stretch rather than focusing the force on the barb of the spear. It is worth every penny to incorporate a bungee into your bluewater buoy system. Neptonic Systems makes a quality bungee priced around $30, depending on the style you want (bungees and other spearfishing gear may be ordered online on their website).
A shaft with just a Hawaiian flopper is the simplest and most streamlined design.
It’s suitable for fish to 30 pounds or so. However, as you target larger, faster and stronger fish, it will be important to consider your spear tip. It’s advisable to change over to a slip tip when you begin targeting species like wahoo, tunas and large dorado. A slip tip provides a better hold in the flesh of fish, greatly increasing your chances of landing those types of fish. It also helps reduce the chance of bending or breaking a shaft, by applying the force to the flexible line instead of the shaft. The best slip tips are now equipped with Spectra instead of cable. This allows for a more streamlined setup and easier handling. The Spectra also does not tear through flesh like cable does, increasing the hold of the head. These slip tips are made by Wong, Mori, Riffe and many others; they range in price from $65 to $100.
A variation to the basic rig is called the breakaway setup. A key difference is that instead of having the bungee connected to the gun, it’s connected directly to the shooting line. When you shoot, the rig breaks completely free of the gun. That gives you peace of mind, having your expensive gun in hand instead of watching it disappear into the depths. It also allows you to reload and take another shot if necessary.
Also, you can have your gun set up with a reel connected directly to your spear and it toggles out line as you fight the fish. This alternative has both pros and cons. An important benefit of this setup is the simplicity and mobility. You are not dragging a hundred feet of rope and buoys through the water the whole time you’re hunting. You can swim easier and know you won’t get tangled up before you’ve even shot at a fish. On the other end of the spectrum, this method is best for smaller fish, because it is limiting on the amount of drag you can apply to the fish and if the fish is strong enough it could spool the reel and take your expensive gun with it.
Some Thoughts on Dive Gear
A comprehensive review of free-dive gear for bluewater spearfishing is beyond the scope of this article, but here are some basic specifications to consider. I’ve included my own picks, but no doubt you’ll want to discuss your needs with divers of similar experience level.
Basically, you want long fins so that you minimize effort with every kick, allowing your leg muscles (largest in body) to work less, using less oxygen. This helps you hold your breath longer. Several companies make free-diving fins in a range of prices. The cheaper ones are plastic and the more expensive are carbon fiber. I use Cressi Gara 3000s, priced around $140.
You also want a low-volume mask so that when you clear your ears it’s quicker and uses less air. This is another way to help you hold your breath longer. The mask I use is the Omer Alien mirrored lens blue camo mask. It’s $90 and I really like it.
Camouflage is another thing to consider.
An ocean-camo wetsuit or rash guard can help you blend in with your environment and look less suspicious, allowing you to creep closer to the fish. Weight belts are available, too, to help you reach and maintain neutral buoyancy at a desired depth, with minimal exertion. Again, as with other aspects of free-diving, setting up and using weight belts is a topic you need to review with an experienced instructor. FS
SPEARFISHING 101: BE LEGAL, BE SAFE
Regulations for spearfishing in blue water are nearly the same as for hook-and-line. If you’re out where the sargassum lines build up along the ocean currents, you’re most likely in federal waters (3 miles offshore on the Atlantic coast; 9 miles on the Gulf). This is important, because in Monroe County north of Long Key to the Miami Dade County line you must be at least 3 miles offshore to spearfish. Before planning a spearfishing trip to the Keys or any area you are unfamiliar with, consult the FWC website for the most up to date regulation information. They provide a two-page document explaining the complex Keys regulations that is easy to read. Bag limits and size limits set for hook-and-line fishing are the same regulations that you must follow while spearfishing. You must have a fishing license, unless otherwise exempt. And you’ll need a federal HMS vessel permit, if you plan to go for managed tunas, such as yellowfin and skipjack.
Species commonly targeted off Florida include dolphin, wahoo, kingfish, amberjacks and yellow jacks and various members of the tunas clan. Permit are legal to take in federal waters by spear, but it’s not legal in some areas of Monroe County; I would recommend reviewing the regulations closely before targeting this species. All billfish and sharks are closed to spearfishing. Bluefin tuna and tripletail are also off-limits. Any fish that is closed to hook and line is most likely closed for spearing; don’t guess—check the rules out before you head out on the water.
Safety is crucial when diving or spearfishing anywhere. In deep ocean water, especially, keep in mind that you’re not the only top predator. It’s important to always have a dive buddy who is trained in rescue techniques native to the kind of diving you’re doing. For freediving—very popular among open-water spearfishermen—that includes recognition and treatment of blackout. You should also make sure your buddies are familiar with boat handling and VHF radio. And always—always—deploy a dive flag of the correct dimensions.
You should not head out into the blue water until you are extremely comfortable in open water and have some diving experience. At almost every bluewater spot there is the potential for strong currents, rough seas, deep dives and the occasional shark encounter. You should be prepared for all these before you head out.
A good way to step up your free-diving game and become a safer diver is to take a free-diving course. Immersion Free Diving of Fort Lauderdale (immersionfreediving.com) offers some of the best courses around. These guys can help you improve as a free diver. Performance Free Diving (performancefreediving.com) in Miami is another great place to get great training. Martin Stepanek’s Freediving Instructors International
(FII) network offers many courses and levels of certification (www.freedivinginstructors.com).