March 31, 2022
You've no doubt seen the images on bottom finders: masses of fish 15 to 20 feet above the hard bottom. If you've fished with expert snapper fishermen (my old friend Capt. Roddy Corr comes to mind), you've surely verified the ID of those marks—then moved them onto the dinner table. Even in very deep water, mangrove snapper rise to the surface in a chumslick, especially at night.
And yet, thinking back over all my years diving off the Florida coast, most often, whenever I descended to the bottom with a tank on my back, the mangroves I saw were slipping through cracks, disappearing under ledges. The biggest ones always seemed to be the farthest back deep in narrow recesses and, without a flashlight, would likely never have been discovered.
I reflected on those observations last summer when a couple freedivers accompanied me on a trip off Sebastian Inlet. Brian Webster and his friend Kevin Glen were vacationing in Florida from California where they freedive regularly. Brian, having grown up here in Melbourne, is a longtime friend. On this trip, he and Kevin first visited the Keys, enjoying the clear, warm waters. They were able to spear a king mackerel, cero mackerel, a flounder, and a couple muttons down there. They saw hundreds of mangrove snapper, but very few over ten inches. I offered to take them out of Sebastian, feeling confident we could find bigger fish, but unsure of the visibility and the water temperature.
Divers on Florida's east coast are aware of the thermoclines that are often present in the summer. These events, thought to be related to periods of southerly and southwesterly winds, bring cold water and murky layers. Friends who went south from the inlet a couple days earlier reported only five feet of visibility, but another friend knew someone who had gone northeast to 90 feet and found 30 feet of viz. Brian and Kevin and I discussed it and decided to give it a try.
Let me introduce Brian and Kevin more fully and also give you an idea of their gear and techniques. Brian holds the International Underwater Spearfishing Association (IUSA) speargun world record for Pacific barracuda and the IUSA polespear record for California halibut. Kevin holds the IUSA polespear world record for yellowtail and is the president and founder of Mantis Spearfishing, a company that designs and manufactures advanced spearguns. Not only do these guns allow for longer range shooting, but, in addition, they feature adapters that can support cameras or flashlights. The guns also have reels allowing a diver to always reach the surface.
Brian and Kevin use float lines and floats. The floats collapse to an easily transported size and are inflated by mouth right before the dive, becoming so buoyant that they cause very little drag. The float line is attached to the float at one end and the speargun at the other. The line streams up from the diver and therefore does not tangle or encumber him. The diver is free to abandon the gun if a fish fights too strongly or gets wedged among rocks without concern of losing it.
The shallowest reefs and wrecks I'm familiar with north of the inlet (where the chances were best for good visibility) are in the 55- to 65-foot range. The sea was flat and we scooted out quickly. We passed some sargassum. Most patches were barren except for a few hatchling sea turtles nestled among the golden clumps. The water looked blue and pretty below the sargassum, but it was difficult to say how deep the clarity extended.
Preparation was fast and simple. They inflated their floats, donned light suits and weight belts and were in the water in a minute or so. We had tossed a buoy to mark the reef where the bottom finder showed fish above it. The top of the reef was 59 feet and the sandy bottom, 64.
Preparation was fast and simple. They inflated floats, donned light suits and were in the water in a minute or so.
I waited in the boat and the first dive seemed interminable to me. They had debated using wetsuits for warmth, but decided against it and put on thin 1.5 mm ones. Kevin came up and said the thermocline was cold enough to take his breath away. I chuckled inwardly at the description because he was down a long time without breathing anyway! He reported 15- to 20-foot visibility horizontally on the bottom below the hazy murk layer. And he reported fish!
While Brian knew Florida fish well, Kevin was none too familiar with them. Brian and I had described the difference in appearance between red and mangrove snapper when viewed underwater, but Kevin wasn't sure enough to launch a spear. Brian dove down and reappeared a minute or two later with a beautiful mangrove. Once Kevin got the assurance of the species, both divers came up nearly every dive with a sturdy mangrove on the spear. Now and then, a fish would carry the spear under the ledge and require the diver to descend a second time to wrestle it out. It seemed no time had passed, and the cooler would hardly close!
I had loaded a tank and regulator aboard and planned to take a look myself, but storms popped up inside of us. With an 18-foot bay boat prudence is key when in the ocean. We cut the day short. The cooler held three triggerfish and eleven mangroves. The smallest snapper was over three pounds and the largest over 11.
A bit more about freediving gear might be appropriate. The line they use to attach the spear to the reel on the gun is mono and they vary it according to the size of the fish they expect to spear and the distance they need to shoot; thinner mono allows a greater range. Two-hundred to 400-hundred-pound test is typical. They examine this line for chafes from the reef regularly and change it as needed (as we bottom fishermen do our leaders).
Both freedivers use watches/computers that provide information on temperature, depth, number of dives, duration, and surface interval.
The float lines come in a variety of styles and are selected depending on the fish to be targeted. Float lines with no stretch are best for wrenching fish out of holes and reefs. Stretch is advantageous for fighting strong, heavy fish. The stretch fights and tires the fish and protects against sudden surges that can rip the fish's flesh and pull even a well-placed spear through the fish.
There are two main varieties of stretch float lines. One is an elastic outer portion that is hollow and contains a cord of a greater length in its innards. The outer portion stretches until the inner piece limits it. The other stretch float line is termed a bungee line. Bungees are even more elastic and used to fight extremely strong fish. The float line should be well longer than the depth the diver plans to descend.
My free diving friends both mentioned how cold the bottom water was at first, but later told me the surface water was so warm, they started looking forward to the mild chill of their dives. They use closed cell wetsuits in California because the temperature is consistently cold, but here the lighter, thinner suits sufficed.
Brian and Kevin explained to me that regardless of the temperature requirement for the diver, it is advantageous to have a chest protector incorporated into the wetsuit to allow cocking the speargun repeatedly without damaging one's body. They also told me that camouflage suits do seem to allow closer range shots.
That gets us back to the beginning of the article and the discrepancy between sonar pictures and my dive experience. Brian and Kevin reported seeing the mangroves above the reef and, instead of dropping into the crevices, the fish swam to them, even big fish, turning broadside and offering very simple shots! After an hour or more and multiple dives in one single location, the snapper did begin swimming into the ledges as they approached, but still unhurriedly enough to allow shots with their long distance spearguns. Had I maneuvered the buoy to a new spot 70 yards down the reef, they may have had more unsophisticated mangroves approach them again. I can't help but suspect SCUBA gear and the explosion of bubbles as the diver breathes is the culprit in the apparent reclusiveness of mangroves.
When we cleaned the mangroves, the largest all had bulging bellies. We examined the stomach contents of six of them. Five of the six had eaten young sea turtles. This gives further evidence of their tendency to feed high in the water column (although it may have been by night).
Spearfishing as a free diver offers a lot, including the freedom from cumbersome gear, great sport, and athletic exercise. Even better, free diving offers the chance at less skittish fish, especially mangrove snapper. FS
Published Florida Sportsman Magazine June 2020