Spearfishing Tips and techniques for freedivers in the Caribbean and the Keys

A Goliath grouper

Following these tips will make you a better spear fisherman. There’s more to the sport than just swimming down and shooting at fish. Proper technique leads to more successful dives.

Spearfishing is more hunting than fishing. The difference between hunting on land and hunting in water is that the freediver is in an environment foreign to him, while his prey is in its natural environment. The equipment spear fishermen use is relatively primitive. A gun powered by big rubber bands doesn’t give him the advantage a high powered rifle and scope gives to many hunters on land. Spearfishing is hunting, not harvesting.

It’s a physically demanding sport. The longer you stay underwater with one breath, the more fish you’ll shoot and the more fun you’ll have. Get in shape. Do aerobic exercises of any kind before your spearfishing trip.

Beginning the Dive

Before starting the dive, take some deep breaths, but not so many that you feel light headed. Start the dive by bending at the hips, lifting your legs straight up and sliding under water. Don’t start kicking until your fins are below the surface. Keep splashing to a minimum. A dive belt with weights will help. The weights will also help you stay on the bottom without struggling. Some people are slim enough they don’t need them. I used to be like that, but now I use weights, proving that fat floats.

Stalking Fish

A nurse shark steals a speared fish from Rachel Campbell
A nurse shark steals a speared fish from Rachel.

Always swim in a relaxed and leisurely manner. This serves two purposes. Less oxygen is used, so you can stay under longer, and you’re less likely to frighten the fish. Quick, jerky movements scare fish. You can’t out swim them, you have to fool them.

The best spearfishing technique for you to use when setting up a shot, is to approach the target at an angle, so it looks like you’ll pass harmlessly by. This makes the shot more difficult as you’ll be holding the gun out to the side instead of in front of you, but the target fish is more likely to stay with in range. As you’re swimming by, your gun lines up with the fish and the shot is taken.

There are exceptions to this approach. One is with mutton snapper. They’ll usually swim away with their tails pointing at you showing a very small target. you need to slowly chase them. Eventually the snapper will turn 90 degrees one way or the other, and then dart away. You take the shot right as the fish turns and is broadside to the gun. They’ll only be like this for a second, so don’t hesitate.

Another spearfishing tip is to hold onto something on the bottom and quietly stay there. When there are desirable fish near by, grab a rock and remain still. The fish may relax and get close enough for a shot. I always wear a glove on my non trigger hand so I can hold onto the bottom of ledges.

Spearfishing for grouper

Rachel Campbell spearfishing for grouper.
Rachel spearfishing for grouper.

It’s important to remember that Goliath grouper, shown in the feature photo on the top of the page, are protected in Florida. They’re easy to approach and make big, tempting targets. Don’t do it.

Spearfishing for grouper usually means finding them in a hole or under a ledge, often in shadow. In order to see them, you’ll have to get your eyes in that shadow. The grouper is often very close. When he’s shot the spear tip may go through him with enough force that it sticks in whatever is behind him. If the shot misses, the same thing may happen, plus there’s a strong likely hood the shaft will bend when it hits rock.

Taking all the bands but one off the shaft will usually prevent these problems. A short speargun works well, and they’re easier to maneuver in the tight areas grouper hide in. A pole spear will also get the job done.

Using a pole spear in the mangroves

Another type of spearfishing that pole spears are great for is picking off mangrove snapper in the mangrove roots. Many of the snapper will be too small, but there are lots of places where legal snapper are plentiful. It’s easy to get close as the fish feel safe among the roots. You’ll get plenty of shots, but there will be plenty of misses too. It’s way to easy to get a speargun shaft stuck in the roots. A tip with small barbs saves a lot of hassle. The fish shot will be small, but in my opinion, these snapper are the best tasting fish there is.

Using a pole spear to shoot lionfish

Pole spears work great on lionfish. The spears are easy to carry around, use, and are safe. Lionfish let divers get close, depending on their poisonous spines to protect them. Spear tips with multiple points like a trident work best as they eliminate the risk of a fish sliding up the pole and stinging the diver. These fish are invasive in the Caribbean, Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. By killing them more desirable fish will be able to grow and become targets later.

Spearfishing safety

The goal is to enjoy the ocean and shoot fish. It’s not to see how deep you can go or how long you can stay down. Don’t push it. Spearfishing is a dangerous sport. Maintain a margin of safety. You should stay well with in your depth and always have plenty of oxygen left when starting your ascent. This will also reduce fatigue allowing more dives. Over the whole trip, not pushing it will result in more fish.

You should wear a weight belt, even if you don’t need weights. Anything attached to a freediver such as a goody bag or dive flag is attached to the weigh belt. It can quickly be dropped if something gets tangled, or if ascending to the surface will be close.

You should always carry a knife that’s sharp enough to cut through a speargun line. Some fish when shot will fly around the diver as if trying to tie him and any bottom structure together. Mutton snapper are particularly adapt at this.

A friend once grabbed a rock on the bottom and somehow got fishing line wrapped around his had. Fortunately he had a sharp knife and easily cut himself free.

A shark underwater
Photo by ZeroEye

You should always use a dive flag. Boats are a bigger danger than sharks, but sharks are a danger. Spearing fish is like chumming for them. The chance of you being hit by a shark goes way up after you’ve shot a fish.

Spearfishing with a dive partner is not as important when freediving as it is with scuba. Since freedivers run out of air so quickly, it’s unlikely a partner will be able to help. The more people in the water with spear guns the more chance there is of someone getting shot accidentally. I’ve seen some close calls. At least if you do have a partner, your chance of being attacked by a shark is cut in half.

Feature photo at the top by ZeroEye.

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