Getting into spearfishing - A beginner's guide
12 June 2015
Spearfishing is a sport growing very quickly in New Zealand. Matt Lind has been doing it for quite a few years and has some good advice for those wanting to get into the water. For me, spearfishing has become an obsession. Over the last 10 years it has taken up more and more of my free time and has now become the central focus of my working life as well.
Like a lot of Kiwi kids, I grew up spending long summer holidays camping at various beaches around the country. It was on one of these camps at the East Coast’s Anaura Bay when I was about 12 that I really caught the diving bug properly. Finally old enough to follow my Dad around while he dived, I learned to clear my ears, snorkel and how to look under the rocks for crayfish.
I’ll never forget spending the evenings of digging cray spines out of my fingers by a kerosene lamp only to spike them back again at the next low-tide.
After a career as a scuba diving instructor i found spearfishing. This was a totally different world to what we’d encounter while scuba diving. Without the artificial hiss of the regulators scaring all the fish away, we’d see all those flightier little fish that scuba divers simply don’t see. Without the bulky equipment turning us into aliens, we became another fish in the water and with guns in our hands we became a part of the food chain. No longer spectators, we had become participants. It is this interaction with the wild that I love about spearfishing.
While being pretty gear intensive, it’s relatively very cheap and there are very few ongoing costs. So where to start?
The first thing you need to do is to get yourself kitted out with some gear. The easiest way will be to buy a starter's pack from a specialist spearfishing store such as mine, Wild Blue. They’ll start from just under $1000 and will include everything you need and nothing you don’t. Let’s look at what will be in it.
The mask and snorkel
Firstly we need our basic snorkeling gear. Spearfishing and freediving use quite specific gear and while any wetsuit or fins will do, your success and enjoyment will be greatly enhanced by using the right gear.
With all equipment, fit is the primary concern and with your mask it is absolutely vital. You’ll need to try on as many as you can before you make your decision. To test a mask for a proper fit, don’t put the strap over your head. Just place the mask over your face and suck in through your nose. If the mask sticks to your face it fits, if it falls off or you can feel air coming in anywhere it doesn't, simple.
Before you try on any masks, it’s essential that you blokes have had a shave. Nothing makes a mask leak more than a bit of stubble on your lip. Aside from a good fit there are a couple of other things to check for. Firstly, make sure that the skirt is made of 100 percent silicone, not Silitex or Silitech and especially not rubber.
These other materials will not seal as well and often aren’t UV stable so they break down. This skirt should be black as a black skirt prevents light from entering the side of the mask and reflecting on the lenses. These lenses must be made from tempered glass. The first thing you must do with a new mask when you get it home is give it a good scrub out with toothpaste to prevent it from fogging.
A snorkel is a snorkel and all I’d say is buy the most basic ones. No purge valves or caps on the end or any other complications as all they do is trap water and make gurgling noises and bubbles when you dive.
The freediving fin will probably make more difference to you than any other single piece of kit. They are about a meter long and have a solid, full-foot pocket (open, strap style fins are an entanglement hazard when spearfishing). They can look a little intimidating to start with but once you have used them you will not consider using anything else ever again.
A lot is made of the different kinds of blades you can use but by far the most important thing is that the footpockets fit your feet well. Each different brand has differently shaped pockets that will fit different shaped feet and it's imperative that you get the right ones for you. Try on as many as you can before you buy.
Remember that your feet will swell a bit when they’re wet so always go a little big over a little small. They should be worn with neoprene socks and you can vary the thickness to get the perfect fit. There are all kinds of different blades that can be fitted into your pockets; either made of plastic or some kind of fibre-glass/carbon composite but the important thing is to get the right stiffness.
I personally think that composite fin blades are the most overrated bit of kit in diving. There is absolutely no evidence of any performance benefit over plastic but I think the root of their popularity is due to people starting off with a plastic blade that is too stiff. So whether you go plastic or carbon, make sure you get blades that suit your weight.
Freediving wetsuits probably deserve an entire article to themselves but I’ll brush over them quickly to explain what to look for. A freedive suit by definition is a two-piece suit with an attached hood and an open-cell interior without any zips.
Open-cell means that there is no nylon covering and you have the raw neoprene against your skin. This is infinitely warmer than any other kind of lining and is much more comfortable and flexible as well. Spearos will typically spend all day in their suits so performance is key. Again, each different brand has its own specific cut and fit so different makes will work for different people.
If you want one suit to wear all year round you need to go for a 5mm but most guys will circulate between different combinations of 3, 5 and 7mm jackets and pants, depending on the season.
These suits are quite buoyant so we need to wear lead belts to get them under water. Wearing the right amount of weight is critical to both your success and safety.
As you descend the water pressure will increase and will compress both your wetsuit and your lungs, so you lose buoyancy the further down you go. As a very arbitrary starting point, most people will wear a tenth of their body weight in lead.
The belts freedivers use are made of rubber, silicone or a mixture of both and are designed to stretch. This way your weights can’t slide around and will stretch to compensate for suit compression yet allow you to breathe freely.
Then there’s the weaponry. Again I could devote an entire magazine to all the different types of spearguns available but we’ll skim the surface just to get the basics.
The best spearguns for New Zealand are rubber-powered and work the same way as a crossbow; the spear is locked in place by the trigger mechanism and you then stretch a powerful rubber band back from the muzzle and hook it into a notch at the back of the spear. When you pull the trigger the spear is released and fired by the rubber band. The spear has a flopper or barb and is attached to the muzzle of the gun by a monofilament line.
Different types of guns are designed for different types of diving and for targeting different types of fish. The best guns for diving in New Zealand are the Rob Allen range. They’re absolutely bombproof and designed and built in South Africa where the conditions are very similar to ours.
European guns are very popular as well but you need to be more careful about choosing the right one as they’re usually not built as strongly and designed for unique types of diving that we don’t do here, such as shooting fish in caves.
New divers can be a bit surprised by the size of the guns we use and tempted to buy guns that are too small for what they intend to shoot. The size of a gun is measured by the length of the barrel in centimeters; i.e. a 110 gun has a 110cm long barrel. In New Zealand, the best lengths are between 90 and 130cm but by far the most useful are 100s, 110s and 120s.
You attach your speargun to a float on the surface with an appropriate length of line (a third longer than the depth you’re diving). The float has three main functions. First of all it is brightly coloured and should be fitted with a diver’s flag so that boats know you’re nearby.
Secondly, when you shoot large fish you can let go of the gun and play it from your floatline until it tires. If you’re in very deep water you can let go of everything and let the fish pull against the float. For this reason, foam-filled floats are superior as if they’re pulled underwater they won’t be crushed like hollow ones.
Lastly, the float is your means of transporting your catch. After shooting a fish you thread it onto the floatline so that your catch is far enough away from you that there will be no danger if another predator decides it wants your fish.
Once you have your gear you need to learn how to use it. There are no tricks and it is all very simple. You only need basic snorkeling skills to get out there and get started. You need to learn how to clear your snorkel and how to equalize your ears but this shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.
Then we need to learn the good bits – how to hunt fish. The main thing to understand here is that you’re an ambush predator. There is no way that you can chase any kind of fish down so you will have to rely on stealth and the fish’s natural curiosity to get close.
You want to relax, conserve energy and keep your movements to a minimum. The best way to proceed is to pick where you want to dive to, go all the way to the bottom and just lie there and wait. The biggest mistake I see new divers make is diving half way to the bottom and then swimming along mid-water. This is a huge waste of oxygen and more importantly you’ll be scaring off every fish in the vicinity. Relax and let the fish come to you. Each fish species has its own peculiar habits and the challenge of the sport is learning ways to exploit them.
Don’t let yourself become to fixated on depth and how long you can hold your breathe for. Most of the fish we target are found in the top few metres and about 30 seconds is more than enough to get a good feed.
Good spearos are good freedivers but this is a means to an end and the best spearos are those who understand the underwater environment and their prey the best. No amount of holding you breath in the bath is going to help this.
The best way to learn is by following another experienced diver for a day or two. Leave your gun behind and just follow and observe everything he does. There are many courses you can do that will help you to increase your breath hold but if your real target is to shoot more fish, I think they are a waste of time and money. Spend that money by going on guided charter trips and learn about fishing.
The boring truth is that good breath hold comes with comfort in the water and experience.
So if you’re curious to see what’s actually under the boat and are ready for a new challenge, get yourself kitted, join your local spearfishing club and immerse yourself in this fantastic sport.