The Outdoorsman's Guide to Spearfishing

Don't let the spear intimidate you. We've got everything you need to know about where to go, what to bring, and how to catch a fish (or ten)
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Aug 4, 2015 | By Chris Brinlee Jr.

When HB Ambassador Chris Brinlee Jr asked if we wanted a story on his recent spearfishing adventure off SoCal's Catalina Island, the obvious answer was a resounding 'yes,' especially since we'd recently been dabbling in the sport ourselves. If you've been interested in trying your hand at spearfising, read on for his primer (and make sure to keep an eye on the site for the proper equipment).

 grew up in rural Arkansas on 25 acres with a big pond in the back. That pond was full of fish; friends would come from miles just to score a catch. One time, a group of my dad and his pals pulled up fifty-plus in a single day. After that, it was dubbed “the Miracle Pond.” Me? I went fishing on The Miracle Pond pretty often as a child, but I never caught a single fish, unless you count that dead carp floating on the surface. Because of my childhood failures as a fisherman, I never really got into fishing as an adult — until recently, that is, when I discovered spearfishing, a sport more like hunting.

My buddy Wes and I had been fantasizing about spearfishing for a while, so we figured a trip to Catalina Island off the coast of Long Beach, California would give us a good opportunity to finally try it out. JBL Spearguns hooked us up with a couple of Hawaiian slings — primitive pole spears that are a little more sporting and a lot less intimidating than guns — and we rallied some friends to head out and try our luck. We rented some kayaks and paddled six miles along the coast to Goat Harbor, our private boat-in campsite for the weekend, where we threw on our wetsuits and masks, grabbed our spears, and headed out into the water. 

Everyone in our group gave it a try, and most people came up with a fish or two. After a couple hours, I had managed to spear 10, a number that earned my the name "Fishslayer." Here's what I learned along the way.

Before you hit the water, there are a few key things to check off your to-do list:

Get a Fishing License
One of the most important items you’ll need before going fishing is a license, which are pretty easy to obtain online. Licenses can range from short-term to annual to lifetime, depending on your state, and the fees contribute to state conservation programs and help protect the sport. Fishing without a license is illegal on most public lands and can net you a hefty fine if you’re caught, so don’t overlook this important piece of documentation.

Learn the Rules and Regulations
Fishing rules and regulations vary from state to state; it’s important to know them before heading out. Certain species will often be protected or have seasonal regulations; bottom line is that you don’t hunt those fish. Ignorance is no excuse in a court of law.

Lucky for you, there's actually not a huge barrier of entry into spearfishing. If you spend any time around the water, chances are you have some of this stuff already, so check your gear closet then hit the Internet.

Speargun or Polespear
If you’re going to spearfish, you’re going to need a spear. I love JBL Spearguns for their heritage: the brand has been providing fishermen with some of the best spearguns and polespears available for more than 40 years. Take the Woody Elite Sawed-Off for example: it’s built from a hand-selected piece of mahogany that works as well for stoning fish as it does looking good.

If you’re looking for a more simplistic approach, consider picking up one of JBL’s travel pole spears, which break down into short segments for easy transport. These are what we used on Catalina, and they worked great.

Mask or Snorkel
If you already own a mask, that should work. If you don’t, look for one with great peripheral vision and a nose purge. The Cressi Panoramic Mask has a great field of view, comes with a dry snorkel (which makes for an easy purge), and won’t break the bank.

Fish are faster and more agile in the water than we humans will ever be. In order to level the playing field, you’re gonna need a pair of fins. Fins designed for freediving, like these Cressi Classic Pros, will give you maximum propulsion underwater and the best chances of successfully slaying fish.

If hunting in frigid waters, you’ll need a wetsuit will help regulate your body temperature. A handful of brands make spearfishing-specific camouflage suits like this one from Cressi. This specialized suit will increase your stealth points, but your surf or dive suit will do just fine.

Weight Belt
Wetsuits increase buoyancy, but a weight belt and a few weights will counteract that effect. Weights certainly aren’t necessary, but they’ll make it a lot easier to dive down while chasing fish.

When you spear some fish, you’re gonna need a stringer to string them along. Be sure to keep your stringer on a lengthy tether in case you attract any other predators of the sea.

Dive Knife
Carry a dive knife with you — it’ll be useful for cutting line and cleaning fish. The Cressi Lima features a stainless steel blade, one-handed sheath release, and a notch for cutting small ropes and lines.

Cooking System
Fish you caught yourself tastes best immediately after catch, especially if you’re camping out. Roast your catch over an open fire using the UCO Grillput if regulations allow it. Otherwise you can use the BioLite Bundle to grill your fish with a pseudo campfire-feel.

If you want to hunt fish, you must go where the fish are. Typically spearfishing is done in the ocean. Big fish hang out in the deep sea, where freediving spearfishermen will often hunt down 500 pound tunas. But if you're just looking for a fresh catch for dinner when you're camping, however, fish can be found much closer to the shore. Look for kelp forests or any other underwater environment that will provide a habitat for fish; you’re bound to find some swimming around.

Remember that any water-based activity can be treacherous, especially when there are potentially dangerous tools involved. Always fish with a partner so that you can keep an eye on each other. An extra set of eyes is useful for spotting elusive prey as well.

In addition to hunting with a partner, we kept one person with a kayak in the water to act as a spotter, buoy, rest-station, and catch-handler. Having someone in that function wasn’t completely necessary, but it was sure useful!

You know the rules, you’ve got the gear, and you found a spot — now it’s time to slay some fish. This is what I learned from my time in the water:

Study Your Prey
Before you start striking, observe the different fish in your vicinity. Track their movements. Watch how they interact with others. Figure out their patterns of travel. Study their biology: what is their field of vision? Where are their weak spots? Gather as much intel on your prey as possible, and then you will be ready to strike.

Prey on the Weak
A true predator preys on the weak; you should be no different. Fish have a serious advantage underwater, so increase your chances of a successful hunt by going after the weakest prey first. Fish that are slower and have a larger side surface area will be the easiest to hunt.

Utilize Environmental Advantages
Being underwater is kind of like being in space. Underwater travel is possible on three different axes, so utilize this newfound freedom of movement to your advantage. Consider attacking your prey from above or below, where you are out of sight and thus unexpected.

Kelp forests and other underwater environments provide cover for fish, but they can also provide cover for you. Stalk your prey in a manner that utilizes those obstacles and gives you the advantage.

Strike When Ready
Once you’ve honed in on your prey, you are ready to strike. If using a Hawaiian sling, hold the elastic loop against the palm of your hand between your thumb and forefinger. With your left hand, pull the pole back, stretching the elastic out as far as you can muster. Then grip the pole in your right hand with the elastic stretched out.

Next, line up your target. Get as close to the fish as possible (I try to maneuver the tip of my cocked pole within six inches of my prey.) Aim for the center of the largest surface area of the fish. Then simply open your hand; watch the spear penetrate your prey. A clean shot will ensure that it doesn’t get away.

Once you’ve speared your fish, bring it in and drive your knife through it’s skull, ensuring a quick death. Thank the spirit of the sea for providing you with sustenance, then string it up.

Make Every Strike Count
Each time you strike, you’ll likely scare other fish in the vicinity away, so make each strike count. If you miss, be aggressive and continue stalking your prey as it moves away until you’re ready to strike again.

The freshest fish you will ever eat is the one you hunt yourself, so don’t waste any time turning the catch into dinner. Fish are relatively easy to clean and filet; there are a ton of videos on YouTube to show you how.

Once your fish has been cleaned, grill it up over an open fire or in a pan. A little salt and pepper can go a long way, so don’t forget to pack some seasonings into your kit. Bon appétit! [H]

Chris is an intrepid explorer who quit a fancy job in Los Angeles to pursue his dreams of adventure around the globe. You can follow his ongoing journey via Instagram.

Images ©: 4, 5; Jeff Masamori. 1-3, 7; 
Chris Brinlee Jr. and Daniel Bruce Lee. 6; Katherine Kim