Before mankind donned a scuba tank, it took up the spear: an instrument that could bring food to the table; or open a rite of passage for a young hunter. Spearfishing has evolved over the years: from simple pole spears roughly fashioned by a branch and a sharp edge to advanced pneumatic-powered devices, which can snag a grouper in the blink of an eye. The art has made a significant impact on human development, and not just from a purely utilitarian standpoint: from the Romans’ depiction of tridents as the standard of Poseidon, to the allegory of Melvillian harpoons, spearfishing has made its mark on world culture. From the Biblical fertile crescent, to modern day Alabama, spearfishing has changed dramatically over millennia, but still has a place in a world of commercial fishing and fast food.
By John Tapley
Modern reasons for spearfishing are manifold. Some love the thrill of the hunt, while others rely on their skill with a sturdy speargun to bring dinner back to the table. Some are brought into the sport as an extension of scuba diving – even in youth. For Mark Bollinger, divemaster and instructor at Down Under Dive Shop in Gulf Shores, his obsession with spearfishing stems from a young age: he has enjoyed the sport since the age of 12, and his interest in fishing lead him to adding a speargun to his usual loadout.
“[For people] who get into scuba diving – if they’re hunters or outdoorsmen – it’s a natural crossover,” he says. “It combines fishing and hunting, so you’re getting it all in one basket.”
According to Bollinger, there is also an environmental angle of the fishing specialty, which is often overlooked:
“While fishing with a group of guys, [I tried] to get two amberjack at the size we could keep; we probably caught 50 or 60 other fish (like red snapper) in deep water. When we brought them up, they had barotrauma so we had to vent them properly and release them.
“…as opposed to spearfishing where I would have gone down, found the one I wanted, shot it, and come back up. I would have eliminated all that bycatch, which I think is a huge plus: there’s not a lot of waste.”
Throughout his years, Bollinger has found the sport best suited for groups: not only for safety purposes, but for the thrill and camaraderie in finding, collecting, and bringing home a whopper – or a wimp, depending on the circumstances.
“From a safety standpoint, you always want to dive with a buddy. I can’t think of a time when I’ve gone out spearfishing without three or four other guys. Part of the fun of it is having everyone together.”
Spearfishing is a sport enjoyed the world over, and really shines in Alabama. The state’s coastal shores are very close to the continental shelf and the warm Gulf Stream current, which originates in the tropical Caribbean and carries about 150 times more water than the Amazon River. This current moves along the U.S. East Coast across the Atlantic Ocean towards Europe, and with it brings a unique array of diverse life.
Down Under Dive Shop owner Bud Howard began diving as a teenager in the ’70s, and has experienced the strength this current brings to the Gulf; and the resultant majesty it creates:
“Diving here is an experience because of the diversity of life: the quantities and different varieties of fish. There’s something for everybody here: everything from pelagics in deeper water to reef and wreck species: all the grouper, snapper, amberjack, and tuna.
“There are a lot of nutrients in the water, and that attracts a food chain: everything from white sharks to small tropical fish. It’s a place to see a lot of wildlife, and that’s what makes the spearfishing so good – it’s what attracts people to our offshore waters. Whether fishing, snorkeling, free diving, or scuba, it’s all here.”
While Alabama has little shoreline compared to its larger neighbors (35 miles in all), the state enjoys one of the largest artificial reef programs in the United States. Reef building activities in Alabama officially started in 1953 when local charter operators placed car bodies offshore to create artificial habitats. Since that event, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources/Marine Resources Division (AMRD), working under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, created the Alabama Artificial Reef Program for the purpose of acquiring suitable reef materials to be used to create fish habitat for recreational and commercial purposes. The AMRD works with local organizations, such as the Alabama Gulf Coast Reef and Restoration Foundation (AGCRRF) to construct and deploy these necessary structures. Orange Beach local Walter Marine, also known as Reef Makers, has created and deployed artificial reefs for over 30 years. Thanks to these efforts, the state now enjoys over 13,000 reef sites.
Forrest Phillips, co-owner of PADI 5-Star Southern Skin Divers Supply (SSDS) in Birmingham, grew up in the sport and was certified with the company at the age of 12. Founded in 1953, SSDS is the country’s oldest running dive shop, and is today managed by Phillips, his father Steve, brother Spencer, and friend Mark Trant.
Phillips has seen the evolution of Gulf Coast reefs firsthand, and has explored them for over 30 years. From his observations, the reefs’ positive impact on the local environment has made waves.
“Before then there wasn’t much out there. The Gulf Coast is a lot of sand with water on top of it and not a lot of reefs or [natural] wrecks,” he says. “The vast artificial reef program started in the 1950s, and the good thing is they never let up. They are constantly adding new sites – big sites that are wrecks; little sites called pyramids – and basically creating a structure in the sand that creates a habitat. It’s why we have such a great red snapper fishery that’s second to none.”
“Over the past 20 years I’ve personally seen, and get more fish, every year,” he adds, “and I think that’s because we have such a great artificial reef program – so they don’t get overfished. You can get a break in your records: bigger grouper, snapper, and triggerfish. There’s so much to choose from you don’t even have to know where you’re going.”
In recent years, the Gulf Coast, including Alabama’s coastline, has been besieged by invasive lionfish: a predator species, which has no apex predator to balance out the food web – that is, no animal predator. Local communities have stepped up to the plate to combat this menace through community outreach, education, and events such as tournaments and cook-offs. Lionfish is well liked for its flaky texture, and gourmands describe the taste as a merger between grouper and shellfish. Many local restaurants participate by serving lionfish directly on the menu, or by offering catch and cook programs.
Despite the invasive species’ negative impacts on the environment, the lionfish situation has sparked a renewed interest in Gulf Coast fishing – and with great fishing opportunities, inevitably come spearos. Lionfish fever is big in Alabama, and thanks to the efforts of community organizations such as the Gulf Coast Lionfish Coalition (GCLC), the bug is catching on. Because of their rampant destruction, lionfish do not require a permit or license to hunt, and fishermen and women may capture as many as they like.
“[Spearfishers] are encouraged to rid the place of them,” says Howard. “It’s easy to do, and the gear’s not terribly expensive.”
Lionfish tend to congregate from the shallows to the deep blue depths, and can be caught by spearos of varying skill levels. Because the creatures are equipped with venomous spines, anyone attempting to catch a lionfish should do so with direct supervision by a trained professional. This is especially true at deeper dive sites, such as artificial reefs, where good help may be miles away – and where lionfish love to hunt.
“Unfortunately, the lionfish like [artificial reefs]: they get on these sites and eat the juvenile snapper, lobsters, flounder, and everything else. They are growing like crazy off the coast of Alabama,” Phillips adds. “When we go out on our boat – say, with five or six divers – it’s not hard to come back with 200 pounds in one day. When an average lionfish is three-quarters of a pound, that’s a lot of fish! That’s not uncommon, either: they’re really that thick.”
Clearly, Alabama’s crystalline shores have the right stuff to develop spearfishing memories, which can last a lifetime. But there’s a slight catch: to spearfish, one must become a spearfisher. It’s not an easy task, and requires a fine degree of skill, patience, learning, and intuition. What makes a spear fisher?
In Bollinger’s experience, spearfishing should be seen as an extension of scuba or free diving instead of its own activity. Diving fundamentals, such as proper movement, breathe control, buddy signals, and gauge reading, are staple requirements when it comes to spearfishing. But there’s much more to it than that: diving is a diverse sport that offers many advanced forms of training, and each one can benefit a spearo in its own way. For example, activities connected to spearfishing, such as diving off an open boat, or using nitrox to snag deep water quarries, require advanced certification.
Bollinger explains what a budding spearfisher needs to succeed:
“If people want to look at spearfishing, I don’t think an open water certification is enough. That’s where advanced training comes in: wreck diving, deep diving, fish ID, and all kinds of different classes [found at] a local dive shop. Those are some of the best ways to train to be a spearfisher. Most of the other stuff is on the job training once you are down there, but having additional training is invaluable for being a spear fisher.
“[But] that’s not to scare new divers away from trying it. There are ways for people who are new to it break their way in without going whole hog and [trying] to shoot a 100 pound amberjack the first time they’re out.”
Wrecks and artificial reefs provide ample housing for sea life, and this is especially prominent in coastal states such as Alabama. Having an intimate understanding of wrecks and their inner workings is an added plus.
“A wreck diving specialty is important because of rules and regulations about wrecks; and that’s where a lot of fish reside,” Howard adds. “It’s also good to know about wrecks while you are there since they’re such unique places.”
Spearfishing also requires a certain character: someone who is comfortable with not only their gear configuration, but with multi-tasking as well. Throw in the precision required to line up and execute a perfect shot, and you have a skill that can take years to fully hone.
Practice makes perfect, as Bollinger recalls his experiences:
“From the perspective of a diver, the biggest challenge is multitasking while you’re down there – and that’s why additional training is such a good idea. Every task you add while on a dive increases the difficulty of it exponentially. You already have to watch where your buddy is, how much air you have left, and your dive computer; and now you’re adding in shooting a fish, and if you don’t the right shot, it’s going to take you for a drag.
“The best way to abate that challenge is to spend more time in the water. As you practice, you’ll get that muscle memory. If anything comes up, you’ll be a lot better equipped to handle it. Eventually your shots will get better and longer.”
While most spearfishers agree the best catch is found miles offshore in deeper waters and on large wrecks, spearing right off shore has many benefits as well. This is especially helpful for spearos who are just starting to get their feet wet. According to Bollinger, nearshore spearfishing is a much cheaper alternative to using a boat, due to fuel, equipment rentals, chartering fees, and other associated costs. Species such as flounder and mackerel are often found closer to shore, and by using a pole spear, novices can get a taste of what’s to come.
Before embarking on a spearfishing lifestyle, interested parties should consider their options: scuba diving versus freediving, or diving without heavy equipment such as tanks. Freediving is a challenging form of diving that requires an intense degree of dedication – and offers massive satisfaction when the job is done.
Such is the case of Down Under Dive Shop’s Freediving Instructor, Mike Sumlin, who thoroughly enjoyed the progression of becoming a free diver. Sumlin experiences this nearly weightless form of spearfishing from right off shore down to deep reefs and blue ocean waters reaching 100 feet. Once he discovered he could dive at the same depths, but without the gear, there was no going back.
While it is possible for interested spearos to jump right into free diving, it is strongly discouraged because of the basic fundamentals all divers can learn through scuba courses. Just like with scuba, freediving requires a spearo to multi-task while keeping their eyes on the prize.
“For freediving training, there are a lot of safety aspects: buddy work, knowing what to do, and how to prevent shallow water blackout,” Sumlin says. “Taking an advanced course will speed up your freediving abilities in a safe manner.”
Spearfishing is a pursuit that requires an intense devotion and the right patience and gumption to see it through to the end – but even then, there are many worlds left to discover. Alabama’s coastline, while small in comparison to other southern states, offers a lifetime of adventure. Every journey begins with a single step – or a swimming stroke. Spearfishing is an evolution of diving.
“We have a lot of great dive sites here in Alabama, but after a while you’ve seen them all,” says Bollinger. “When you’re down there and just diving, it’s like being a tourist; but you are an active participant while spearfishing.”