The Call of the Wild: A (very) Amateur Guide to Spearfishing

Posted on May 16, 2013

We have teamed up with our friends at The Inertia to bring you the "Call of the Wild"- a monthly series of editorial features that will cover every aspect of heeding the call.  Although Howler Ambassador Ryan McInnis might find these spearfishing tips trivial, there is some great advice in here for novices (like us) to get out there and catch some dinner.

There are certain things in life that one must do. Fall in love. Sleep in the sand. Sit in silence. Create things. There are many more, but one prominently perched near the very top of this list is spearfishing. It seems trite in comparison to falling love, but I’m not kidding. It’s one of the most immensely satisfying activities in existence: kicking hard towards a sun-dappled surface, muscles aching and joints popping, gasping for an essential breath of air with a fish wriggling on the end of a stick with a poker on one side of it – this is exciting stuff!

Before I get started here, let me clarify something: I am the most amateur of amateurs when it comes to spearfishing. A few years ago, my older brother got me a Hawaiian sling as a gift for being the best man at his wedding. He had never tried it, and neither had I, but we both agreed that it seemed like something I would like. And so, the day after the wedding, with head still foggy from the evening before, we waded together in the warm ocean just off of Haleiwa. We swam around together for an hour or two, marveling as one does at the vast array of strangely, hideously beautiful creatures that make their home there. I came up to clear my leaking mask of water, and I heard a garbled, “ISSSH!” coming from my brother’s snorkel. Assuming he meant “FISSSH!”, I snuck back down again and looked where he was pointing. It was, indeed, a fish. I had no idea what kind it was, but it looked edible. After a brief chase, it lodged itself beneath a rocky outcrop and allowed me to shoot it. And oh, the feeling!

We emerged triumphant to his new bride and my then-girlfriend, as happy proud hunters. We had produced food! We were men! Men with a sharp stick and a fish and snot coming from our noses and those odd mask marks that make snorkelers and scuba divers look as though they’ve been beaten around the face with a wet rag. The fish, of course, was much smaller on land. Much smaller. Too small, in fact, to eat. The girls laughed at us. Imagine the outrage. Us, the hunters, the providers, the slayers of those denizens of the deep, being laughed at by our women. Luckily, we were too hung over to care, so we handed the fish off to some fishermen as bait. At least they were grateful.

This, of course, was years ago. I’ve now graduated into only shooting fish that I know are fish I can eat. I also wear a fanny pack full of rocks as a weight belt, but I imagine a real one will come with time.  And so, in typical Howler Brother’s fashion, I’ve compiled a list to would-be spearfisher-people. And, as always, please add your suggestions in the comments section. I need suggestions, because I’m really not very good at it. As per usual, the best suggestion wins $200 worth of Howler Gear. Heck yeah!

And congratulations to last month’s winner, Dave Henderson, on his suggestion for F* Instagram: How To Document a Surf Adventure. Yes, Dave, memorable souvenirs are key. Garden gnomes included. Check out the rest of the Call of the Wild Series. It’s good stuff.

1. Look into the regulations. As it turns out, you can’t just jump in with your pointed stick and shoot whatever you want. There are some legalities around it. And God forbid you end up shooting some poor swimmer in the butt, thinking he’s a North American Trunk-Wearing Bubble Fish. I’ve heard those are terrible eating, anyways.

2. Test your equipment. Before you jump off a pier with your flippers and mask and spear in hand, maybe try wading in first. The first time I ingeniously tested my (patent pending) fanny pack full of rocks, I put far too many rocks in. As you probably know, rocks tend to affect one’s buoyancy pretty severely. I sank like the stones in my fanny pack. Thinking this was great, I kicked for the bottom, only to run out of breath much deeper than I intended. Nothing kills the satisfaction of killing something like killing yourself in the attempt.

3. Start with the hardest method first. This may seem a little silly, but it worked for me. There are an array of different spears you can use, some with triggers and some without. The trigger-less ones are propelled by an elastic that’s wrapped around your elbow, and much more difficult to hit anything with. They’re also much more difficult to retrieve when you shoot at something 60 feet down that turns out to a large piece of bull kelp, waving at you from the bottom, as if to say “you idiot, you thought I was a fish. Good luck getting your pointy stick back!” But once you have that mastered (and I use that term very loosely), graduating to something with a trigger and a string attached to your spear seems so much easier. And as I’ve stated before, I am an inherently lazy person. Easier is better.

4. Cold water sucks. Seriously, it does. I live in Canada, where the water does not get warm. That means I’m pulling on a 5-mm wetsuit, which means I’m probably putting on an extra fanny pack full of rocks to get more than five feet down. Also, it’s murder on your head. Even with a hood, a full minute underwater with an exposed face – save for your bulging eyes behind your mask – creates a pretty murderous ice-cream headache. I don’t know how the fish do it.

5. Use natural surroundings. We are not meant to be underwater. Unless you’re a die-hard and go to those classes where they make you hold your breath and roll you around like a bowling ball under the water while punching you in the kidneys, you probably aren’t that well equipped for life beneath the sea. Unless you’re a die-hard. Or Aqua-man. But you’re not Aqua-man. Don’t try and fool me. Where I live, bull-kelp anchors itself firmly to rocks sitting on the ocean floor. They extend up towards the sun before reaching the surface in a bulbous, salty, leafy lump. And they make the perfect tow-rope. Using muscles uses oxygen, so anything you can do (fanny pack full of rocks!) to aid in your descent towards dinner is a good thing. Look around, enjoy the beauty, and see what there is down there to help you out.

And seriously, be careful. Air is pretty necessary. Don’t get stuck somewhere. Unless you really know what you’re doing, stay somewhere that you know. Don’t go underwater spelunking or shark chasing. Don’t shoot yourself or anyone else. Just go and shoot a fish that is delicious. Oh, the feeling!