Mar

9

My type of “spring cleaning” is a mess of sheephead on the fish-cleaning table.  The water is warming quickly and the wind is calming, so more anglers and spearfisherman are starting to venture into the gulf.

Getting the boat out and scrubbing the winter coat of mildew is made easier by the anticipation of the coming season.  The talk of the shortest snapper season and stricter limits on other species doesn’t dampen the excitement of the first trip.  Some of us have been spearing fish all winter, when the seas would let us escape the dock.  For many, their first excursion in 2013 is this month.  Besides staring at a wall of red snapper and remaining alert for early cobia, we pass the time underwater stacking up sheephead.

 sheephead

This is a great fish to target this time of year because their numbers are plentiful.  They aren’t a spooky fish that will disappear after shooting 1 or 2, and usually allow for a close shot.  They are plentiful for only a few more weeks.  I’m not sure if it is because they disburse after mating, or the spring break charter trips wipe the inshore sites clean. Whatever the case, we see them all year but not in large numbers like we do now.  Many fishermen believe they are too hard to clean because of their large rib cage. But your friend that is always volunteering to take all your sheephead, is very familiar with the mild flavor and white, flaky meat.

Many underwater hunters think of early spring as the tune-up season.  Venturing to the inshore rigs and brushing up on their diving skills and getting their aim back.  Just as bow hunters start practicing with backyard targets months before bow season, spearfisherman need to inspect their rigging and practice loading and shooting their spearguns.  The difference is, spearguns cannot be shot out of the water at land targets.  The only way to practice is to get out and dive…thus the big attraction of sheephead in March.  April usually hosts the first wave of migrating cobia.  As soon as the gulf waters reach the magic 68F, we start seeing cobia on the inshore sites.  Early spring divers are always scanning into the distance, hoping to see a curious cobia head your way.

 Cobia

The smaller size and liberal creel limits on sheephead make them a great fish for new spearos to develop their hunting skills.  Once a diver has honed his diving skills, many look to add a camera or speargun to their dive plan.  Since spearing fish can be challenging and even dangerous in extreme cases, we incourage new hunters to begin with small species and work their way up to the big boys like amberjack and cobia.  The challenge of wrestling the large fish isn’t an issue with the smaller fish.  I have never heard of a diver being towed around by a 6lb. sheephead!

Call Gulf Coast Divers at (251) 342-2970 and ask about dive training and spearfishing.  Training can be completed in a couple weeks and you can be geared up and ready for this season.  A good scuba system costs about the same as a set of golf clubs or tennis lessons. But if you are like me, then you understand the real fun happens in salt water!   So don’t keep saying, “One day I’m gonna’ see what’s down there.”  Make that “One day” happen this year.

Oct

8

The sport of spearfishing is governed by federal and state regulations, and we have the same size and creel limits as anglers.  Spearfishing has been found to be the most environmentally friendly form of fishing due to being highly selective, having no by-catch, causing no habitat damage, nor creating stress or harm to protected endangered species.

 These facts prove a spearfisherman can harvest their catch without doing any harm to the reef, but can he actually help the health of the reef? Absolutely!

 The newest target species for us gulf coast hunters is the invasive lionfish.  The last two years has seen an explosion in the local population of these beautiful, but extremely harmful fish.  A single female can produce 1 million eggs a year and a very high percentage of those will survive.  They have no local natural predator and eat the young of all our prized species.

 For these reasons a campaign has started with divers to put our spears to work to kill any lionfish we see.  Currently, it is the only way to attempt to check this growing problem.  They can’t be targeted with hook and line, nor can they be trawled because they only live in close proximity to wrecks and reefs.  No effective idea for developing a commercial fishery has been discovered.  So far, spearfishing is the only proven way to try and keep them in check.

 We are currently conducting additional dive training for biologist with Alabama Department of Conservation & Natural Resources so they can observe the lionfish on the reefs and develop effective eradication techniques.  All in an attempt to eradicate them and protect the strong fishery we enjoy on the gulf coast.

Most anglers don’t understand the severity of the problem because they don’t see how the pyramids, tanks and natural bottom are choked with them.  Even though a mature lionfish won’t eat a large snapper, it will consume every juvenile, so very few young snapper will survive to adulthood.

 The Alabama Spearfishing Association is currently hosting the First Annual Flora-Bama Lion Fish Roundup.  This six-week tournament allows participants to win prizes by harvesting as many Lionfish as they can.  The hope is that we can harvest species and raise awareness by hosting this tournament.  Spearfishing is the only effective way to fight this battle.  All the lionfish harvested are donated to researchers that are desperate to find other means of halting the invasion.

 Call Gulf Coast Divers at (251) 342-2970 and ask about how you can participate in the fight to eradicate lionfish from our reefs.

Sep

18

Now that our short red snapper season has come and gone it is time to shift back into amberjack mode.  These are the hardest fighting fish species that we target as spearfisherman.  It is because of their strength they are called “Pez Fuerte” south of the border.  In English it means “strong fish”!

 Their size and strength contribute to the excitement as the ultimate target species in underwater hunting.  Amberjack are targeted only by experienced spearos that have developed their aim well enough to “stone ‘em”.  But it only takes missing the kill spot by 2 inches to be dealt an exciting fight.  Underwater video of good and bad shots is a great tool to use in training new hunters.

 A huge trend among spearfisherman this season has been shooting video.  Most of the hunters I dive with have added camera mounts to their guns to video the excitement of the stalk, hunt and fight.

 It is easy to get a good quality, high definition video camera and underwater housing in a very small package and for a reasonable price.  The logical next step was to mount it to your mask or your gun and capture the action. Non-diving friends and family are amazed at the action and scenes that we enjoy every time we venture under the gulf. A fisherman sitting in the boat 70 feet above the action, has no idea what goes on below. The freedom of being able to select your own fish and just seeing all the species that inhabit the sites that they fish.  Instead of guessing what the colored pixels on your bottom machine represent, why don’t you jump in and have a look?

 The Sealife and GoPro-style cameras can be mounted out of the way leaving the hunter free to press “record” then forget about the camera and get on with the hunt.

The added bonus is seeing all the fish species on the reef, not just the ones biting.  The video evidence from divers has been instrumental in educating the “powers that be” on the proliferation of the red snapper population in the northern Gulf of Mexico, in hopes of getting the season and creel limits relaxed.

Divers have provided the video evidence of the Lionfish invasion to our coastal reefs.  Because Lionfish don’t bite a hook, most fisherman only read articles about the invasion.  We’ve seen the Lionfish go from a rare sighting 2 years ago, to a common species.

 Call Gulf Coast Divers at (251) 342-2970 and ask about dive training, spearfishing and underwater videography.  Training can be completed in a couple weeks and you can be geared up and ready sooner than you think. Then you can grab your Sealife camera and be uploading You Tube videos after your first trip.

Jun

13

Your kids get excited about Christmas morning or the last day of school, but my dive buddies and I start loosing sleep in anticipation of June 1st.  With this season promising higher fuel prices, stricter creel limits and an abundance of nice red snapper on every site, most won’t have to travel far from the dock to fill your two fish quota.  If you are like many gulf coast fisherman, who target the red delicacy, the sport of fishing isn’t really much sport anymore.  The only way to stretch your fishing day to lunchtime is to cull fish all morning.  These comments may surprise fisherman from other areas of the country that have heard we have a shortage of Red Snapper.  Well ask any Alabama fisherman and you will hear stories of limiting out in just two drops to the bottom.

Because of the restricted limits and high fuel prices, many anglers have turned to spearfishing to fill their fish boxes.  It is the ultimate in selective fishing, because you are eye to eye with the fish.  It is easier to target a particular fish and you don’t spend all day culling rat snapper.  Many fisherman complain of not getting their bait through the small snapper to reach the bottom for that big sow snapper, scamp or triggerfish.

Fuel prices are always a summer concern and with marine fuel at a premium price, running all over the gulf can be a costly technique.

I’ve been spearing on the Alabama gulf coast for over 20 years, and sat and watched many bottom rigs bounce just off the bottom with a hundred 5lb. snapper staring at it while the big un’s hang outside the commotion, exhibiting the wariness and caution that allowed them to get to 30 lbs.!

Spearfishing is also a much more comfortable way to spend the hottest months of the year on the coast.  I feel sorry for the guys I see tied to a rig, catching nothing, with sweat droplets dripping off their nose, as we hand nice fish over the gunwales to our dive buddies.

As spearfisherman, we almost always come back to the dock with full creel limits on all the usual suspects, and an average aggregate weight higher than on the fishing boats.  Our two red snapper are the first targets, and then we shift our attention to the plentiful triggerfish.  A good spearfisherman will always be glancing in the distance for a nice amberjack or curious cobia to swim along.  While cruising along the reef, wreck or rig, I am always scanning the sand for the faint outline of a flounder.  Most sites will only have 1 or 2 nice grouper eyeing the action, but mostly not participating.  The aggressive red snapper bully them away from the angler’s bait, but avoiding our spear tips isn’t as easy.

In order for anglers to target the variety of species that we fill our coolers with every weekend, they would have to take every piece of tackle in their garage.  With just one speargun I am ready to harvest whatever species is home when I visit the site.  Lockjaw because the tide isn’t right is never a problem, they may not be biting…but they are still home.

Call Gulf Coast Divers and ask about dive training and spearfishing.  Training can be completed in a couple weeks and you can be geared up and ready for this Red Snapper season.  A good scuba system costs about the same as a set of golf clubs or that custom rod with a new gold reel you’ve been thinking about.  So don’t keep saying, “One day I’m gonna try diving.”  Make that “One day” this year.

May

3

We have seen a huge increase in interest in spearfishing on the gulf coast this spring.  The warm winter and especially clear gulf waters are just the invitation many spearos need to get wet.  The main target species, red snapper are plentiful and the fish are getting bigger.  The other side of that coin is that the recreational quotas will fill faster with more large fish expected to be caught.

NOAA Fisheries Service is currently investigating a proposal that, if implemented, would increase the 2012 and 2013 quotas for commercial and recreational red snapper harvest. The quotas are expected to increase, because recent population assessments show that over-fishing has ended. The red snapper allowable catch would be increased from 7.185 million pounds whole weight in 2011 to 8.080 million pounds in 2012.  The recreational allocation will be 49% or 3.959 million pounds.

That sounds like a lot of fish, but with more anglers and spearos seeking to put filets on the grill, this quota will get filled quickly. The increased quota is a step in the right direction, but the reality…it is equal to the amount of snapper caught last year, since we exceeded the allowable limit by 730,000 pounds!  Sorry NOAA Fisheries.

In addition, if implemented, the rule would eliminate the fixed recreational red snapper closed season of October 1 – December 31. By eliminating the October 1 fishing season closure date, NOAA Fisheries Service would be able to re-open the recreational harvest for red snapper if any remaining quota is available.

 

The gulf will be a busy place on the traditional opening of red snapper season, June 1st.. The season will close 40 days later on July 10th.   And for those divers that have a competitive edge and enjoy the excitement of tournament fishing, June 1st will find them sighting down their spearguns at the wall of red snapper we have been drooling over all spring.

The Red Neck Riviera Spearfishing Tournament, held from May 18th – June 9th 2012, gives hunters 3 weeks to get underwater.  1st place Amberjack is the most sought after trophy with winning fish rarely under 80lbs. If you are primarily an “AJ” hunter, the Red Neck Riviera Tournament is your only shot at a trophy this year, since amberjack season will be closed during the Alabama Spearfishing Rodeo later this season.  The Red Snapper sizes are always impressive and promise to be even larger this year with such an abundance of fish.  A 30lb. Red Snapper may not even land a 3rd place prize in this competitive rodeo.  This is a fun tournament for all divers regardless of experience level.  Fish can be weighed 9am-6pm, mon.-sat. at Gulf Coast Divers in Mobile.

As spearfisherman, we usually come back to the dock with full creel limits on all the usual suspects, and an average aggregate weight higher than on the fishing boats.  Even if you don’t shoot a trophy fish, it still goes on the grill at home or donated for the awards ceremony fish fry.

Call Gulf Coast Divers at (251) 342-2970 and ask about advanced training and spearfishing.  You can be geared up and ready for this tournament season.  We can have you ready for the novice category in just a few training sessions.  So don’t keep saying, “One day I’m gonna try spearfishing” Make that “One day” this year.

Mar

14

As divers we have a unique opportunity to monitor the health of our reefs and ecosystems by observing the reefs, in action.  Anglers have to make guesses on the life of a reef based on only species they catch.  The huge influx of Lionfish into the gulf of mexico has brought the threat of invasive species into everyday conversation.

RED LIONFISH Pterois volitans

Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific and were most likely introduced into U.S. waters during Hurricane Andrew when
an aquarium containing lionfish was destroyed. With no real predators these fish are highly destructive to the native reef
fish populations and have the potential to harm red snapper and grouper populations. Lionfish will rarely bite a baited
hook and are normally only landed through spearfishing. However, if you catch one be cautious because their spines can inject
venom. If you are injected with lionfish venom seek medical attention as soon as possible. Lionfish rodeos are growing in popularity to try to stop the invasion.

GIANT TIGER PRAWN Penaeus monodon
The giant tiger prawn is native to the Western Pacific and are easily distinguished from native Alabama shrimp. Tiger prawns can grow to extremely large sizes, have black and white banding down the body, and were first reported in Alabama waters in 1996. The introduction of this invasive species is believed to have occured first in the Bahamas when a hurricane damaged an aquaculture facility. Reports of tiger
prawns have come in from North Carolin, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

The annual Redneck Riviera Spearfishing Tournament will have a lionfish category this year.  With a prize going to the hunter that kills the most lionfish during the month long rodeo.

Call the Alabama Marine Resources Division to report invasive species:
Dauphin Island (251) 861-2882 Gulf Shores (251) 968-7576

Feb

10

April is traditionally the month that cobia start migrating thru the gulf coast on their westward journey.  The time of year and the speed of the migration has everything to do with water temperature.  The magic temperature seems to be 68 degrees.  The first cobia to show will arrive almost simultaneously with the gulf temperature warming to 68 degrees.

Early season cobia hunters usually sight-fish for the distinctive brown shapes, while cruising within 1/2 mile of the beach.  Once spotted the boats move ahead of the pod and try to intercept the fish and cast lures, silver eels, and jigs.  The key to sighting the fish is to get as high above the water as possible to increase the downward line of sight.

A new trend the last few years is for spearfisherman to follow this same sight-hunting tactic, but with a twist.  We troll the beach looking for the pods, then when sighted, we run the boat ahead of the fish and put a couple free-divers in the water.  Armed with mask, snorkel, fins and speargun, we rely on the natural curiosity of ling to swim close enough to check us out.  It usually takes many drops before we luck into a curious fish.

Any spearo that has had the luck of spearing a cobia knows that they can be a handful.  Cobia are very strong fish that will sometimes lie motionless after being shot, fooling the diver into thinking they stoned it with a great shot.  But boy can they come back to life.  Any angler that has gaffed a “green” cobia can attest to their surprising strength.  I’ve heard stories of sprained arms and shoulders, broken gaffs and many, many lost fish.

Known locally as “ling” or “lemonfish”, cobia are the main focus of anglers and spearfisherman looking for an adventure in late March and April.  For information on spearfishing call Gulf Coast Divers at (251) 342-2970.

Aug

20

Now that our short red snapper season has come and gone it is time to shift back into amberjack mode.  These are the hardest fighting fish species that we target as spearfisherman.

New underwater hunters look at this fish as a goal to work towards with good reason.  Most spearfisherman that have an “uh oh” story, usually has a big amberjack as the main character.  It usually involves a bad shot or bad decision by the hunter, but no matter the reason, the situation still has the spearo attached to hard fighting fish.

Fisherman can relate stories of sore backs and rods pinned to the gunwales by big amberjack.  These are the same “donkeys” that we target, but unlike anglers that have the stability of a boat deck to fight from, we don’t have a foundation to fight from.  A poorly shot “AJ” will easily drag a diver around.

It doesn’t take a large AJ to put up a healthy fight, though.  My largest fish taken by speargun was in the 90lb. range, but the fish that beat me up the most was a 30lb. adolescent fish.  I took a long, poor shot in the fishes tail and the fight was on.  He came back around and head butted me in the chest, took my breath away, knocked my regulator out and flooded my mask.  After putting all my gear back in place and subduing the fish.  I laughed at what a hand-full this little guy was, all because I didn’t get a good shot and just attached myself to him.  I usually experience much less fight with bigger fish because with a bigger, stronger fish I take more time, resulting in a better shot.  I always breath a sigh of relief when I “stone” a big ‘un.

Amberjack are so named because of the distinctive amber color and bar that runs through their eye.  The spanish name Pez Fuerte, is a much better description meaning “strong fish”.  They are very common in our area of the gulf and considered the ultimate target in spearfishing.  Even though red snapper is the “star of the show”, it takes little skill to shoot a snapper point blank.  Amberjack, locally called AJ’s or Donkeys, require true shooting skill and very good diving skills.  Most new underwater hunters develop their hunting skill on smaller species like scamp, snapper, gag, flounder and sheephead.  Once you have learned your gear and found your aim, you can start on smallish amberjack and slowly increase your target size.

Most stories involving lost and broken spearguns involve a large amberjack and a novice spearfisherman.  Safety is the key with any adventurous sport and even more so when you are underwater!  It is much better to let that big fish keep swimming, than to come by the dive shop, singing the blues about a broken gun or having a fish get you in a close-call situation.

Call Gulf Coast Divers at (251) 342-2970 and ask about dive training and spearfishing.  Training can be completed in a couple weeks and you can be geared up and ready sooner than you think.

May

17

Researchers at Dauphin Island Sea Lab need your help studying the migratory behavior and habitat use of the Atlantic Manta. If you dive the gulf regularly you probably have seen these creatures before. Report you sightings so the Sea Lab can complete their study.


YOU CAN HELP. If you see a Manta call Matt Ajemian at (251) 861.2141 x 2384. They would like to know about your sighting immediately so they can send a boat to collect data.

Information they need: Date, time; Location (GPS), Approximate wingspan, Group size, Behaviors, Associated species, Photos/video are helpful.

Feb

27

GUN SHAFT

Gun length is one of the most important considerations in choosing a speargun.  When we get into discussions about gun length, we are really discussing shaft length.  In general, longer shafts will increase your shooting range.  But, too much gun can be a mistake for many hunting applications.  A larger gun has more mass to swing through the water making it tougher to track swimming fish.  You also, don’t want to be blasting through your fish and hitting the reef, wreck or rig behind the fish.  This practice is dangerous and will have you replacing tips and shafts often.

Too small a gun will contribute to very frustrating dives, as a fish tears off and swims away because you didn’t get good penetration or the shooting line will stop the shaft just short of that perfect shot.

Shaft diameter will affect accuracy and penetrating power.  A smaller mass shaft (9/32”) is lighter and tends to be more accurate than a larger shaft, but is more susceptible to getting bent during a tussle with a larger fish.  Lighter shafts have less momentum when hitting a hard surface (reefs, wrecks, or rigs), so less tip damage is done when shooting through smaller fish.  A heavier shaft will retain more punch power for better penetration and is less likely to get bent, but  the increase in mass results in a drop in trajectory.  A common compromise is a 5/16” shaft size.  It is heavier than a 9/32” and lighter than an 3/8” shaft.  It is the most common shaft diameter for spearos on the gulf coast.

GUN BANDS

Speargun bands play an important role in the power and accuracy of any gun.  A speargun is really a system of components that must be matched to maximize the performance of that gun.  We commonly get new divers in the shop that want to increase the power of their speargun with larger and shorter bands.  This is possible to a small degree, but over-powering a gun can make it more difficult to load and will greatly effect it’s accuracy.  A shaft that is over-powered will “whip” when it is released from the trigger and will fly in an unpredictable pattern.  It  also, creates more recoil in the gun which will cause a shaft to fly low.  This is because the recoil causes the front of the gun to jump up as the shaft is leaving the muzzle.  This upward motion of the gun carries the rear of the shaft up as it leaves, causing the front of the shaft to drop, resulting in a low shot.  

Each powerband adds a fixed amount of power to the shaft which is a function of diameter and tightness.  A typical high-quality 9/16” powerband will add about 80 lbs. of force and 5/8” band will add 100 lbs.  The power is linearly additive, so three 9/16” bands will have approx. 240 pounds of force.  The bands lose power with age and lose power with duration of stretch.  Some high-tech spearos will have 3 bands on their gun and only load two.  If they swim for awhile without shooting, they will unload a stressed band and reload a fresh one.  Rotating bands between shots is time consuming and less stealthy so it isn’t a common practice, but to each his own.

The points above are just a few of the topics discussed in our spearfishing class.  I will continue these  posts with general information for spearfishing on the gulf coast and equipment specifics relating to guns and local species in this series.  I will try to post a new article every week discussing different spearfishing topics.  Watch this blog for new articles and call me at (251) 342-2970 to ask questions on these or any other  topics.