EDIT: Since I wrote the piece below Aidan got into spearfishing big time. We both use spearguns now in addition to some missions still only using pole spears.
I love being in the water. As an ex competitive swimmer, Elite swim instructor and keen scuba diver I’ve spent my fair share in the wet element.
Back in 1997 I also worked in Aquanauts Dive Centre in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand. A few years before the devastating tsunami hit there. Having grown up with hunting & fishing as a big part of my life, one would think that the step to spear fishing is an obvious one. However, for years I have stayed away from the spear and rather focused on catching crayfish (lobster) and gathering scallops on scuba. My wife Hayley has already despaired for many years that her scenic diving has become something of the past, now instead swimming after me with the catch bag..
Another factor to take into account when spear fishing is the possibility of attracting sharks. I’ve seen sharks while diving outside New Zealand but they’ve been leopards and black & white tip reef sharks (also had a couple of cave dives in Tonga which was a white tip nursery). My sister-in-law Melanie have encountered the big ones. Hammerheads in Australia and Great Whites in South Africa. I have friends here in NZ whom have had close encounters with Bronze Whalers and Makos, who have grabbed fish off their spears or off their fishing lines. Aidan and I have also accidentally caught smaller Hammerheads while fishing.
In general, we shouldn’t approach life with fear and paranoia but a bit of caution still doesn’t hurt. When I’m diving I know they’re around but I prefer for them to keep to themselves. There’s no need to compete with Makos and Tigers for their fish. Anyway, I’ve always argued that statistically you don’t have much to worry about. With the amount of water activity we have in New Zealand waters there’s far between serious encounters. The last fatality caused by a shark was going back to 1976, when a Bronze Whaler bit a diver in the thigh where he had his speared fish hanging. This summer unfortunately saw another fatality, when an ocean swimmer ended up amongst feeding sharks. It appears that a Bronze Whaler first bit him before he was taken and killed by a Great White.
Anyway, I have taken up spear fishing but I practise it inshore, around rocks and reefs, not in open water. What’s really attracting me to it is the challenge to use only a pole spear or Hawaiian sling, not mighty powerful spear guns. What I want is a primitive, back-to-basics challenge with mask & snorkle and a short-range spear.
The great thing about spearing fish is your option to target species less ecologically challenged and even to single out the fish you want to kill. At the weedlines between reefs and open water you find some of the most interesting species. John Dory (or St Peter fish, pictured left) is a beautiful eating fish, which can be harder to spot than to spear, Porae (pictured second from right) can remind of snapper and Terakihi in appearance but are easily distinguished by their big lips, while Terakihi and Giant Boarfish are sought after targets but in general found deeper and therefore harder to reach freediving with a basic spear. (In New Zealand spear fishing is in general not done on scuba.)
Gurnard is another good eating fish well worth counting as is of course flounder. Snorkelling with my nine year old, Aidan, we would mainly target flounder and also Mullet. Blue Maomao and Sweep are definitely worth targeting if you get the chance. A species I tend to leave alone is Parore, which is often seen within range, but I don’t fancy them too much as an eating fish. The same is the case with Leather Jackets. Red Moki is another fish we shouldn’t target too much, because they’re a fairly easy target, so don’t take too many from the same area.
In the South Island in particular, Blue Cod is an accessible & easy target and superb eating fish. The most popularly targeted fish amongst spearos is probably Butterfish (pictured second from left, also called Greenbone). It’s a fish you need to carefully stalk and wait for in the kelp forests. All these fish mentioned are within my targets, if I’m in the right spots at the right time. Kingfish, Snapper, Trevally & Kahawai I reserve to fish for with rod & reel.
Pictured above is Aidan in various situations. I’ve taken him fishing & hunting since the age of three and a couple of years ago he slowly started getting into snorkelling. A bit nervous at first but with his love for marine life he forgets about being nervous and just thoroughly enjoys it. These days Aidan gets in the water before I am, tracking fish and calling out to me to come and join him. Much thanks to him our fish smoker ends up working overtime.. We also have some great marine reserves in this northern part of New Zealand, which is perfect to bring kids to get to experience the ocean.
Back home in Norway, my uncle dived and spear fished as I grew up. In those colder conditions it’s practised both by freediving and on scuba. I was also introduced to spearing the humble flounder, where they can grow to good sizes. Other common species are Arctic Cod, Pollack, Wolf-fish and Monkfish. The Atlantic Monkfish is in the anglerfish family (pictured left) and can grow to considerable sizes. The Monkfish in New Zealand is a stargazer and not so scary looking. They do however taste very much the same. In this part of the world people don’t realise what a highly sought-after fish it is in Europe. It’s difficult to target Monkfish with a spear in New Zealand, because they tend to be fairly deep which makes it difficult diving without a bottle. It is however a fish I enjoy cooking with a flesh resembling crayfish in flavour.