Spearfishing, particularly the Louisiana oil-rig style with scuba gear, is very similar to bowhunting. Most of the elite young bowhunters I know would find scuba diving and spearfishing off the Louisiana coast to be a thrilling and an equally addictive hobby that builds on all you have learned through bowhunting.
I have been scuba diving for a lot of years. Certified when I was 20 yrs old. For the first few decades the diving was confined to relaxed cruising in the warm blue Caribbean reefs and wrecks on vacations and business trips. Over the years I have dived all over the Caribbean from the Bahamas to Honduras and many points in the Pacific as well. That sort of diving is very relaxed and comparatively tame to oil rig diving and spearfishing, which more or less equates to bowhunting 28’ up in a hang-on in a bedding area. Vastly more demanding and rewarding.
My wife Lisa appeared on the scene about 15 yrs ago and wanted to learn to dive. She got certified locally and she, my sister Kim and brother-in-law Ken took a week diving trip down to Honduras. They made 20 dives in a week. Typical they made shallow dives to less than 100 feet to enjoy sightseeing, shark feeding, and turtle petting. It is relaxed diving with a ‘buddy’ arms length away to help address any issues.
Returning to Louisiana, since we had all our gear freshly sorted and checked out, we talked about making an ‘exploratory’ dive to the oil rigs just to see ‘what’s up’. This was highly speculative as I had heard over the years the water off the coast of LA was murky and green with lots of current, sometimes zero visibility. The idea of tying up to a rusty oil rig and diving a vertical reef, hissing and spewing, was not something we had heretofore felt called to do. It was the classic ‘contempt prior to investigation’.
The word we got was that proper diving attire in the gulf was old jumpsuits or blue jeans or anything tough enough to protect you against the barnacles, so it was definitely not a Caribbean-style fashion show.
That first dive into the apparently murky water was definitely a little nerve wracking. Greenish semi-clear coldish water with some current was the initial review. But as soon as you broke the surface the rig structure opened up and a veritable aquarium appeared with unimaginable schools of fish. Twenty feet down into the rig a cross member pipe provided a convenient place to sit and observe what was happening. The rig is exactly as described, a ‘vertical reef’, supporting massive amounts of life from the surface to the bottom, mostly covered in coral and teeming with fish of all sizes and descriptions. It was overwhelming. Fish everywhere. Clear-enough water. Time to load the speargun!
Shooting a fish with a spear is like shooting a deer with an arrow. You either miss, kill or wound. So think about this before squeezing the trigger. Second, spearfishing requires super-stealth. Fish can feel your gaze not so differently from a whitetails sense that you are a predator. If you look directly at them they will feel you and see the whites in your eyeballs and flare exactly like a deer does. So you have to ease towards them to get in range averting your gaze while very gently raising your projectile to make the shot. Rush towards them and they’ll stay just out of range. Third, spearfishing requires great equipment, great scuba skills, great physical fitness, patience, and a developed sixth sense, again like bowhunting. Guys do it for years and years making hundreds to thousands of dives and become extremely skilled and elite. Just like in bowhunting, it takes time. Beginners pair up with the elite few, and learn more in a day than you can learn in 10 years on your own. Guys will help you but you have to be willing to pay your dues and help yourself, and suffer it out as a beginner for a season. No free lunch! Fourth, losing a fish is just like losing a deer. You will be so sick you will want to throw up but it is unavoidable. It happens to the best. Miss your target on a deer by 2” at 25 yards and it can be wounded and lost forever. Miss your target on a fish by 1” at 15 ft and the same can happen, or it can simply pull off the spear. With fish, like deer, you have a spot that if you hit it, you will ‘stone’ the fish and he dies on impact. In the case of a deer, hit the heart and both lungs and you can count on a <50 yd run. Miss the exact spot and pay the price. Fifth, the adrenaline rush to get on the hunt, and then get ‘on’ a big desirable fish appearing in and out of the ‘murk’, and then capture a prize fish in hand-to-hand conditions underwater in the fish’s natural element is unmatched and indescribable. Catching a fish on a rod and reel versus shooting him with a spear is roughly equivalent to shooting a deer long-range with a rifle versus at 12 yards with a bow. There is simply no comparison. Gliding effortlessly towards the bottom hunting in blue water,weightless and free, is one of life’s most sublime experiences.
Get Your Feet Wet
Being a spearfishing beginner, not at all unlike being a bowhunter beginner, on that first trip everything went wrong. Without going into too much detail, here are just a few ‘low-lights’. Like with the long slow mostly self-taught and hard-earned bowhunting skills, we learned at first without teachers and made all the mistakes you can make. First on the equipment front – speargun bands get weak and brittle with age. A gun will have two or three bands. Our scavenged old guns had bands that were maybe 3-5 yrs old. The bands that didn’t break outright were too weak to fully penetrate a fish so we poked a lot of holes into fish that pulled off the spears as our guns lacked adequate power, like shooting a 20 pound bow! Second on the fish identification and understanding front – perhaps the most vicious fish in the gulf is a little 10-12” fish known as a Trigger fish. More or less shaped like a big bull bream. They sport a set of teeth more or less like a piranha. A Trigger fish, unlike any other fish in the gulf, delights in biting a human, just for fun, even if he has a spear through him. Even a free swimming trigger fish is subject to swimming up to a diver and biting him on the ear lobe. As they say, it is not IF you will get bit by a Trigger fish, but WHEN. Everybody gets bit!
Considered one of the best eating fish in the water, we always try to get a few Trigger fish every trip. Shooting one, getting him off your spear, and on to a stringer, and getting your speargun reloaded to shoot another, all the while not getting bit, is challenging. There is nothing funnier than being underwater and observing from a few feet away one of your buddies getting chased and then bit by the dreaded trigger and hollering underwater with his regulator in his mouth, his eyes darting and screaming in pain…like a big lizard they will grab hold and it is only by the grace of God that they ever let go!
After that first trip, it was ON. I wondered where diving had been my whole life, how had I missed this? Our skills and equipment improved very quickly as for the rest of those that take to this sport. First you must become a very proficient scuba diver capable of self-rescue with absolutely bullet-proof equipment, and be many times more skilled and comfortable than casual divers. The conditions at times are challenging, and shooting and subduing big fish underwater, sometimes up to 130 feet of water, requires good judgment and experience, a clear mind and very fit body. Divers work their way up just like deer hunters, starting with smaller fish shallower, and gradually diving deeper, more frequently and shooting bigger fish. Divers after hundreds to thousands of dives learn how their bodies react to the nitrogen being loaded, and you are expected by your friends to know your skills and limits and stay within them, not always easy when the competitive juices get flowing. A mistake you make impacts not only you but lots of other people and those impacts can be tragic and lasting…..but there is no reason to ever have an accident, all accidents are avoidable, just like climbing trees and hanging out in tree stands. We hold each other accountable in this sport just like we do in the woods, with tree stand safety for example.
The Gulf of Mexico with some 3,000 rigs is a fantastic resource and the diving and spearfishing some of the best if not the best in the world. If you love hunting, consider becoming a diver and get an experienced crew to take you along and give you some tips. No different than bowhunting, you have to start somewhere. Google it, and ask questions. Find a mentor to show you the way. Before you know it you'll be encouraging others to enjoy spearfishing in the gulf with the memory of your first trip and how silly you must have looked in the distant past.