Travel May 2013

Bringing Back the Ancient Art of Spearfishing

An old extreme sport is new again.
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If fly-fishing is the contemplative person's recreation, spearfishing might be the active person's—requiring the skills of both a hunter and a diver. Above, the author near Block Island. (Jerry Korten)

One August afternoon not many years ago, I floated about half a mile off the eastern shore of Block Island, in the Atlantic Ocean. I was wearing a camouflage wet suit intended to make me look like a clump of seaweed and holding a four-foot-long speargun, hoping to bring home dinner. I was not optimistic. Lead-hued clouds dimmed the sky, and a wind from the west churned waves that rolled to their angry conclusion on the beach. The water was gloomy; beneath the surface, I was nearly blind.

Yet, an hour into the dive, the sun slipped from behind the clouds, the wind died, and the water calmed. I jackknifed 25 feet straight down, following shafts of sunlight, and then saw a silver-green flash—a striped bass more than three feet long. I squeezed the trigger, and a spear nearly the length of a garden rake left my gun with a feathery hiss. I hit the striper, which spiraled into the murk at the end of 17 feet of thick monofilament secured to my gun. When I surfaced, one hand held the meaty 20-pound fish by the gills; the other, clenched into a fist, was raised in a sophomoric sign of victory. This was my first striper ever, an embarrassing admission given how long I’d been diving those waters. My only excuse is that for nearly a quarter century, striped bass had all but vanished from these waters.

Block Island is one of the puniest chunks of New England’s scattered archipelago—a rougher, rockier cousin to manicured Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, which lie to the north. A three-by-seven-mile pile of boulders and clay left behind by retreating glaciers, the island sits a lonely nine miles from mainland Rhode Island. The Atlantic yawns wide and open to the east, providing environs that are secluded by human standards. But if you are a fish, Block Island is a veritable metropolis with an interstate highway running alongside it. Resident populations of tautog (a k a blackfish), winter flounder, fluke, cunner, and sea bass populate the rocky coves. Big game fish like tuna and swordfish ply the waters offshore. Schools of striped bass, bluefish, and mackerel circuit the island in the warmer months. For the spearfisherman, the bass is the prize, big and powerful, yielding thick white fillets. In fact, a striped bass is the reason my family became enamored with Block Island.

In the late 1950s, my father visited on a weekend adventure from Manhattan and promptly caught a 35-pounder while surf casting from the beach. The fish was so massive, my parents had to butcher it in the bathtub of their Upper West Side apartment. They were smitten. Within a few years, they had bought an old wood-shingled home on a dirt road, where we summered until I graduated high school and my parents moved out to live there year-round. But I’m not sure my father ever caught another striper. From the 1970s into the mid‑1990s, it seemed as though no one did. I saw stripers on occasion while snorkeling, or heard of an angler landing one every now and then. Mostly, though, the silver-green fish were phantoms, their stocks decimated by pollution and overfishing. Finally, catch limits were set, and the contaminated spawning beds in the Hudson River and Chesapeake Bay were cleaned. As a result, striper stocks have soared. (Rhode Island now requires that your catch be at least 28 inches, and it limits your haul to two fish a day.) “The bass are one of our greatest success stories,” says Jason McNamee, a marine-fisheries biologist with Rhode Island’s Division of Fish and Wildlife.

My father didn’t live long enough to see the bass flourish again. But his friend Peter Wood did. If my father is responsible for bringing me to the water’s edge to catch fish, Peter is more or less responsible for my plunge under the waves, simply because he was the first spearfisherman I ever saw. He started in the very beginning, the do-it-yourself days of the 1960s, when you had to glue your own wet suit together. He also built a long, lance-like spear out of a fishing rod, with a croquet-mallet handle. It was not a gun. Instead, you pulled a loop of surgical tubing to quickly thrust the spear forward and, ideally, impale fish. At beach cookouts, while my father surf cast for blues, Peter would swim out after blackfish. It was a mesmerizing and seductive moment for a young boy, seeing him emerge from the waves with fat, shiny fish dangling from his weight belt. By 12, I was clumsily stunning cunners with a trident. By 16, I was heading out with my own handmade spear to hunt blues and blackfish.

In my three decades of diving these coves, the island’s waters have never failed to provide.

But I grew up. Work and travel took me away. When I rediscovered spearfishing a few years ago, it had become a sleek and modern affair. Low-volume masks, carbon-fiber fins, and $500 teak guns are not uncommon on the beaches of Block Island. Free divers, as they are called these days, train their lungs for maximum breath-holding ability. Peter, now in his 80s, still dives, although he needs exceptionally clear water to make his shots true. To usher me into this new era, I rely on Chris Blansfield, a West Coast surfer who settled on Block Island in the 1980s. Chris competes in international spearfishing tournaments and can dive to 80 feet on one lungful of air to hunt for 40-to-50-pound fish. The image he cuts creates a bookend to Peter’s rustic generation. And every year, it seems, more and more “spearos” like him arrive on the island.

They are not the only tourists. Increasingly, warm-water fish are hitching a ride on the Gulf Stream, as larvae or juveniles, and ending up in our waters. Filefish and triggerfish are finding their way north from as far away as the subtropics. In 2006, Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay endured an alarming invasion of the voracious warm-water lizard fish. “It’s very much a one-way trip for them,” says Jeremy Collie, a professor at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography. “In the fall, when the water cools, they won’t survive.”

I saw my first triggerfish in the 1980s, one of a few exotic visitors straggling in at the end of the summer when the water had warmed. We didn’t know then that they were a sign of a warming ocean. Today, they have a significant presence all summer long. This is to our benefit—since they are delicious. In fact, they’ve become a staple of our table now that the state has limited the summer season for blackfish in order to alleviate the pressure fishing puts on the population. Species wax and wane according to the complex variables that dictate their lives, not least of all a changing climate. But in my three decades of diving these coves, the island’s waters have never failed to provide.

But they continue to change. For the past two summers, I have not seen a bass during my beach dives. As ocean temperatures rise, the big ones, preferring cooler water, stay farther out to sea. And now I’m learning that one of their major foods, the menhaden, is pressured by overfishing. It makes me wonder how much longer I will be able to take fish from the wild in good conscience.

As vividly as I remember that first striper I ever took, I remember the last fish of that summer even more clearly. Again, I was drifting north on the island’s east side, when I chanced upon a big school. The sky was blue and the sun was high. The water was calm, allowing great visibility. As the school swam past me, I took aim at the biggest fish I saw and squeezed the trigger. Nothing. My gun, relentlessly used, had jammed. When the spear finally released, it sped harmlessly behind the tail. I still remember the sense of peace I felt as all the fish swam by with a thunderous drumming of their tails. It seemed fitting that the last striper of the summer should swim off healthy and very much alive.

Tristram Korten is a writer based in Miami Beach.
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