If you happen to be camping without sufficient supplies, living off-grid near a river, or you get marooned on an island like Tom Hanks in “Cast Away”, one of the easiest ways to get food is to go spearfishing. If you’re close to abundant fishing grounds, you’ll need the right equipment and employ the right techniques to spearfish successfully. In this article, we show you a few tips to help you subsist on fresh catches.
When you’re new to spearfishing or find yourself in a survival scenario, you’re better off fishing from above the waterline. Wade through shallow water or stand at the shore’s edge, stand on rocks or hunt while on a small boat. You’ll only need a spear, and it will help you develop your patience, timing and accuracy.
Learn how to “stalk” your prey; doing this entails that you observe and learn the different behaviors of the fish that are available to hunt. Spearfishing in this manner also spares you from the dangers and complications of diving underwater.
Although spearfishing above the waterline only calls for a sufficiently long and sharp spear, you may need other equipment if the school you’re stalking is small and you have to dive for prey.
Apart from your spear or speargun, items to prepare for spearfishing include:
- Diving mask with snorkel or goggles (if diving or snorkeling)
- Spare pole spear or speargun (this is optional in case you have problems with your primary spear and if you’re lucky enough to have one)
- Swimsuit (don’t dive in long pants if you’re in a SHTF situation)
- Free diving suit or wetsuit (optional)
- Diving knife (sheathed on your ankle)
- Weight belt
- Flotation device or raft (a place to “dock” and return to the surface to store fish)
- Mesh bag (for storing catch)
Where to Fish
Like real estate and regular fishing, spearfishing is first and foremost about location: it’s easier when you pick the right spot. Whether at a river, lake or sea, look for clear water as much as possible. Fish will be at places where they’re the most comfortable and where they’ll easily find their food.
The water’s temperature as the day progresses is another factor that determines where the fish will be. If it’s hot and the water is low, fish will find refuge in deep pools or under shade to avoid the heat. In cold weather or on a cold day, fish will swim closer to the surface where the sun makes the water warmer. Fish also usually prefer to seek shelter under banks, rocks and submerged logs.
Similar rules apply for fish in the sea; they’re abundant where they can find their food, and like to hide in or among corals. You should also hunt in spots where there are small fish that jump out of the water; these fish will be pursued by larger, predatory fish.
Be watchful for any predatory birds like seagulls or pelicans flocking to a spot; this likewise indicates an area teeming with fish.
When to Fish
There are times when you’ll have better chances of spearing more fish and times when pickings are slim. You can fish at night as some species feed during a full moon, or can be attracted by a flashlight; consider this only as a last resort as it can be dangerous (if diving alone) and you may expend a lot of energy and come up with nothing. Hunt before a storm breaks, and don’t waste your energy fishing in a river after a heavy rain – most fish will be swept out to sea.
Spear or Speargun?
You can spearfish with at least four commonly-used weapons listed below. Take note of their features and applications before heading out to spearfish.
This can be as simple as a long, sharpened stick of wood, bamboo or even PVC. Its tip can be single, barbed or many-pronged for a faster kill and better grip on the fish. Light and easy to make, the spear has been used to hunt for terrestrial and aquatic animals since prehistoric times. The spear is best used when spearfishing above the waterline.
This is the popular choice among amateur and professional spearfishers alike. Modern spearguns are comprised of a barrel, trigger mechanism, spear and propellant. The spear may be propelled with considerable force via a rubber band that is “cocked” like a bow, or by compressed air.
One advantage of the speargun is that it doesn’t require the user to have great arm strength to power the spear. Spearguns also increase your chances of success, due to the considerable velocity, force and distance it can propel a spear. The only caveat with a speargun is that it’s designed to only fire underwater – without the “drag” it needs from water, shooting it out of water can result in it backfiring and harming the user or seriously damaging its parts. NEVER load or fire a speargun out of water.
This is a long spear with a trident or many-pronged tip and an elastic band. Better suited for users with considerable arm strength, the polespear works by stretching its attached elastic band while the user grips the spear; the spear is then released to propel the spear forward and impale fish underwater. This is relatively easy to use and cheap, but its effectiveness depends heavily on its user’s strength.
4. Hawaiian Sling
A mechanically simple yet effective spearfishing weapon, the Hawaiian sling consists of a tube of wood, bamboo or PVC, with a strong elastic tubing attached behind one end. A long spear with a notch in the back end is inserted in the front of the tube, then the tubing at the back is run through the notch in the spear and the spear is stretched back. The spear is released, propelling the shaft with (hopefully) sufficient force to spear a fish. This is also a relatively easy spearfishing weapon to make and use, and doesn’t require as much strength from the user as a polespear.
Spearfishing Above Water
Apart from predicting the movements of the fish before spearing it, your biggest challenge will be compensating for refraction. This is the phenomenon where light slows down and “bends” when it hits the water, making objects (like fish) seen from above water appear in one spot when they’re actually in another. Due to refraction, fish you see from above the water are actually closer than they appear. This is why you will fail 100% of the time when you launch your spear at the exact spot that you see fish.
You can compensate for this in a few ways:
- Hunt at a slightly shaded area or on a cloudy day as the light doesn’t “bend” as much in these conditions; this increases your chances of hitting.
- Bear in mind that the fish you see from above water are closer, not farther than they appear; “lead” your target and launch your spear at a spot in front of the fish.
- If the water is deep enough to swim, “hover” just below the surface and spear fish from that position. Use a snorkel if you can to dispense with resurfacing for air.
Spearfishing in Deep Water
Deep-water spearfishing presents a different challenge as you’ll be fighting your own buoyancy and not gravity. You may need a weight belt to keep you submerged at a certain depth long enough to spearfish, and avoid making a conscious effort to stay submerged. Follow these steps to spearfish in deep water, and increase your chances of success:
Step 1. Swim out to where the bottom is 10-20 feet. This is deep enough for finding more and bigger fish, but not too deep to make it difficult to resurface for air.
Step 2. Float at the surface to scan the depths for fish. Don’t make too many movements to avoid scaring away the fish; they’re sensitive to vibrations and could quickly dart away.
Step 3. Continue to float on the surface until you find and choose a fish you want.
Step 4. Calmly kick with your fins until you’re directly above your chosen fish.
Step 5. Take a deep breath.
Step 7. Dive straight down to the fish, being mindful not to kick your fins until you’re completely submerged; diving to it at this angle will ensure that the fish doesn’t see you coming.
Step 8. Spear the fish when you’re within striking distance. Ideally you should aim for the point just behind the head to kill the fish; if your spear doesn’t kill it outright, get close to it and stab the area behind its gills and slightly higher than the eye.
Step 9. Swim to the surface to store your catch; this will prevent sharks, seals and other predators from stealing your catch. Repeat until you have enough fish.
This method requires that you use scuba gear or at least be able to hold your breath longer. Fish are curious, and you can use this to your advantage.
For this method, follow these steps:
Step 1. Find a spot where you can be partially hidden such as behind some kelp, rocks or corals; it’s okay if the fish can “see” a bit of you.
Step 2. Stay motionless and wait patiently for the fish to swim closer to you to “investigate”, with your spear or speargun at the ready.
Step 3. Don’t move and do your best not to exhale as bubbles can scare away the fish.
Step 4. Aim for the area behind its gills, at a point higher than the eye (see illustration). Stab the fish with your knife at this area if you missed or if the fish still lives.
Step 5. Surface and store your fish in your raft or flotation device. Make sure no blood spills from your boat or flotation device to avoid attracting predators. Repeat until you have enough fish.
Notes on Spearing Right
For an instant kill you have to aim and hit a fish at the right spot. Ideally your spear should pierce the spot just behind the fish’s gills, slightly above its eye and forward of its pectoral fin.
Hit the point marked “X” on the fish and it should die instantly. Aiming and hitting this point increases your chances of severing the spinal column or hitting the brain for an instant kill. If you fail to hit the “X”, a hit anywhere along a straight line from its eye down to its tail (this is known as the “lateral line”, shown by arrows on the illustration below) is acceptable. A shot along this “line” is where its spine lies, but this may not kill it and only impair its mobility. Finish the job with your knife.
You should always aim for an instant kill for two reasons: 1. To make sure the fish doesn’t suffer and 2. Because a thrashing fish will fill the water with blood and attract sharks that could either attack you or take your catch, or both, undermining your hunting efforts. Shoot the “X”, then retrieve the fish and surface.
In a SHTF scenario or when living off-grid, spearfishing can be a viable option to support your survival diet. It’s a direct, no-nonsense method of getting food that you can control and immediately reap the benefits. To become proficient at spearfishing, get a fishing license first and the necessary equipment. Start with a spear, and hunt above the waterline in a river, lake or coral reef before progressing to using a speargun in deeper waters. Avoid doing this activity alone; have a buddy along to double your catch and help you in case of any unexpected incidents.