Recently I was invited to participate in a trip put together by Diving For A Cause. An organization that brings aquatic enthusiasts together for good times and charitable contributions for different worthy causes. Tempted with thoughts of hunting yellowtail and tuna at a seamount 45 miles from the nearest island and then grounded with reminders of the far more difficult life events many individuals in this world must endure, I immediately signed up for the trip and sometime after made a contribution to the fund. This particular event would serve to support research for the treatment of Cystic Fibrosis, what little I know about this disease and it’s dramatic life impact is deeply saddening to say the least.
Months passed and the time came to leave for our short trip aboard “The Peace”, a well established dive charter out of Ventura, CA. My friend Josh, and soon to be friends Mike and Sunny would meet at our friend Pete’s place in Palo Alto early on a Monday morning. There we crammed Spearfishing gear from five divers into one truck and then somehow managed to get all the divers in as well before beginning a five hour arduous carpool from Palo Alto to Ventura.
Arrived in Ventura we briefly met with spearfishing pioneer/legend Terry Maas. Josh needed to return something and Terry was a close distance from where we would have dinner with rest of the Diving For A Cause group. As if a group of avid spearfishers did not consume enough fish we sat down for sushi and conversation with our soon to be ship mates. Time passed, dinner ended, and we made our way to the Charter to begin boarding.
The excitement was palatable and the Captain’s announcement that the voyage to the Banks would be a rough one and span the course of 11 hours quickly sobered us from our high of anticipation. None the less, we were happy to be on our way, and I knew it was only a matter of a slight Dramamine overdose and I would be sound asleep only to awake at the dive site. To my dismay several hours prior to our arrival I was awoken by shouts and yelling on the boat’s back deck. One of the passengers had been trolling a fishing line during the crossing and to the entertainment of both the crew and the guests a fish had been hooked. A fight was had, and the angler to whom the rod pertained prevailed, with gawking stares from the groggy passengers, he foisted upon the deck a 20-30# bluefin tuna, our jaws dropped agape. I interpreted this to be a good omen.
A few short hours later, we arrived at the Banks. The only point of reference was a large orange buoy in the distance, strategically located above Bishop Rock the rock does not breach the surface but rather presents a serious hazard to unsuspecting vessels. We jumped in and found ourselves on the surface of 70-90′ of water. Pete and I had planned to buddy up for the trip and almost immediately after we jumped in, and before we had a chance to stretch back the rubber on our guns, a school of small yellowtail swarmed us and then vanished, pure torment. We dove a couple hours progressing along the reef and then changed course to work a different direction in relation to the boat. In this second area we had far more success. Pete quickly put down a large yellowtail and within an instant I became stressed, anxious, and mostly just jealous.
This was my first time really using a speargun, it was not even my speargun, my good friend Matt had loaned me a 125cm carbon fiber bluetec, a second smaller roller gun, a break away rig, a cored floatline with bungee, a clutch, a 3 atmosphere float, flashers, slip tips, etc etc. Basically, as soon as Matt learned that I’d be going on this trip he, without hesitation, offered up what I imagine would be almost 2k worth of gear to aid in my success. “To aid in my success” hardly does justice to the part that Matt’s gear and his advice on using it played in my landing any fish. I consider myself a moderately successful spearfisherman on the North Coast, but in our cold murky waters the fish are slow and very rarely heavier than 30#, I hunt exclusively with a polespear and with floatlines I make from hollow vinyl tubing plugged and looped at the ends. Breakaway rigs and long range spearguns are a totally different ball game.
Hovering above the kelp in 90′ of water, I finished my breathe up, inverted and dropped down to 50-55′. Still well above the surface (the viz was approaching 80′) I was on level with a horizontally drifting stalk of giant kelp. From out of the trees two large yellowtail presented themselves as they curiously evaluated me. The closer of the two turned broadside and although 15-20′ away, I figured it doubtful I would be presented with a better shot. Accounting for the distance I aimed a little above the fish, and let soar my arrow. The shot would land just behind the gill plate, and because of the shafts descending angle, it exited just above the pelvic fins. The slip tip engaged perfectly and the fish ran. Terrified of having it break free, I let it run and headed for the surface. As if to reward my excellent shot, the fish headed down to 80′ or so and began by wrapping itself up on kelp and finished by wrapping itself up on an old lobster trap. Initially I wanted to secure the fish sans help. I made several drops down to 70’+ and began cutting the kelp away, only then did I realize the true hang up was down at 80’+ on the lobster trap. The deckhands on the boat had been shouting their offers for help the entire time and when I realized the true source of entanglement, I accepted. Within minutes the crew had dawned scuba and in no time my fish had been cut free. It would be my only fish of the day, and without help from the crew, I would have spent the rest of the day risking blackout to work on it. The fish measured 39″ and I guesstimate 20#.
We dove the Banks a while longer and encountered schools of bonito, which I failed to land. From the surface I saw like freight trains moving through the water individual tunas, two small bluefin and a large yellowfin. For all the talk of makos and hammerheads only two divers on our charter reported encounters with a hammerhead, unfortunately I was not one of them. From the Banks we moved to another spot called “The 9s”. There we struck out after close encounters with more large yellowtail. We returned to the Banks but the fish were no longer to be found and by 7:30 the captain called us back to the boat, night diving was deemed too risky due to currents and the vast openness of our location, a diver who could not make it back to the boat was almost certainly a dead body lost at sea.
After an excellent dinner of donated yellowtail collars, Pete proceeded to tell us about the magical fish he had caught. Somehow the yellowtail Pete had shot was capable of disappearing and reappearing in different locations aboard the boat. All the more impressive considering the fish no longer lived. Apparently there had been some contention as to whom the fish pertained, a significantly smaller yellowtail with a similar wound had been left in it’s place. To add insult to injury, Pete had also shot a bonito and it was promptly commandeered, prepared and served, all unbeknownst to Pete. Like a pro, he managed his frustrations beautifully and didn’t allow himself to become overtly sour or upset. I’m not sure I would have handled myself as well under the circumstances.
The following morning we awoke anchored off the coast of Santa Barbara Island. With only two hours to explore the site we began working the shelf, the top of which rested 30′ below the water before the cliff like walls dropped down to about 80’+. Working the walls I made several drops down to 70′ but saw no signs of tail. Back up top I realized the current was pulling me farther and farther from the boat and I figured I would give myself a little more time to work before swimming back. Finally the cliffs disappeared and the shelf began sloping deeper. In the distance I spotted a few yellowtail. Almost in range I lined up my gun and in the most perfect possible manner I totally screwed up, missing the fish entirely and sending him packing. I no longer saw the yellowtails and I was becoming concerned with my distance from the boat, so I began a slow up current swim and some 30 minutes later I was back within close distance to the boat and hovering above some interesting structure in 60′ of water. I dropped down and as soon as I landed, large sheepshead swam up to check me out. Likely the largest sheepshead I’ve ever encountered. With my 125cm gun fully loaded I tracked the dumb fish with my shaft only a foot or two from it’s face. Had we been up in NorCal that fish would have been dead no question. But for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to slay him under the circumstances, it seemed too easy and I felt as though we had come for yellowtail not sheepshead. Time was up and we returned to the boat, there we waited for the zodiac to bring back the divers who had been swept away by the current. Breakfast was had and we proceeded to drive around the island for an hour or so confirming that the current was equally strong at other locations, finally we returned to our initial spot only to find the current had died. Pete and I quickly bee-lined for the area where I had spotted yellowtail earlier. The yellowtail were back and in even greater number.
Pete dropped down to 30′ and patiently waited while I watched from the surface. From behind him a lone yellowtail swam up and began slowly circling him at little more than a gun’s length. I grunted and shouted in an effort to grab Pete’s attention and point out the fish that was right behind him, but my grunts fell on deaf ears. Finally Pete looked left as the fish circled into view. He swung his gun around and punched him through the stomach. As expected the fish dove down and wrapped up on a piece of kelp at 50′. Fortunately this was well within my range and I was able to lend Pete a hand by dropping down and cutting the kelp free below the entanglement so we could sort it out on the surface.
Now it was my turn. Hovering in 40′ of water, a school of four yellowtail almost out of range came quickly cruising past. As Pete would tell me moments later he thought to himself “just let them go dude, you’re just going to spook them and there’s no way you can make that shot”. I, on the other hand, was thinking more along the lines of “aim high to account for shaft sink, aim in front to lead the fish”. I let loose and with a wet smack nailed the closest cruising fish from 15-20′ away. It was a an amazing shot that could only be explained as a stroke of beginner’s luck, within minutes I had a smile on my face and a nice 30″ yellowtail wrapped up on kelp in 60′ of water.
It so happened the zodiac was nearby, they once again offered help with the entanglement and then gave us a ride back to the boat since time was almost up anyway.
We would only have time to dive one more spot and we would only have an hour and a half there. It was a kelp bed in maybe 75′ of water. For the first hour Pete and I saw almost nothing. Then in the last thirty minutes we had yellowtail encounters, a barracuda sighting, and Pete came face to face with two 100# black sea bass (a highly restricted fish completely illegal to shoot). Like bullets 3-4 LARGE yellowtail cruised beneath us and vanished. We had 10 minutes left and disappointed for not having a shot at those large tails we began swimming back. At the surface two smaller yellowtail appeared and curiously examined me from a distance. I dropped down 5-10′ and again aimed high on a long shot and let fly. Luck be a lady, I nailed the fish and the slip tip engaged. This time I didn’t give it the chance to wrap up at 70′ and instead I grabbed for the float line and stopped the fish at 20′ or so where it still managed to wrap up. I fought it from the surface and Pete dropped down to cut the kelp free. In a glow of last minute success we swam back to the boat, ate lunch, and hunkered down for the crossing back to Ventura. It was a great trip with lots of great divers, an attentive crew and a talented cook. Much thanks to the Diving For A Cause organization, and especially to my buddy Josh Russo for his work organizing and promoting the event. Can’t wait until the next one!!!