Photos by Ann Coen
Spearfishing has become a fairly popular sport in the past 10 to 15 years here on Long Beach Island. Most people find this surprising because—although our waters are not always crystal clear like those of Florida or the Caribbean—one would not expect the same out of the turbulent North Atlantic. From time to time however the water clarity off Long Beach Island allows for a brave group to dive into the dark waters and harvest the sea’s bounty.
Spearfishing seems to have increased in popularity since the invention of the Aqualung in 1943 by Emile Gagnan and Jacques-Yves Couseau. This invention made underwater exploration more popular and feasible as a hobby, which increased the amount of diving accessories that were available for purchase. Prior to this, “skin diving” was done largely in the Mediterranean. Now there are more than one hundred companies making such products as fins, weight-belts, dry suits, buoys, and, of course, guns designed specifically for underwater spearfishing. Some people use SCUBA tanks to spearfish but this adds a lot of unnecessary equipment and noisy bubbles that reduce your chances of harvesting larger fish. Most spearfishermen “free dive”, without the help of SCUBA equipment to harvest fish.
For the most part, the wind is the first thing a spearfisherman checks to decide whether or not to go out. When the wind blows from the east or north, it usually brings in clear, Gulf Stream water that is suitable to dive. All other wind conditions make the water clarity bad. If you can’t see the fish, it is not worth going.
There are many fish species that you can harvest from the inlets and jetties of LBI. One of those is tog (tautog), also known as blackfish. Tog spend their days eating the mussels that are attached to rocks or that lie in mussel beds in inlets. Their rich diet gives tog a very distinct and desirable flavor. They’re not often caught off of the surf because they have sharp teeth, strong jaws, small mouths, and can lodge themselves between rocks when hooked. They are very prevalent in Barnegat Inlet and can be found there from late March to December every year.
Another sought-after species is the Striped Bass or Striper (as seen in the pictures). This large fish migrates every year from the Carolinas up to Massachusetts and back down. Stripers can usually be caught around LBI during the months of May and June and later between September and November. Stripers have a voracious appetite and prey on everything from bunker and juvenile tog to spearing and even sand eels. They often travel in schools and can be seen around jetties during the early and late hours of each day. Since they are so large (between 28 and 40 inches), they can be tricky if not dangerous to spear. You should definitely not shoot one of these until you understand how your spear gun works and you are experienced in the water.
Some other frequently harvested fish include fluke, trigger fish, and sheep’s head. Fluke are masters of disguise since they lie flat on the sand and have the ability to change their skin’s appearance much like a chameleon. They are great to eat but a challenge to spear. Since they lie flat on the sand, the spear will often times penetrate the fish, but the “flipper” will not engage and the fluke will get away. If you shoot a fluke, you must immediately dive down and push the flipper through the fluke yourself.
Trigger fish are an easier fish to spear because they don’t seem to be bothered by human presence. They come in when a north east wind blows and are somewhat tropical in their appearance. They have tough leathery skin and a powerful beak-like mouth that grinds up mussels with ease. If you shoot one, be sure to keep your fingers clear of their beaks because they will attempt to bite you after you have speared them. You should also filet them cutting from the tail to the head (opposite most other fish) or you will have a much harder time cleaning them.
Spearfishing, like many water sports, can be very dangerous. I would not suggest hopping into an inlet with no guidance. You should always dive with a buddy, never alone. You should also dive with a regulation-size dive flag and buoy (if you don’t, you are subject to fines). You can purchase one online from trusted sources such as Dixiedivers.com or Diversdirect.com. It is also necessary to carry a knife when diving. You will need this to dispatch the fish you spear and also to cut your way out of fishing line or rope entanglements. Your dive knife can save your life and it should always be worn on the inside of your non-dominant calf. It is best to start out by finding someone who spearfishes to show you the ropes. If you do not know anyone, at least start out on smaller submerged jetties away from the strong inlet currents. Again always dive with a buddy and never dive without a buoy and dive flag, because if boaters cannot see you they may run into you as you come up for a breath of air. Once you’re properly equipped and have received some training from an experienced spearfisher, you can enjoy this fun and exciting sport whenever the wind blows your way. Enjoy!