For coastal inhabitants, the dinner bell rings twice a day with the arrival of high tide. Many accept this invitation to eat with a spear. The further inland you travel, however, the less you hear that ringing until mountains and trees completely smother the noise. It's a shame that those far from the ocean can't enjoy the bounty of the sea, but it doesn't mean we can't learn the lessons it provides.
Depending on your location, freshwater spearfishing may be legal, and in many cases, quite productive. My transition into a full-time spearfisherman began several years ago with a trip into an alpine lake. This change has been hard on my fishing buddies. But once you glimpse that underwater world so few people experience, it’s hard to look back.
Freshwater Spearing Etiquette and Safety Disciples of catch-and-release ideology are a devout group with strict principles. Adherence to the doctrine is strictly monitored on social media and in fly shops, depicting freshwater spearfishermen a coven of heretics. While their philosophy is one that I have adopted myself, for the most part, I can't help but enjoy the smoked trout dip that comes from my wickedness. Learning to use discretion when spearing can keep you from becoming Public Enemy Number One.
Lakes stocked with non-native fishes and employing healthy creel limits are great places to start. Even C&R anglers rejoice when invasive species get whacked. Keep in mind: state wildlife agencies purposefully stock many lakes as food resources in addition to being recreational attractions. Following creel limits, or better yet, taking less than your allotment of fish helps quell some of the gossip in the local fly shop. Be sure to read local and state regulations thoroughly because some states don't allow you to stab certain fishes. For example, Utah allows gamefish spearing but excludes certain fishes depending on the reservoir.
On the topic of safety, avoiding highly trafficked areas will keep you from buffing out the bottom of a boat driven by a Sunday Funday boozer. Still, displaying a dive flag is essential—in fact it's often illegal to not use one. State wildlife agencies also put restrictions on where spearfishermen may swim. Popular swimming areas, as well as boat ramps are no-go zones when spearing. Find a dive buddy and be prepared with the knowledge above water to keep you safe under it.
Become a Fish Finder Lakes often feel like vast, fishless deserts while diving. Hours spent floating and kicking through water chopped up by ski boats can be frustrating. But from our time casting flies and lures, we know where the fish generally hang out. Ryan Callaghan elegantly simplifies the complexity of spearing by stating: "Spearfishing is ultimately just fishing."
Capitalize on your confidence from successful days above the water. A little understanding of fish behavior will increase your chance of stabbing dinner.
According to Brad Thornbrough, owner of Headhunter Spearfishing in Oakland Park, Florida, body language is everything: "If a fish sees you being aggressive towards it, they will retreat in a threatened manner."
He suggests diving toward a target with an indirect route to keep the fish from spooking before you get into range. However, this easier said than done when the fish fever sets in and all that time spent shivering begins to pay off. Just like when you’re lining up to shoot a deer, it’s valuable to slow down, settle your nerves, and focus on each individual element of the process so you don’t rush and screw it all up.
Still, different families of fishes behave much differently than others, so it’s helpful to discuss them individually. The most common and desired freshwater fishes available for spearing are trout, char, pike, walleye, carp, and suckers. There are many others, but these basics will set you on course to harvest whatever else may lurk in your local waters.
Spearing Trout Lake trout prowl like sharks along the shoreline, looking for easy meals and comfortable water temperatures. Floating on the surface, a diver can calmly descend toward a cruiser to launch a spear. Unfortunately, the days of shallow Mackinaw are finite, and summer heat will push the monsters deep—and quickly. Spring or fall are the best times to land a laker without scuba gear.
Rainbow, brown, cutthroat, and brook trout tend to exist in relatively shallow water during the warmer months. These are your summer spearing trout, and while usually not as large as lake trout, they are still a blast to go after.
Pick apart structure carefully. Brook trout tend to congregate near some rocky protection, occasionally wandering off into weed beds. In my experience, rainbow trout tend to be more curious than other species of trout. They will frequently give you at least one pass before fleeing if you’re calm and collected.
Cutthroat, on the other hand, rely on their spotted camouflage. Like with flounder, the human eye often skims right over the fish if it isn’t moving. In lakes stocked with cutthroat, I will often slowly dissect the shoreline, looking for a darting eye or fanning fin. To the demise of the cutthroat, their reliance on camo can mean death. They will often hold still until the spear is well within killing range.
Walleye and Pike Callaghan is quickly becoming an experienced spearfisherman in both freshwater and saltwater. His freshwater credentials include pike, walleye, carp, suckers, and freshwater drum.
Callaghan explains that pike are ambush predators, relying on their camouflage to catch unsuspecting prey. He exploits this behavior by swimming slowly along grassy areas adjacent to steep drop-offs. Like lake trout, pike are sensitive to water conditions, making them challenging to spear when the summer heat pushes the esocids into colder water.
Callaghan's approach to walleye is much different than pike due to their curious proclivities and an unusual comfort with human divers.
"Walleye tend to hold in more open areas, so dropping down to the lake bottom in 15 to 25 feet of water and laying motionless for 30 to 40 seconds is pretty standard," Cal said. This is a time-tested and proven method—Hawaiians and Californians have packed many sushi rolls lying on the ocean floor. The same tactic can be deadly on walleye, though we wouldn’t recommend eating them raw.
Carp and their Comrades Bottom feeders are an incredible resource for those using a spear. Looked down upon and generally unmissed by anglers, carp and their brethren offer opportunities to spear without the guilt of killing gamefish. During the summer months, many popular species are off-limits to ethically-minded individuals due to their sluggish behavior. States like Arizona and Utah offer great carp spearing with warmer water temperatures unheard of in northern states.
Akin to many other types of fish, bottom feeders like a bit of shelter and access to food. Working rocky outcroppings and grassy lake bottoms will likely turn up some easy targets. Unlike the challenging task of targeting carp and suckers with a fly and lure, those carrying a spear have access to a formidable table fare.
Equipment for Freshwater Spearfishing Band-powered spear guns have their place for killing large freshwater fish. However, the extra time it takes to re-rig often means a missed follow-up shot. In freshwater, fish tend to be smaller, and interactions are less violent when compared to their saltwater colleagues. Realistically, even a poor shot won't require the assistance of a float line or reel attached to the gun.
A happy medium that provides both effective killing capabilities and fast reloading is the pole spear. These long, thin spears use a heavy rubber band attached to the back end to propel the prongs forward as the shaft slides through your hand. Though lengthy and sometimes awkward to hike with, pole spears offer reach, accuracy, and quick reloading in the water. Hawaiian slings are similar in design and popular as well.
Depending on the lake, a wetsuit may be necessary to avoid hypothermia or at least minimize uncontrollable shaking. You may want a thin shorty or Farmer John style suit in 3mm for temperate waters, or go to a full-body 5mm for chilly alpine lakes. Yet, even with the use of a wetsuit, extended periods in the water will inevitably zap body heat. It's best to take a break, eat some food, and return to the water when your body is back to normal, or call it a day altogether. There is no use in spearing when you look like someone locked in a walk-in fridge and forgotten.
Spearing Without Sharks Nothing can replace time in the water, and for that matter, in a boat or on the shore. You can read all the spearing articles on the Internet, but each body of water and species of fish is different. When you begin to pattern behaviors in a specific lake, your success rate will run parallel. Learning to hold your breath for extended periods, getting familiar with your spear, and pushing to find patience in a world of distractions will, in time, put dinner on the table. And best of all, you won't be looking over your shoulder in fear of reenacting the victim in a corny shark movie the entire dive.