CopyRight @ 1998
This is meant to provide a summary of information about California spearfishing. It will describe something about the various fish and certain fishing locales. There is a historical thread to it, because even though spear fishers have minimal impact on most fish stocks, some of the popular spear fishing opportunities in California are pretty badly depleted. Still, there are a lot of fish out there that can provide quite a challenge and an excellent meal.
In that California is a big state with a very long shoreline, fishing opportunities vary from place to place. Yellowtail can be common in Southern California, but are rare further north. Of the fish that do inhabit the entire coast of the state, they tend to be bigger and more common the further north you go. This seems reasonable due to lighter fishing pressure, less people and rougher conditions the further north you go.
The main opportunities for spearfishing are Yellowtail, Bonita, Barracuda, White Sea Bass, Halibut, Sheephead, Bass, White fish, Striped Bass, Red Snapper, Lingcod, Sculpin and various other rockfish.
Yellowtail are good to get freediving when the water warms up. Sometimes you will see them on scuba, especially around the points offshore from the islands. It is rare to find yellowtail above the Channel Islands, but with the wacky weather, who knows where they will show up. A technique that sometimes works is when a diver sees a school of yellowtail pass, they can pluck the string on their speargun. The yellowtail may pass near to check out the sound. They are a fish that will really fight and the best gear for hunting them is a large gun with a reel. The best bet for seeing yellowtail is off a rocky point almost in open water. Catalina and San Clemente islands can be excellent for yellowtail in summer, or Palos Verdes. A 30 pound yellowtail is a big fish, but they come bigger.
Bonita and Barracuda like the warm waters like the yellowtail. They aren't as good to eat as yellowtail, though they do make a good bar-b-que when fresh, but they can be a lot of fun and a challenge to hunt. Swimming in more open waters, a diver may encounter huge schools of these fish.
White Sea Bass are found around the Channel Islands and below Point Conception much of the year, but they are a spooky fish and you can pretty much only get them free diving. Listen and you will hear them clicking. They are a challenge to hunt. It pretty much requires a good spear gun to get them.
White fish are a silvery fish that look like a miniature yellowtail. They are common enough in Southern California and especially at the Channel Islands. A 2 footer would be a really big one, though I couldn't say how big they might get. They can be good eating. The interesting thing about white fish is that they are another spooky fish that don't like divers coming much closer than 20 feet. It is a bit of a challenge to hit a small fish at 20 feet with a speargun. What I like to do, is when I see one at a distance, I go along the bottom below the rocks where the fish cannot see me. I then try to pop up near where I saw the fish and get off a fast shot with a pole spear. It's not easy.
Up near the San Francisco Bay Area, Striped Bass can be quite common. While these are mostly hunted by line fishers, they can be hunted by divers much like white sea bass. A minor note. If you spear one of these, expect a small explosion. They are about the fightinest fish I have evr met.
Halibut get taken by scuba and free divers all along the beaches and at the islands. It is interesting that halibut are hunted in as little as 10 feet along the shores by snorkelers with pole spears as well as by scuba divers with big reeled guns at 80 feet in the sand flats off the outer islands. They can be found from the Mexican border all the way to the Oregon border and much farther north. A 35 pound halibut is a big fish, but they come bigger. While halibut are a flat bottom fish, they are also aggressive hunters and can be seen moving very fast. Occasionally, they will jump all the way out of the water while chasing baitfish. They are a fish that will really fight and can tear a big spear out in their struggles. Many large halibut are speared and then get away. The best gear for hunting them is a large gun with a reel. Shoot the fish and let it run on the reel. When it stops running and lays down on the sand, swim up to it reeling in your line and then grab it well before bagging it. Actually, a small number of halibut are taken each year by divers that stab them with a knife. There is a lot of luck and skill involved in this though.
Lingcod are mostly further north. In the south, most of them are taken on scuba. In the north, a lot are taken by free divers. If a diver bangs a knife or the butt of their gun on the bottom rocks, a lingcod may come out to check out the noise. These fish are excellent eating. They are ugly and have a bluish meat, but it cooks up a delicious white. Be aware, especially with a pole spear, you must get a good shot on a lingcod and then try to pin it to the bottom immediately or it will struggle off your spear.
Calico, Johnney and Sand Bass along with other various kelp bass provide both a challenge to the spear fisher and a good meal. These tend to be fairly wary fish that know what divers are all about. At Catalina, by the time a Calico Bass is of the 12 inch legal size, they know the make and model of most spearguns made. A 4 pound Calico is a nice fish. They are pretty wary of a diver with scuba.
Red Snapper used to be far more common and could often be found shallow in Southern California waters. Now, they are mostly only found in deeper waters and more remote places. Far more of them can be found in the waters north of Point Conception. One thing about them. They just don't seem to take a spear well. It only takes a decent shot to paralyze one. They are a very tasty fish.
You never know when you will see a nice tasty looking rockfish, but in Southern California, there aren't that many large ones left and some have species been badly depleted by commercial fishers, but they can still be found. There used to be lots of them in the shallower waters, but these are mostly gone. Even in the waters far too deep for divers, they tend to be badly depleted in California. They can be delicious eating when cooked fresh. They also are very good in ceviche.
Sheephead are a large, distinctively colored kelp forest wrasse with big canine teeth. They get up to 25 pounds or so, but 12 pounders are far more common. They used to be as common as flies off Southern California and the Channel Islands. They are fun to hunt, but they are boney and hard to prepare well, thought they do smoke up pretty good. They are the unfortunate case of a large stupid fish that is easy to spear and shares the same range as divers. Divers, especially new spear fishers, basically slaughtered these fish. Then to make matters worse, they became the target of live fish fishers that set traps for live fish for the local Asian market. Their main food source, urchins have also become the target of a major fishery. This combination of factors has led to a big decline in the numbers of Sheepsheads of Southern California. Since they compete for the same food as otters, they are very uncommon in the otter ranges as well. This is a fish that might be reasonably hunted by beginners, but should probably be left alone by more experienced divers. It should never be taken and wasted. The population has taken too big a hit already.
Boats do go out to Cortez Banks in summer for free dive hunting. They see a lot of big yellowtail and even some tuna.
Some Thoughts On Technique The main gear used includes Pole Spears and Spear Guns. Pole spears are better for smaller fish, especially rockfish. Hunting bass, white fish, lingcod and some others can be a real challenge with a pole spear, but the fisher must be careful and know what they are doing so that they do not just injure a fish and then lose it. Inevitably, it is a nice big fish that escapes. Spearguns are better for bigger fish and pretty much necessary for getting yellowtail, white sea bass and halibut.
One time I was diving off of Malibu near a kelp paddy and I saw this enormous fish look out of the kelp at me. It took one look at me and headed straight to the bottom at near warp speed and well it should. It knew all about the reason I was there. It was a huge Calico Bass and it had been shot across the head at least once. My first thought when I saw it was that it was a grouper because the straight lines across the head were at an angle, but it was the scar from the last time the fish was hit with a spear. Well, I never saw that fish again, but it taught me a lesson. If there is only minimal currents, the kelp plants rise straight up and then drift across the water with the current. I went to where that big fish had come from and it was on the up current side of the kelp paddy. It had come through the kelp stalks from under the paddy floating on the surface. So, I swam down to the kelp stalks and looked through there to under the floating paddy. There were a number of large calicos just under the paddy. They were fairly well hidden, but they were not expecting someone to come through their back door.
A good rule of spear fishing is never make quick movements. I was with a diver that saw a halibut. I happened to be watching him and I never saw the fish, but from the start he gave, I was even able to guess what kind of fish it was. Also, I saw how all the other fish around responded to the start he made. They all immediately got excited, looked at him and basically said 'are you looking at me'. Making any sudden movement when you see a nice fish is guaranteed to scare it away.
Some fish and some animals respond to anything pointed at them. Wary fish respond to anything pointed at them. When stalking a fish, aim and shoot at the last possible moment.
When diving with a spear in kelp forests where there are a lot of fish, most of them are perch or something else that is not really desirable. When swimming along the bottom looking for rock fish, look up occasionally. If you see a large number of fish, as you occasionally will, most of the fish in the school will probably be some kind of perch, but look towards the edges of the groups. Some of the fish will swim just a bit oddly compared to the rest. These are various kinds of kelp bass including Calicos. Quietly swim up towards the fish until you can get a shot off at one of the larger ones. Let yourself drift down and bag the fish. You can then repeat the process and get the next biggest one.
For some of the fast fish like yellowtail, white fish and white sea bass, some divers take a large gun and replace the 3/8 inch steel shaft with a 5/16 inch or 1/4 inch steel shaft so that it leaves the gun at very high velocity. Some of these fish are very fast and may well dodge a spear shot at them from a less powerful gun.
Most people figure this out, but not everyone. Do not shoot at a fish like it was a bull's eye target. Always try to shoot near the head. Shooting a fish in the body risks losing the fish, destroys much of its meat and you just might get bit as well. I knew a guy that used to bull's eye sheepheads and they would bite him on the neck or on the hand between his thumb and fingers. It was something to see.
If you shoot a fish and it gets away from your spear, look for it. It may not make it far. My friend shot a white sea bass. It got off his spear, but it was a good shot and he figured that he might find it. After looking for over a half hour he gave up and swam back to the boat. On the way, he bumped into the fish floating on the surface. It was 40 pounds.
One way to spearfish is to tape a flashlight onto a speargun and use it to look under rocks.
Spearfishing Issues Some people think spearfishing is a bad thing, that it's not sporting, that it's not a challenge or that it shouldn't be done with scuba. Here are a few relevant arguments.
1. Spearfishing is just bad practice. Actually, spear fishers are very selective hunters with no by catch and they take a very tiny percentage of the fish that are taken. It is true that there are populations that the spear fishers can impact and these should managed as such. As far as I can see, that can really only apply to Black Sea Bass, rockfish and Sheepshead.
Black Sea Bass are these big stupid fish with no natural enemies. While occasionally taken by line fishermen, I get the impression that divers in the 50's and 60's were able to really hurt their population. It became completely illegal to take the Black Sea Bass and they have made a fairly good comeback such that they are not uncommon to encounter these days. Still, it will take some time and some interesting regulations to allow them to be hunted again.
Sheepshead are another big stupid fish whose habitat is the same area that most divers go. They are not the best eating, but they are fun to shoot. They rarely take a fishermans line and until recently there was no commercial fishery for them. Before the commercial fishery though, the larger sheephead were already badly depleted by spear fishers. Of course, the commercial fishery has ended up being worse for them than the divers ever were.
Kelp forest rockfish used to be common. That is no longer the case, but that the line fishers and the commercial fishers take far more of those than divers. Most of the rockfish are taken in deeper waters beyond the kelp forest, but it still ends up impacting the kelp reef population.
In the case of these fish (and abalone), especially with pressure from line fishers and commercial fishers, divers can deplete local reef populations. The drawback is that this hurts the scenery for non-hunting divers. As such, there should be no take zones in some areas that are readily accessible to divers. Present examples of these zones would include La Jolla preserve and Casino Point Preserve on Catalina Island.
Of the other fish that are very local to the divable reefs, while there are far fewer large kelp bass, white fish and Calicos than there used to be, the populations still seem healthy. Far more of these are taken by line fishers than are taken by spear fishers. It can be fun to play hide and seek with bass in the deep water laminarea fields.
2. Spearfishing is not a challenge done with scuba.
Actually, this is pretty debatable. Scuba tends to scare fish. Also, there are many places that just cannot be reasonably hunted without scuba. Divers hunting Halibut in the sand flats at 80 feet off of Santa Rosa Island are lucky to get one Halibut in 5 tanks of air. Forget free diving for them.
A snorkeler may have a far easier time getting fish because the fish are not warned by the sound of the scuba. The fish at the popular dive areas in California all recognize the sound of scuba. A free diver sees more fish, because they are silent. If a diver can hold their breath past about 50 feet, the fish may not recognize them as a threat at all. I was diving at the bottom of a reef once. All of a sudden there were all these large fish going past me though the rocks. I looked up and 20 feet up the reef were some spear fishers moving down the reef. They were not seeing fish. The fish were all staying about 20 feet in front of them and very low such that the divers did not know that they were there. They aren't dumb. Scuba divers rarely even see white sea bass or yellowtail. They stay out of sight
Overall, what determines whether spearfishing is a challenge, is primarily the fish themselves. If they are wary like at Catalina Island, they are extremely difficult to approach with scuba and they are going to be a challenge to hunt. Snorkeling there for fish is likely to be easier than with scuba. Go hunting in a place where divers are rare and it is relatively easy to approach most fish. Even yellowtail are not much of a challenge if you hunt them in some remote place. Spear fishing is most challenging when there are smart fish or naturally very spooky fish like the white sea bass or the white fish.
Many times, a spear fisher is not really looking for a challenge, in the ancient tradition of the hunter, they are just looking for a meal.
3. Spearfishing is not sporting.
This is a pretty nebulous statement and really depends on the hunter. It seems sporting for a beginning diver to go after some perch, small bass or sheephead. After a diver has some experience, it may be more sporting for them to hunt with a snorkel or hunt the more wary fish like the lingcod and whitefish. Really though this 'sporting' an extremely subjective word. It is easier to draw a line and say that something just doesn't seem sporting.
As for drawing the line when it comes to sporting... Here are a
few things that I think are over that line.
1. Wasting fish that you have caught just shouldn't be done ever.
2. Selling fish that have been caught sport fishing is illegal and is to be frowned upon.
3. Fishing in reserves should not be done.
4. Short fish should never be taken. It is illegal, may harm the fishery and they don't have much meat on them, so it is a waste.
OK, so that's not enough, you say. You really have a need, do you. Well try this. I did mention Sculpin, but didn't say much about it. The most notable thing about a Sculpin (or Scorpion Fish) is those nasty poisonous spines on its back. Other than that, they give a bad name to ugly and are very tasty. Some fishing boats throw them back as a rule. Some boats, as a rule, use a scissors to cut off the poisonous spines as soon as a sculpin comes aboard. Getting spined by one is extremely painful and can only be slightly relieved by immersion in extremely hot water. Not surprisingly, few people shoot them. They are usually small and they don't move much. Then again, neither would you if you packed their punch. In any case, if you really have the need, they can present a challenge if you hunt them with a knife... Bon appetite!