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Before you aim and fire, be ready

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 20, 2002

It looked simple.

It looked simple.

A school of amberjack, at least 100 strong, circled 20 feet below. Another 60 feet below the fish, I saw the faint outline of a wreck through the clear, blue water.

My diving companion, a veteran spearfisherman, dropped down, picked a target, then fired a single shot that stopped a big "A.J." in its tracks.

"Make sure you get close," Jon Willis said as he handed me his speargun back on the surface. "Then aim for the spot just behind the head."

The invisible lateral line that runs from head to tail marks the cable of nerves that controls all life functions. Sever that and the game is over. But miss, even by a fraction of an inch, and all you have is one mad fish.

As I steadied the gun and aimed the metal shaft, I remembered my friend said something about leading the target.

But pffffff ... the spear had gone. The school scattered immediately upon the discharge, leaving behind one large, angry amberjack with a spear dangling about 4 inches from its tail.

Now what do I do, I thought to myself. I had learned how to shoot, but obviously not to kill. Then, before I knew what was happening, the amberjack began swimming in circles and wrapped the line from the spear around me like a spool of thread.

I probably would have panicked, had I the time, but the fish decided to dive straight for the wreck 60 feet below. The amberjack dragged me through the water, then bounced me along the rusted ship's hull before I managed to get a hold of the line.

I pulled the fish close, then reached for the knife strapped to my leg, which I had used only to look macho on party boats in the Keys.

After a long and difficult struggle, I managed to dispatch the wounded beast and return to the surface. The boat, however, was 100 yards away. As I kicked across the surface, bloody fish in tow, I thought about sharks and all I had to learn about spearfishing.

"We were beginning to worry about you," my friend Willis said. "We thought that amberjack got the best of you."

Almost. In the 10 years that have passed since that first spearfishing trip, I have come a long way in a sport that takes a lifetime to master.

Many people, including most anglers, think spearfishing is like "shooting fish in a barrel." Looks easy, you say? Try chasing a grouper in a stiff current along a rock ledge in 80 feet of water.

Fish can hear and see you coming. All it takes is the "click" of the metal shaft cocking into the trigger mechanism to send them running for cover. That is why blue-water hunters need to be in top shape physically and mentally if they want to bring home trophy fish.

Recent technological advances (i.e., dive computers and mixed gas) have made spearfishing more accessible to the average diver.

The Tampa Bay area's top spearfishermen, including those who competed in last month's St. Pete Open and this weekend's Southern Derby, operate at depths that a decade ago were unheard of.

But shooting big fish in 150 feet of water is not for everybody. It takes years of diving at shallower depths before a spearfisherman can advance to the level of those who routinely place and win at these prestigious tournaments.

Fortunately, most neighborhood dive shops have clubs where people who want to learn how to spearfish rub shoulders with their more experienced brethren. Some organizations, such as the elite St. Pete Underwater Club, is invitation only.

But there are others, including the newly-formed Tampa Bay Spearos, designed for beginner spearfishermen to intermediate hunters. The club's goal is to promote and share the knowledge of safe and competent spearfishing, while establishing a venue for spearfishermen to network with others who enjoy the sport.

"There are a lot of people out there who don't know how to get started," founder Bill Hardman said. "We welcome everyone, at no charge and regardless at what shop they buy their equipment, as long as they want to learn more about scuba and freediving hunting."

Club size is limited. The Spearos meet the first Thursday of every month at 7:15 p.m. at Aquatic Obsessions, 980 58th Street N, St. Petersburg, (727) 344-3483.

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