Spearfishing: Wikis


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"Spearfisherman" redirects here. For the former diving gear company see Spearfisherman (company).
Night spear fishing, Amazon basin, Peru.

Spearfishing is an ancient method of fishing that has been used throughout the world for millennia. Early civilizations were familiar with the custom of spearing fish from rivers and streams using sharpened sticks.

Spearfishing today employs modern and more effective elastic or pneumatic powered spearguns and slings to strike the hunted fish.

Spearfishing may be done using free-diving, snorkeling, or scuba diving techniques. Because of a view that there is a lack of sportsmanship in some modern spearfishing techniques, the use of mechanically powered spearguns is outlawed in some jurisdictions.

Spearfishing is highly selective, with a low amount of unintended by-catch. With education and proper regulations, spearfishing can be an ecologically sustainable form of fishing.

The best free-diving spear fishers can hold their breath for 2 to 4 minutes, and dive to depths of 40 or even 60 meters (130 to 200 feet). However, dives of about one minute and 15 or 20 meters (50 to 70 feet) are more typical for the average spear fisher.



Photo of painting displaying man standing on boat with two small dogs, pointing spear at fish
Fisherman with a spear in a wall painting from the tomb of Usheret in Thebes, 18 Dynasty, around 1430 BC

Spearfishing with barbed poles (harpoons) was widespread in palaeolithic times.[1] Cosquer cave in Southern France contains cave art over 16,000 years old, including drawings of seals which appear to have been harpooned.

There are references to fishing with spears in ancient literature; though, in most cases, the descriptions do not go into detail. An early example from the Bible is in Job 41:7: Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish spears?.

The Greek historian Polybius (ca 203 BC120 BC), in his Histories, describes hunting for swordfish by using a harpoon with a barbed and detachable head.[2]

Greek author Oppian of Corycus wrote a major treatise on sea fishing, the Halieulica or Halieutika, composed between 177 and 180. This is the earliest such work to have survived intact. Oppian describes various means of fishing including the use of spears and tridents.

In a parody of fishing, a type of gladiator called retiarius carried a trident and a casting-net. He fought the murmillo, who carried a short sword and a helmet with the image of a fish on the front.

Copper harpoons were known to the seafaring Harappans[3] well into antiquity.[4] Early hunters in India include the Mincopie people, aboriginal inhabitants of India's Andaman and Nicobar islands, who have used harpoons with long cords for fishing since early times.[5]

Traditional spear fishing

Head of an arrow used for fishing, from Guyana.

Spear fishing is an ancient method of fishing and may be conducted with an ordinary spear or a specialised variant such as an eel spear[6][7] or the trident. A small trident type spear with a long handle is used in the American South and Midwest for gigging bullfrogs with a bright light at night, or for gigging carp and other fish in the shallows.

Traditional spear fishing is restricted to shallow waters, but the development of the speargun has made the method much more efficient. With practice, divers are able to hold their breath for up to four minutes and sometimes longer; of course, a diver with underwater breathing equipment can dive for much longer periods.

Modern spear fishing

In the 1920s, sport spearfishing using only watertight swimming goggles became popular on the Mediterranean coast of France and Italy. This led to development of the modern diving mask, swimfin and snorkel. Modern scuba diving had its genesis in the systematic use of rebreathers by Italian sport spearfishers during the 1930s. This practice came to the attention of the Italian Navy, which developed its frogman unit, which affected World War II.[8]

During the 1960s, attempts to have spearfishing recognized as an Olympic sport were unsuccessful. Instead, two organisations, the International Underwater Spearfishing Association (IUSA) and the International Bluewater Spearfishing Records Committee (IBSRC), list world record catches by species according to rules to ensure fair competition. Spearfishing is illegal in many bodies of water, and some locations only allow spearfishing during certain seasons.

In 2007, the Australian Bluewater Freediving Classic became the first spearfishing tournament to be accredited and was awarded 4 out of 5 stars based on environmental, social, safety and economic indicators.[9]

Purposes of spearfishing

People spearfish for sport, for commerce or simply to eat. In tropical seas, some natives spearfish for a living, often using home-made kit.

Spearfishing and conservation

Spearfishing has been implicated in local extinction of many species, including the Goliath grouper on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, the Nassau grouper in the barrier reef off the coast of Belize, the giant black sea bass in California, and others.[10]

Types of spearfishing

Spearfisherman hunting dog-tooth tuna in the Ryu-Kyu Islands

The methods and locations freedive spearfishers use vary greatly around the world. This variation extends to the species of fish sought and the gear used.

Shore diving

Shore diving is perhaps the most common form of spearfishing and simply involves entering and exiting the sea from beaches or headlands and hunting around ocean structures, usually reef, but also rocks, kelp or sand. Usually shore divers hunt at depths of 5–25 metres (16–82 ft), depending on location. In some locations in the South Pacific, divers can experience drop-offs from 5 to 40 metres (16 to 130 ft) close to the shore line. Sharks and reef fish can be abundant in these locations. In subtropical areas, sharks may be less common, but other challenges face the shore diver, such as managing entry and exit in the presence of big waves. Headlands are favored for entry because of their proximity to deeper water, but timing is important so the diver does not get pushed onto rocks by waves. Beach entry can be safer, but more difficult due the need to consistently dive through the waves until the surf line is crossed.

Shore dives produce mainly reef fish, but ocean going pelagic fish fish are caught from shore dives too, and can be specifically targeted.

Shore diving can be done with trigger-less spears such as pole spears or Hawaiian slings, but more commonly triggered devices such as spearguns. Speargun setups to catch and store fish include speed rigs and fish stringers.

Catch bags worn close to the body can dangerously inhibit movement, especially during descent or ascent on deeper freedives and in shark-inhabited waters. The better option is to tow a float, with a attached float line onto which catch can be threaded. Tying the float line to the speargun can help in the event of a large catch, or to recover a dropped speargun.

Boat diving

Boats, ships or even kayaks can be used to access offshore reefs or ocean structures such as pinnacles. Man-made structures such as oil rigs and Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) are also fished. Sometimes a boat is necessary to access a location that is close to shore, but inaccessible by land.

Methods and gear used for boat diving are similar to shore diving or blue water hunting, depending on the target prey. Care must be taken with spearguns in the cramped confines of a small boat, including leaving them unloaded until entering the water.

Boat diving is practiced worldwide. Hot spots include the northern islands of New Zealand (yellow tail kingfish), Gulf of Florida oil rigs (cobia, grouper) and the Great Barrier Reef (wahoo, dog-tooth tuna). FADS are targeted worldwide, often specifically for mahi-mahi (dolphin fish). The deepwater fishing grounds off Cape Point, (Cape Town, South Africa) have become popular with trophy hunting, freediving spearfishers in search of Yellowfin Tuna.

The free diving record for bluefin tuna is held by Christian Bommer.

Blue water hunting

Blue water hunting is the area of most interest to elite spearfishers, but has increased in popularity generally in recent years. It involves accessing usually very deep and clear water and trolling, chumming for large pelagic fish species such as marlin, tuna, or giant trevally. Blue water hunting is often conducted in drifts; the boat driver drops divers and allow them to drift in the current for up to several kilometers before collecting them. Blue water hunters can go for hours without seeing any fish, and without any ocean structure or a visible bottom the divers can experience sensory deprivation and have difficulty determining the size of a solitary fish. One technique to overcome this is to note the size of the fish's eye in relation to its body—large specimens have a proportionally smaller eye.

Notably, blue water hunters make use of breakaway rigs and large multi-band wooden guns to catch and subdue their prey. If the prey is large and still has fight left after being subdued, a second gun can provide a kill shot at a safe distance. This is acceptable to IBSRC and IUSA regulations as long as the spearfisher loads it himself in the water.

Blue water hunting is conducted worldwide, but notable hot spots include South Africa (yellowfin tuna) and the South Pacific (dogtooth tuna). Jack Prodanavich and Hal Lewis of San Diego were among the first to target large fast–moving fish like Tuna.

Without diving

Painting of men men in canoes holding torches with trees in the background
Menominees spearfishing salmon at night by torchlight and canoe on Fox River
Photo of man standing on rock holding spear with spearpoint in the water
A Hupa man with his spear
Photo of man sitting in kayak holding spear in throwing position with right arm raised and right hand extended above and behind his head
Inuit hunter with harpoon in kayak, Hudson Bay, circa 1908-1914

These methods have been used for thousands of years. A fisher wades in shallow water with a hand spear. The fisher must account for optical refraction at the water's surface, which makes fish appear further away than they are. By experience, the fisher learns to aim lower. Calm and shallow waters are favored for spearing fish from above the surface, as water clarity is of utmost importance.[11]

Spearfishing can also be done directly from a boat, and with similarities to bowfishing. See gigging.


This is a list of equipment commonly used in spearfishing. Not all of it is necessary and spearfishing is often practised with minimal gear.

see speargun.
Pole spears, or hand spears, consist of a long shaft with point at one end and an elastic loop at the other for propulsion. They also come in a wide variety, from aluminum or titanium metal, to fiberglass or carbon fiber. Often they are screwed together from smaller pieces or able to be folded down for ease of transport.
Hawaiian slings 
Hawaiian slings consist of an elastic band attached to a tube, through which a spear is launched.
Wet Suit 
Wetsuits, invented by Georges Beuchat in France, designed specifically for spearfishing are often two-piece (jacket and 'long-john' style pants) and have camouflage patterns, blue for open ocean, green or brown for reef hunting. Commonly they have a pad on the chest to aid in loading spearguns.
Weight belt or weight vest 
These are used to compensate for wetsuit buoyancy and help the diver descend to depth.
Fins for freedive spearfishing are much longer than those used in SCUBA to aid in fast ascent.
A knife should always be carried as a safety precaution in case of the diver becoming tangled in his spear or float line. It can also be used as an iki jime or kill spike.
Iki jime or kill spike 
In lieu of a knife, a sharpened metal spike can be used to kill the fish quickly and humanely upon capture. This action reduces interest from sharks by stopping the fish from thrashing. Iki jime is a Japanese term and is a method traditionally used by Japanese fishermen. Killing the fish quickly is believed to improve the flavor of the flesh by limiting the build up of adrenaline in the fish's muscles.
Snorkel and diving mask
Spearfishing snorkels and diving masks are similar to those used for scuba diving. Spearfishing masks sometimes have mirrored lenses that prevent fish from seeing the spearfisher's eyes tracking them. Mirrored lenses appear to fish as one big eyeball, so head movements can still spook the fish.
Buoy or float 
A buoy is usually tethered to the spearfisher's speargun or directly to the spear. A buoy helps to subdue large fish. It can also assist in storing fish, but is more importantly used as a safety device to warn boat drivers there is diver in the area.
A floatline connects the buoy to the speargun. Often made from woven plastic, they also be mono-filament encased in an airtight plastic tube, or made from stretchable bungee cord.
Gloves are a value to spearfisherman that desire to maintain a sense of safety or access more dangerous areas, such as those between coral, that could otherwise not be reached without use of the hands. They also aid in loading the bands on rubber powered speargun.

Management of Spearfishing

Spearfishing is intensively managed throughout the world.

Australia allows only recreational spearfishing and generally only breath-hold free diving. The Government imposes numerous restrictions, demarcating Marine Protected Areas, Closed Areas, Protected Species, size/bag limits and equipment.

Australia's peak recreational body is the Australian Underwater Federation. The vision of this group is "Safe, Sustainable, Selective, Spearfishing" and the AUF provides membership, advocacy and organises competitions.[12]

Norway has a relatively large ratio of coastline to population, and has one of the most liberal spearfishing rules in the northern hemisphere. Spearfishing with scuba gear is widespread among recreational divers. Restrictions in Norway are limited to anadrome species, like atlantic salmon, sea trout, and lobster.[13]

In Mexico a regular fishing permit allows spearfishing, but not electro-mechanical spearguns.[14]


  1. ^ Guthrie, Dale Guthrie (2005) The Nature of Paleolithic Art. Page 298. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226311260
  2. ^ Polybius, "Fishing for Swordfish", Histories Book 34.3 (Evelyn S. Shuckburgh, translator). London, New York: Macmillan, 1889. Reprint Bloomington, 1962.
  3. ^ Ray 2003, page 93
  4. ^ Allchin 1975, page 106
  5. ^ Edgerton 2003, page 74
  6. ^ Image of an eel spear.
  7. ^ Spear fishing for eels.
  8. ^ Quick, D. (1970). "A History Of Closed Circuit Oxygen Underwater Breathing Apparatus". Royal Australian Navy, School of Underwater Medicine. RANSUM-1-70. http://archive.rubicon-foundation.org/4960. Retrieved 2008-04-25.  
  9. ^ Recfish Australia
  10. ^ Roberts, Callum. The Unnatural History of the Sea, Island Press, 2007, p. 238
  11. ^ Otto Gabriel; Andres von Brandt (2005). Fish Catching Methods of the World. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 53–54. ISBN 0852382804.  
  12. ^ Australian Underwater Federation
  13. ^ Spearfishing in Norway
  14. ^ CONAPESCA SAN DIEGO - Sportfishing regulations, Conapesca Mexico San Diego Office


  • Len Jones. Len Jones' Guide to Freedive Spearfishing.  
  • Underwater fishing in Australia and New Zealand by Adam Smith
  • Spearfishing is it ecologically sustainable? A paper given at the World Recreational Fishing Conference, Darwin, Australia by Adam Smith and Seji Nakaya
  • Terry Maas (1998). Bluewater Hunting & Freediving. Ventura, CA: BlueWater Freedivers. ISBN 0-9644966-3-1.  

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