Thursday, July 11, 2024

Finding Fish to Spear

Finding Fish to Spear

My first attempt to spearfish was along the side of a road leading to a bridge crossing Tampa Bay. Carrying Voit Viking fins, a mask & snorkel that didn’t leak much, and armed with a “Ted Williams” toy speargun from Sears, I waded waist deep into the water by a rock pile. I could almost see my feet, while unknown little fish zipped by, so I pulled back the wimpy band a missed a few shots. The tiny trident spear finally bounced off a couple fish. Dejected I rode my bike back home, thinking my problem was to find bigger fish. Anyway, it was one problem. Finding fish becomes a spearo’s never-ending focus.

amberjack school in the blue
amberjack school in the blue

Beaches, bridges, rock piles and other sites everybody can see from land, tend to be fished out, so go beyond the obvious. We used to swim way out on the Skyway bridge over Tampa Bay and use the piling number painted by bridge inspectors to track good fishing and crabbing sites. Poor visibility areas, like the Florida west coast, require running many miles offshore to better see fish and underwater structure.

Swimming out to sites is limited to your stamina and greatly compromised by currents, waves and water temperatures. Early divers in California and Florida’s east coast started using paddleboards to venture offshore and navigated with shore line-ups and compass bearings to return to good sites. Kayaks became popular in Hawaii, Rhode Island, Connecticut, California & Florida because they can travel even farther and carry fish bags & coolers. These crafts can be anchored or towed, even being used as spearfishing floats. As divers needed high speed and long range they switched to engine powered dive boats.

Wrecks, artificial reefs and natural underwater reefs are rarely in sight from land, so old time divers needed to scout sites, even if blindly, read books and newspapers, and/or talk to fishermen & other divers for information on fishing sites.

Fish Finders

Fish finders or bottom recorders were primitive before the 70’s but flashers and then paper bottom scratchers finally let us see structure and fish schools below us. My first scuba mentors gave me a compass heading and a time to run, at a certain rpm of the boat engine, because we couldn’t see shore line-ups. This got us in areas and then we ran zig-zag patterns back and forth from about 45ft to 65 ft until we ran over something. A marker jug was dropped overboard to hold the location, while a human fish finder (me), splashed in for a quick look. I remember diving in Southeast Florida in the late 70’s and being jealous of the captains who could drop us on any reef or wreck from reading the shore line-ups, and we could see underwater for 60 to 100ft, so we rarely missed any site.

Modern Fish Finders like Deeper are making it easier to find fish
Modern Fish Finders like Deeper are making it easier to find fish


Electronic navigation came to the working diver with Loran C in the middle 70’s. It was radio signals read digitally as time delays (TDs.) Accuracy depended on where you were, as the Florida Central Gulf was accurate to about 50ft, but the Keys was awful and the East coast, not much better. There were no map plotters, so it was like running down numbered rows in a parking lot, until you turn on a perpendicular row, and run down to your numbered parking spot. (I called it “Parking Lot Searching.”) I could find a 25ft boat, sunk 100 miles offshore, loaded with big fish! They shut off Loran in Feb 8, 2010. Satellite GPS came out in the 1990’s, but the military controlled “Selective Availability” kept resolution inaccurate. I bought a D-GPS in 1998, which fixed SA, making GPS better than Loran C. On May 2, 2000, the military shut off SA, so now 95% of the time, you can be as close as 4.9m / 16ft, or better. Amazingly, some captains with huge GPS map plotters still can’t find 200ft long wrecks, close to shore!

Many divers now have GPS & Bottom Finders mounted on their kayaks and even Stand Up Paddleboards. Last year I saw a transducer system that floated behind a SUP with wireless transmission to the diver’s phone screen.

Sources of fish locations have changed with the times, and most importantly you need to consider the source. Counties in most states publish artificial reef coordinates, and they are getting better, but they were often wrong in the days of Loran to GPS conversions. Private companies sold books and discs with thousands of numbers, but they’d often have 9 incorrect and maybe 1 good # for the same wreck. GPS Manufacturers publish the locations in their devices now, which show on the map, so the junk ‘s reduced, but exactness still sometimes suffers. Websites provide numbers or sell sites, but don’t bet on accuracy. Many newspaper and magazine writers have given coordinates to readers, myself included, as a form of payback for the help pros gave to me when I was young. Every site has been dived personally. See for the Wild West Coast of Florida. Check E, D & A for sure.

Google Earth

Google Earth is amazing! With satellite maps from 1995 until 2017, although early years are rather fuzzy. Since the middle 2000’s, you can look at shallow clear waters and get hundreds of coordinates to check out, and plot all your confirmed sites. Just put your cursor on what you see and placemark it. Most mariners show Lat/Long as Degrees, Decimal Minutes. If needed, go to Tools, Options to change that setting. The day and time of satellite photos varies in viewable clarity, so check back several years with the clock icon, called Historical Imagery, on top of the map. For example, check the great view of the Copenhagen Wreck off Pompano Beach, imagery date 03-17. There’s an icon marking the stern of the wreck, 2 big dive boats on moorings, and a small jet photo just north her bow.

Scouting is as important today as it was before the cool electronic gadgetry, possibly more. If looking for certain fish, you need to know when they are around. An example is the difference between the Florida Gulf coast, which has seasonal changes in fish populations, but nothing like the Atlantic coast in SE Florida. Because clear dive sites are as close as the beach and not much farther than about 2 miles offshore, in about 200ft of water, there are many migrations of fish species up and down this thin drop-off. The close to shore Gulfstream also affects migrations. The Gulf has the same depths but they are spread out over 100 miles offshore, before it drops off, and feels the south-flowing Loop Current. Many of the big migrators on the east coast, like cobia, kingfish and gag groupers, are usually on wrecks and reefs year in the Gulf.

You need to know when to change your hunting territory. As a born Gulf diver, I learned quickly that winter cold fronts are brutal in the Gulf, so we often drove across to Southeast Florida because they have short rides with the wind coming off the land. The Gulfstream rarely gets below 72F, and fish love those temperatures. I’ve shot up to 25lbs black groupers in 25ft to 60ft of water off Pompano and West Palm Beach in winter.

If you hit the same sites as everybody else, obviously finding many or big fish will be doubtful. If you go to your lesser known sites too often, the same thing happens, so keep scouting and diving new sites. We often dive sites run over in the past, marked ND, for No Dive. It’s surprising how good sites can be that don’t look it. If you search old numbers that were once good, they also can still produce, especially because the masses forget them, or can’t find them anymore. Especially true of old sites, like shrimp boat wrecks that break up and flatten down, grouper and snapper love’em!

The Gulf doesn’t have many pretty wrecks, because they don’t sink new wrecks very often, and they blew the hell out of them, to sink them which breaks up hulls fast. Ugly dives produce fish, especially in Southeast Florida, There are many pretty wrecks and reefs here, that cattle boats dive constantly. Even though their divers rarely hunt, or do so poorly, many quality fish avoid these places. Huge quantities of ugly low barges, fields of rocks and short reefs, rarely see divers. When drifting on a long reef, leave the break and cross over the top, you’ll find small breaks and holes that have fish and lobster. Reefs with mooring balls often have more reefs, beyond on either end, or sister reefs parallel inside or outside. Wrecks with moorings often have more structure close that fell off while sinking, or new structures were added or the best often previously existed.

My old saying “The deeper you dive, the bigger the fish,” is especially true in areas that place artificial reefs well beyond 132ft / 40m, the recreational dive limit. They sink these reefs for hook & line sportfishermen, but many hooked fish can’t be raised, they hole-up and shed the tackle. Deep dive sites require special training, gear, and experience, but the rewards are well worth the cost & effort!

Continue reading more from the Beginners Guide to Spearfishing.

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Chad Carney
Chad Carney
Capt. Chad Carney - Lifetime diving and spearfishing instructor.