I wanted to share with you a really good spearfishing experience I had on the Lleyn Peninsula of North Wales earlier this year when I first met up with Dave Harries, a freediver from North Wales who was keen to start hunting around our coast after learning to spearfish on his travels to New Zealand.
On the journey down we were chatting away, and I tell him that the dive today will be nothing like New Zealand. The vis will be bad, the fish are sometimes inexplicably absent and the tides make it all really hard work. He knew all this of course having scuba dived around the North Wales coast regularly while at university, but I felt duty bound to prepare him for what I was sure would be a somewhat under-whelming experience after the clean waters of NZ. After a car journey of a couple of hours and a yomp with the kit over some fields, we eventually arrived at the dive site and from that moment on I was proved totally wrong.
It was a beautiful clear calm sunny day, which is unusual in itself in North Wales and the sun reflecting on the water made it look like liquid glass, moving with the tide and the almost imperceptible breeze, perfect for diving. It reminded me of a time when I was freediving in Greece where some days the sea was an absolutely flat blue sheet of water, but wake up! This was Wales and during the 20 years that I have of dived around this coastline I could only recall 3 or 4 times when the sea has been like this. I stood on the shore, took in the scene and thought, “this is going to be good, I just know it”. It was a high spring tide, lines of tidal movement still streaked the water and the sight of gulls massed on the surface about 200m offshore gave a sure sign that something was happening underneath…
On the beach I hurried to get kitted up. I don’t know about other divers but I get irritable if I haven’t dived for a while, my skin feels like it has to get wet or I’ll go mad and my mind craves the silence of being underwater holding my breath. It truly is another world to slip into. Sometimes if I have been in the water spearfishing for 4 or sometimes 5 hours, when I come out, I wonder if the world has changed and I am left with a feeling that literally anything could of happened whilst I was away in the sea.
Slowly Dave and I finned out and I could see that we had about 5m of visibility, which for this part of Wales is exceptional believe me! I told him to hunt shallow and close inshore first to see if there was anything going on the bay. As I swam out beyond the string weed I could actually see fish from the surface and I dove down, hid in the kelp and was almost instantly surrounded by a large school of sea bass. I thought to myself, “this has never happened before, am I dreaming? Where have all these fish come from?” There were so many of them all gliding in for a quick look and then gone, into the blue. I surfaced and looked down; there were fish everywhere, literally hundreds of bass. (Maybe I am exaggerating a little here but not much I assure you)
By this point I was almost ecstatic, I dove again, this time with my gun loaded and typically the fish scattered. They instinctively know when they are being hunted so I hid in the kelp and waited.. and waited.., sure enough eventually after about a minute they came back, effortlessly zooming past through the water. I had never seen so many fish here and I started checking them out, most were around 3 or 4 pounds but some were bigger in the 5 to 6lb range. I moved my gun slowly into position and a fish came past my spear point and I was about to fire when it caught my eye movement and in a split second was gone with a crack of the tail I could hear and feel in my ears. I settled down again and waited for another to come past and this time I kept my eyes averted and looked at the fish coming in out of the corner of my eye. Just as was about to make for the surface a nice one came towards me and I stole a few more seconds and lined up on its head following its movement with my spear point. But in that moment I saw another nice fish behind and that is all it takes for a momentary loss of focus, I fired and missed, my reactions were too slow and the fish was too fast. I surfaced to reload cursing myself and I looked down, my quarry fish were still there looking puzzled at my spear trailing in the water. “Dumb ass bass” I thought, then corrected my thoughts “Dumb ass me!!”, for I had fallen for the trick that confuses most predators when presented with a big school of fish.
After a quick recovery and some mental preparation in the form of telling myself not to be so bloody stupid next time!! I reloaded the gun and carefully I finned over to the edge of the school of fish below, took a light breath and descended equalising my ears as quietly as possible so as not to frighten the fish. I settled gently into the kelp and this time the fish came past almost at once, a good larger fish came in for a look and this time I didn’t miss. The hit was a good one, not a stoner where the fish is killed instantaneously, but good enough. I let go of the gun and let it run for cover rather than grasping the spear and risking losing the fish. Down in the kelp I could see it hiding, carefully I hooked my fingers into its gills and made for the surface. The fish was soon on the stringer and I looked over to check out how Dave was getting on. He held up another nice fish, it was good to see him doing well too. I thought to myself “this boy is good… a nice fish on his first spearfishing trip in Wales, it took me a whole year to learn how to hit fish in these waters”
After another two hours I had six fish all around the 4-6 pound range on my stringer and I started to worry about carrying the weight of fish back along the coast back to the car! The current had picked up with the ebbing tide and I had to very fin hard just to maintain my position. I signalled to Dave that it was time to go and we started the long slog against the current back to shore. I offloaded my gun and concentrated on making a good streamlined profile in the water to save energy. After 20 minutes of hard swimming we were back in the slack water of the bay, exhausted but with 11 good fish between us. We cleaned our fish on the rocks inshore while above us the gulls dived and wheeled clamouring for fish guts, their share of our catch and I felt good to know that in the cycle of nature nothing is wasted. That missed by the gulls would be food for the crabs which, when they peel, are a favourite food of sea bass.
To hunt in the sea and take part in the drama of predator and prey is an enormous privilege and every dive is a learning and sometimes humbling, experience. After a fantastic day like this, all the dives I have spent where I can’t even see the end of the gun and I’ve swallowed so much seawater that I am left coughing my guts up hanging onto my float for dear life are all forgotten. Sometimes the memorable experience is a good days fishing like this, others it is to play with the seals or to see dolphins under the bow wave of the boat or just to hang out watching dogfish lazily swim across the kelp. On the drive home I wondered “how many more days will I have like this before autumn draws in and the bass retreat to warmer waters for the winter, not too many I bet”!