5:45 a.m. June 10, 2011. Day one of the Wrightsville Beach Spearfishing Tournament. Chris Brooks, Bert Lomax, Kenneth Kelly and I pulled into the parking lot of the marina to unload our gear for the offshore trip. It was comfortable and cool for the time being, but with the humidity in the air, it was only a few hours before the intense heat would surely come on a typical summer morning in North Carolina. We loaded pull carts with equipment at the dock and hauled our gear toward the slip. Warren Phillips, our captain and fellow spearfisherman, was already onboard the 25-foot Cape Horn preparing the boat for the day.
The weather forecast was fair but definitely good enough to get offshore into the blue water. With south winds running into a head sea, it would be a bumpy ride for the distance we’d hoped to travel that day, but the spot had a lot of potential for pelagic fish. We had studied the weather reports for days leading up to the tournament. For the three-day tournament, this looked like the best day for getting offshore to hunt blue water fish. Warren had some good numbers that had proven successful for big pelagics in the past, but the run was over 60 miles offshore. The conditions offshore weren’t ideal, but they were doable and we had a seaworthy vessel and solid crew. Bert Lomax patrolled the ocean daily as a Sea Tow captain. Kenneth, Chris, and I had been hunting in these waters for several seasons and Warren had confidence as our captain that it would be a safe run…but a bumpy one. Warren selected the waypoint on the GPS, pushed down the throttle, and we all held on for the long run offshore.
After a beating of close-interval chop and an almost three-hour run, we came within a few hundred yards of our mark. We looked over the gunnels with wide-eyed faces and absorbed that spectacular color…majestic blue! The ocean even seemed to have calmed down upon entering the area of the waypoint. Dolphins swam on either side of the hull, welcoming our arrival to the wreck site. As Warren pulled back on the throttle of the twin 150s, the boat slowed to idle as it neared the spot. Large schools of amberjack and barracuda swarmed around the hull and baitfish were flopping at the surface. Warren had put us right on the mark and Chris set the hook. Life was here and we couldn’t get in the water fast enough.
Upon entering the blue water, all of us were immediately greeted by half a dozen good-sized sandbar sharks, overly curious and eager to see what strange beings had entered their blue world. We had nothing for them…not yet anyway. From the surface, we breathed up and got familiar with the area and the active life around us. The structure lay at 135 feet but all the action seemed to be in the 50-65 foot range. The water was warm and the vis was 80-90 feet. We started making drops in the neutral zone scouting fish. We worked in buddy teams, spotting from the surface and keeping a close eye on predators.
Kenneth and Bert made the first descents as the rest of us spotted them from the surface. The spearos slowly kicked down and were immediately engulfed by the huge amberjacks that circled the hunters as they lay suspended, stalking and looking for potential prey. From the surface, we could spot not only the freedivers, but also the sharks as they darted in and out toward the fins of the descending divers. They were becoming more than curious as we spent more time in the water.
Spotting from the surface, we watched both Kenneth and Bert line up and fire their spears at the silvery fish that passed into their kill zone…African pompano! Now the sharks became somewhat aggressive and made quick movements toward the distressed fish. As the hunters fought the fish from the surface, Chris, Warren, and I swam toward the predators to discourage them from taking an easy meal. It was just enough time to allow Bert and Kenneth to get control of the African pompano at the surface and land them on deck.
Chris and Warren, while breathing up at the surface, both suddenly made hurried drops to the 50-foot range, kicking quickly to descend on a potential pelagic fish…Cobia! Chris dropped directly on top of a good-sized cobia and fired a shot from above that penetrated the fish. It was a good shot, holding the fish firmly as it ran toward the wreck…and the fight began. Warren, during the descent on the other Cobia, had come up short of the fish, holding his nose. “Maybe he didn’t equalize?” I thought to myself. While Chris fought his fish from the surface, Bert and I, now back to back, fended off the now-agitated sharks. As Chris kept tension on the float line and worked the fish, two more large cobia swam in for a look. Kenneth immediately dropped down on the larger of the two fish and fired a low shot in the guts. The spear held, but it wouldn’t hold for long. Now, with two irritated and wounded fish, the sharks increased in number and Bert and I had our hands full keeping them at bay.
Chris, having had lots of experience in NC waters spearing cobia, confidently pulled the 30+ pound fish to the surface and landed it in the boat. Kenneth, who had also speared some nice cobia in the past, caught his breath at the surface. He knew he would have to put another shaft into the fish to land it. He kicked down and made a clean second shot, firmly holding the cobia.
Once the fish were on the boat, Bert and I jumped on board to take a breather and drink water. Warren had been on the boat for a while and had taken off his wetsuit and gear; unfortunately, on his descent on the cobia, he had ruptured his eardrum and was done for the day and the rest of the tournament. Despite his injury and the prime hunting conditions, Warren kept a smile on his face. He accepted the fact that he couldn’t dive anymore and continued to support our crew as captain and spotter from the surface. Any one of us would have been so bummed to not be able to continue to dive in those conditions, but Warren remained positive, supportive and committed to the success and safety of our crew. His positive attitude and selflessness contributed greatly to our success and safety all day. His actions and commitment to our team later earned him the “Sportsman Award” for the tournament.
We hadn’t shot any footage yet since we were all hunting in the tournament, but with the increasing number of sharks and life on this wreck site, I decided to grab my video camera. While the rest of the crew took a breather on the boat, I got in the water to film some sharks or whatever else came along. About 100 yards from the boat, armed with only my Canon HV30 Vixia and Ikelite housing, all I could do was smile and laugh through my snorkel as I watched what swam directly in front on my lens…Wahoo! Two of them! With a speargun, they were point blank range. They were so close to me that it seemed like they knew I was not a threat, so they could just pose for the camera. I at least made sure I was hitting record to capture the footage, but by the time my fellow spearos entered the water, the wahoo had slipped into the blue distance and we didn’t see another one for the rest of the day.
We hadn’t seen much for a while, except more sharks, so we decided to pull the hook and hunt another spot that was close by. Warren put us on the second spot dead on. We anchored to the wreck and hoped for similar conditions with more fish and maybe less sharks. Bert had some issues with his speargun, so he swam out with my speargun in hand and we decided to trade off between gun and camera for the rest of the day. Just below us, a large school of good-sized rainbow runners swam by. Immediately, Chris and Kenneth both dropped down to about 40 feet to intercept the school. As I followed Chris with the video camera, he lined up and fired a spear through one of the bigger fish. The flopper held and Chris pulled up a nice 11-pound rainbow runner. Just as Chris subdued the fish, Kenneth dropped down on that same school and shot a solid 12-pound rainbow runner. Surprisingly, we didn’t see any sharks on this hunt.
I had been feeling good on my diving all day, enjoying relaxed breath ups and extended bottom times. I had seen some big African pompanos on previous drops, but they had been just out of range. They were lingering in the distance, very skittish and usually appearing at the latter part of my breath hold. I thought that maybe with a longer bottom time, I could lure them a little closer and into my kill zone for a clean shot…if they were even still there. With Kenneth spotting from the surface and after a long, super-relaxed breath up, I took a deep inhale and descended slowly down to the 60-foot range…suspended and completely in the zone. The 60+ pound amberjacks, with their big eyes, continuously circled around me, so curious and yet welcoming. I felt good in my breath hold, almost lost in the consistent rhythm of the fish going round and round. Without looking at my watch, I knew I was deep into the dive. If anything was present, it should be coming visible any time now. Just slightly above and to my left, on the outside of the circling amberjacks, I caught a flicker of silver flashes. I glanced up slowly and there before my eyes were three very large African pompanos. Wow! Without hesitation, and ever so slowly, I pointed my Omer Cayman 130 and fired a perfect spear directly behind the eye of the big pelagic fish. There had been three African pompanos moving by, but now only one remained, completely still in the water. It was as if time stopped for a moment. I kicked toward the fish and as I got close, it fell sideways right into my hands. I had stoned it! I could hear cheers from above as the other divers witnessed the hunt from the surface. When I put my arms around the fish, I could tell it was the biggest African pompano I had ever shot. I didn’t know it at the time, but the 36.5-pound African pompano would later win “King of the Sea” in the tournament and first place in the pelagic category.
While Bert filmed, Kenneth and I watched from the surface as Chris descended very quickly, chasing something that looked like an African pompano. Chris kicked to a depth of 50 feet and fired off a long shot that penetrated the fish. We couldn’t quite make out what the fish was as it ran toward the bottom. The spear held as Chris’ Riffe float tombstoned at the surface. Chris kept tension on the line, clipping it off little by little, working the fish from the surface. As the fish ascended, Chris got control of it and landed a 29-pound permit.
I was still on a high after having landed my biggest African pompano yet…and it had been a good hunt and kill shot. My extended bottom time had proven successful, so I decided to stick with the same plan on my next descent. I wanted to extend my bottom time even further from 1:50 to over 2 minutes to maximize my time below. Again, feeling confident in my breath hold and knowing I had spotters above, I took my last breath and dropped down to the 60-foot range. The amberjacks and barracudas stayed with me throughout the dive, circling and ever-present as I lay still, waiting, scouting and looking for a fin, tail or flicker that was different from the schooling fish. The amberjacks were so thick and close that they allowed me to focus on everything other than wanting to breathe…lost in their world, but very alert. I had not had a contraction and there was no feeling of wanting a breath.
Something was entering the circle of fish and coming right toward me; it looked like a shark and as it got closer, it still looked like the head of a shark. The amberjacks and barracudas continued to circle and cloud my view of the fish. As this pursuing fish swam to within a few feet, it turned broadside and even amongst the rest of the fish, I could see that it was a cobia! Directly in front of my mask and less than four feet away, I pointed my speargun and fired. The spear penetrated the cobia just behind the left eye and held firm as the fish made a dash for the sea floor. I kicked slowly toward the surface and kept tension on the reel line, slowing the spool. In the ascent, the cobia had stopped running and held its place within the circling amberjacks at about 45 feet. At the surface, with my dive buddies present, I fought the fish for over 10 minutes. The cobia continued to make runs as I inched it closer to the surface. As the fish came within my reach, I gained control and secured the 37-pound cobia.
What a day! It was hard to leave this spot, but we had a long run back to the Sea Path Marina and wanted to make weigh in. Of the three-day competition, this was our best day by far. Tournament or not, it was a great day to be freediving and spearfishing in good company. The pure adventure and freedom to be part of a truly vast and somewhat unknown underwater world is a thrill in itself. There’s a great comfort and peace of mind to be in the wild ocean, on a breath, amidst predators and prey, vulnerable, and yet ok with the situation. We got to explore and hunt in the blue water of our own backyard. Our harvest from the sea was a gift and the adventure of that day will be a memory that our crew will cherish for a long time.
Tournament Results for our crew:
- Chris Brooks: Fifth in King of the Sea, 4th in Master Hunter
- Kenneth Kelly: Sixth in King of the Sea, 5th in Master Hunter
- Bert Lomax: Ninth in King of the Sea
- Joe Sheridan: First in King of the Sea, 2nd in Master Hunter, 1st in Pelagic
- Warren Phillips: 2011 Sportsman Award