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Experience Spearfishing in New Jersey Waters

By Greg Modelle

At eleven o’clock the tide is still moving in, and getting gear together and donned has become
routine enough. There is a privilege in this experience, this moment before the immersion, to introspect
and make some sort of a case for worthiness. Diving does that. I pledge to do my best to perform
gratefully and earnestly.

Spearfishing is much the opposite of catching fish with tackle. When the diver enters the water, the
diver must revere the fish’s disadvantage. It’s necessary for the spear-fisherman to insure that there
is no “play”, no struggle. When hunting, he takes the minimum of what he needs, causes no damage
and in honoring the fish that will provide his sustenance, fires his weapon with the required

With entering, the immediate challenge is to become acclimated to the cool water, the low light,
pressure and the normally limited visibility. Every two weeks or so, the high tide falls in the middle
of the day; ambient light increases when the sun is high in the sky. In southern New Jersey, the
conditions are relatively uncommon and not entirely predictable; the lack of rain, wind and changes
in water temperature can trigger an episode of good visibility. Spearfishing requires a minimum of
4-5 feet. It’s common that fish are taken at ranges less than the length of the gun.
This day is excellent: visibility exceeds fifteen feet. In conditions like this, it’s hard to contain a
sense of excitement. As I descend to the channel floor, a juvenile taugie is flushed from the cover of
an old piling-end. I watch as he is engulfed by a doormat flounder that erupts off the bottom,
previously unseen. The flounder swims off with the tautog still in his mouth, and I see the flatty
changing colors as he passes over alternating banks of mussel beds and clear sandy patches. I have
yet to settle-in, clear my mask, check my air and load the gun.

Scuba diving and especially spearfishing with scuba is an exercise in situational awareness. There is
a period of transition when a diver’s ability to concentrate shifts from conditions of self, to that
which is outside of self. The more comfort and routine that can be established in the gear and in
environmental familiarity, the more quickly and completely this transition of awareness occurs.
The arrow gets pressed into the muzzle of the gun. The safety is checked, line wrapped, and I glance
at my pressure gauge. There are crabs and starfish working-over the mussel beds and immature
taugies and bregals hovering around the edges. There is trash too, bottles, a plastic bucket, a long lost
minnow trap and an aluminum boat pole. Later there will be anchors, nylon rope, mono-filament
strands and an unending array of terminal tackle. Where a hook-and-line fisherman has snagged and
broken-off, there is often an eel, skate or shark that has eaten the abandoned bait and become
ensnared. Take the opportunity to cut these creatures loose. I free the horseshoe crabs that have
become entangled.

Getting to where I am going involves swimming about 75 yards, drifting with the last of the
incoming tide to where an island bridge offers the substrate of a reef environment. Suddenly I’m in
shadow. There could be a boat drifting above, but the shadow does not pass. Looking up, my first
focus is on the front half of a peanut bunker drifting down, neatly bitten-off. Above my head
snapper blues have them driven into in a broad continuous ribbon so dense that they block-out the
daylight. This is the first I’ve ever seen of this behavior, from bottom-side of the bait. They are like
knives as they slash through the school. Almost as soon as this is all taken in, the party is gone.
Boat traffic is a constant threat in the summer. Unless you embrace a piling as you ascend, or
surface tight to a bridge caisson, the potential of coming to grief on the surface is real. Never, ever
surface away from structure, certainly never surface in the navigation channel. Underwater a diver
can hear and sometimes feel boat traffic. However, silence is no assurance of a safe ascent. It is best
not to dive alone in areas that may be unfamiliar, and absolutely necessary to have a compass and be
aware of the direction for a safe exit.

Rock jetties, bridges and dock pilings are the kind of substrate that attracts fish. Observe the non-game
species in these rich environments. Remarkable things: a brood of baby sea-robins walking in
formation, perhaps a hundred of them, following the contour across the bottom like a herd on some
terrestrial plain! I have seen huge eagle rays as big as a sheet of plywood resting on the bottom, so
docile that they allow me to slowly fan the sand off their backs and gently reach a hand beneath to
feel their girth. I have seen southern Stingrays with their Cobia accompaniment, a mysterious
association. What do they share?

It takes only a few changes in my course and here I find the rip rap that signals the remains of the
old channel, very near to the spot that I know will yield a striped bass. In this place last year I took a
9 pound sheepshead, the first I had ever seen. Later in the season this area will be populated with
large trigger fish, which make superb table fare. In moving water, stripers tend to travel in trains,
single-file. When the tide goes completely slack, or in the lee of structure, they seem to be more
singular in their foraging. This time a nice bass turns in front of my gun while I am between breaths.
The gun aligns with its head and in a split second the fine fish is mine. Brought to hand, there is only
the static of nerve activity coursing through its body as I thread the stainless stringer through the gill.
Once secure, I remove the arrow. The arrow is razor-sharp and at almost point blank range, did not
penetrate all the way through the bass’s substantial scull. It is the ease in which the sea provides that
is the beauty of this sport, not the trophy size of what the diver takes. The fish falls comfortably to
my side as I kick back in the direction of my entrance.

Greg Modelle is a artistically gifted architect,
that has vividly drawn numerous local shipwrecks for publication including the Varanger, City of Athens, U-869 and the Inshore Paddlewheeler.

He has been an avid wreck diver and underwater hunter for more than two decades.

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Good Wreck Diving!

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