Blue Water Hunting
by Remy Tumin
On a recent Tuesday morning just past 7 a.m., Chris Martin and his wife Bryna are walking down the Great Rock Bight trail in Chilmark. The sun settles on the greenery and the smell of wild grapes gets caught in the breeze.
Chris holds a mesh bag with flippers and snorkel gear in one hand and a speargun in the other. Bryna is hauling a blanket and a large coffee, ready to take up her post as lifeguard on the beach.
This is a typical scene for fishermen during the summer and fall, when spearfishing is at its peak.
Spearfishing on Martha’s Vineyard takes fishermen down to the bottom of the ocean, where the rock formations and structure reveal a very different life along the coastline. It may appear quite primitive, and in many respects it is, but these fishermen find something else under the water that fishing from a boat or shoreline can’t provide.
Fishermen are protective of their fishing holes, and spearfishing is no exception. It can be highly competitive; many fishermen did not want to comment for this story for fear of retribution from other fishermen.
Tautog, bluefish, scup, and flounder are all speared in these waters. Further out to sea, serious divers are on the prowl for mahi mahi and big game fish. Striped bass is the only fish in Massachusetts that is prohibited from spearfishing. Spearfishermen on the Vineyard dive anywhere from 10 to 60 feet down.
Back on the trail heading to Great Rock Bight, Chris tells me he goes up to 20 feet offshore to fish, diving down around 10 feet. He’s been active in the sport for five years. He’ll go out a of couple of times a week, starting in the spring when the water gets above 47 degrees, and continuing well into the fall.
With the trailhead approaching, the surf is breaking hard, and Chris tells me this is not a good sound for spearfishermen. Then, rounding the final bend, Great Rock’s signature coastline comes into view.
“Oh, no!” Chris says. “No way this is happening, it’s like soup. I was here two days ago and it was nice and clear. It’s way too murky, you won’t be able to see in front of your face,” he says, annoyed. “That’s so lame.”
The wind has changed overnight and the water is packed with seaweed. But it’s not always like this. On crystal clear days, you can see straight to the bottom at Great Rock where there’s a variety of structures underwater, home to nesting and feeding fish.
Then Chris sees some other fishing buddies.
“The water is looking pretty muddy,” Caitlin Lewis yells to Chris. “We could hear the waves walking down.”
But Caitlin has new gear with her, including a new knife, and attention quickly turns to the goods.
“You James Bond yourself underwater,” Chris says, showing her how to properly strap it around his leg. The knife is used to kill the fish instantly rather than let it thrash around.
The speargun acts like a slingshot. There are a few different types of spear options, including a gun or a triton. Caitlin just started using her triton and is happy underwater, fish or no fish.
“It’s so much fun,” Caitlin says. “Just going along rock formations and seeing stuff is just so much fun. I hadn’t done it in years, and last year at the end of summer we got masks and snorkels to play around with. Even if you don’t get anything, you’re still spending your morning out here,” she says. Visibility is key for a good spearfishing day, and today won’t be that day.
Rodney Bunker likes to wait for a couple days of light and variable wind (minimal is preferred).
“The ocean calms down and the sediment settles,” he says. “Visibility is the biggest obstacle. The fish will see you before you see them, you can hear them swish their bodies and tails. It’s a sound you can’t replicate.”
If you see a fish down there, Rodney says, don’t swim up to it. Be patient, wait and it will swim around closer to you. Or, there’s a more aggressive approach.
“My favorite method of speargunning is ambushing them around the corner of a rock,” he says. “You can catch them off guard a lot of times, even picking mussels off the rock or just guarding their hole.”
Fishermen can normally tell when tautog are around, all you have to do is listen.
“You can hear them crunching on the shells,” he says. “They have sharp teeth in the front and molars in the back. You can hear them crunching away.”
He still remembers his first spearfishing dive.
“There was a kid working at the harbormaster shack in Menemsha and he had a speargun against the wall, I thought, that looks pretty cool,” he recalls. “I borrowed a mask and flippers and the gun and went out into the channel. I dove down, saw a big triggerfish and it was so neat because I came up over the rock and there it was all of a sudden. I never realized that kind of fishing existed.”
This summer, Rodney had a run-in with the same fish several times. The tautog had already been shot once and was recovering. The next time he saw him, the fish wasn’t swimming so fast.
“This one was blue and it was in the same rock bed a couple times before, I knew it was the same fish,” he says.
He didn’t think it would make the winter, Rodney says, so he decided to give the fish some peace.
When it comes to size, it’s all feel and getting to know the ocean, Rodney says.
“If you see a fish that’s a nice fish, you know it’s going to be over 16 inches,” he says. “If you see one that you’re not sure about, chances are it’s not the minimum. The small ones don’t fillet out a lot of meat, you want the bigger ones.”
The unpredictability of what could happen next keeps Rodney going out time and time again.
“What’s behind that rock?” he says. “It’s intimate because you have to get up close, within four feet or maybe five feet.”
Tyler Chronister is one of a handful of fishermen who spear commercially, primarily for tautog. Commercial regulations in the state allow for 40 tautogs, five days a week. Other states have large commercial spearfishing enterprises, especially in Rhode Island and New Jersey, where spearfishing for stripers is legal.
“It’s not worth it here really because you’re not allowed to spear striped bass, but we’ve found a way to get tautog to make it worth it,” he says.
Tyler grew up in the Midwest and moved to the Vineyard 10 years ago. He’s been spearfishing for about five years after joining a friend on a dive. When he’s not in the water, he’s up in the trees as an arborist.
Commercial fishermen have to shoot their fish through the head, otherwise the fish is unworthy of sale.
“It’s like underwater bow hunting,” he says. “It’s a whole different world down there. No one thinks about what’s below the waves.”
Beyond boats and visibility, there’s a bigger threat out there: sharks. A spearfisherman was off Squibnocket last summer when he looked up to see a big shadow above his head. It turned out to be a 15-foot great white shark. Luckily, the fisherman saw the shark .
“They’re out there alright,” Tyler says.
Some say there’s a tastier advantage to spearfishing, too.
“Speared fish die quicker and it doesn’t take up so much time and energy, that’s why something like speared swordfish costs more money,” he says. “When the fish fights, it cooks itself because it heats up so much. This way it dies right away.”
Michael Marcus began spearfishing 27 years ago on the Vineyard. He remembers spearfishing all weekend long and selling tautog to Larsen’s Fish Market. He first began spearfishing with friends in the Scituate area, and eventually began competing in national spearfishing competitions along the East Coast.
“We got our asses kicked by guys who showed up who were really, really good,” he says. “These were teams from Hawaii and California, these guys are spearfishing for a living. They just had phenomenal skills.”
Those spearfishing championships paid off. Michael won in New Hampshire one year, where the water is colder but “clearer and beautiful underwater terrain.”
“I happened to get lucky and got the biggest fish of the day,” he says. “There’s a photograph of me and my fish. I posted it to my JDate page and it’s the photograph that won me my wife.”
Michael went on to spearfish across the country, in Belize, and off oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. One fishing trip took him to the Canyons, located 125 miles south of the Vineyard, looking for mahi mahi. That night, a 12-foot tiger shark came and ate his entire catch.His days of mahi mahi fishing are mostly gone, but he still tries to steal away for an afternoon.
“It’s an amazing day to be in the water, sometimes spending four to six hours at a time,” Michael says. “It’s a phenomenal euphoric feeling. Right now I go a lot by myself, which isn’t the best idea, but I do it in a tame way so I feel comfortable with my skills.”
“It’s consuming—it makes all the other stuff in your mind go away and you’re just absorbed in an underwater environment and what’s going on around you,” he says. “Sometimes you can end up in schools of huge stripers and it’s like having lots of puppies running around you.”
Spearfishing can make you a better shore fisherman, too, Michael says. Being underwater allows you to get to know each fish’s different characteristics—fast and skittish scup, slow and curious tautog.
“Do you know how few fishermen put on a mask and snorkel and see what it’s like? It definitely can make someone a better fishermen if they spend time in the water,” he says.
For many spearfishermen, the sport provides a marriage of both game hunting and fishing. But all are in agreement: there’s nothing else like it.
“It’s very active and physical and you get to vanish into the water completely absorbed,” Michael says. “You can’t play with your cell phone, or sit in your tree stand and respond to texts or read a book. With spearfishing, that’s it. There’s nothing else going on around you.”