DEEP CUTS

Maxim - - CONTENTS - by THAYER WALKER

SPEARFISH­ING TEACHES ONE SPORTS­MAN WHAT IT MEANS TO BE BOTH PREDA­TOR AND PREY

SPEARFISH­ING IS ONE OF THE PUREST, MOST CHAL­LENG­ING FORMS OF HUNT­ING IMAG­IN­ABLE—A WA­TERY DANCE OF PREDA­TOR AND PREY IN WHICH THE FISH HOLD A DIS­TINCT AD­VAN­TAGE. ONE IN­TREPID WRITER TOOK THE PLUNGE.

THERE HE IS: three feet long with a toothed fin that tears through the wa­ter. At first, he’s lit­tle more than a shadow, a sloped, heavy pro­file in a cloud of reef fish. Then a shaft of sun­light hits his flank, and a flash of red catches my eye: snap­per. I inch slowly into range, raise my spear gun, and take aim. I’m 40 feet deep on a wan­ing breath of air, and my lungs begin to burn in protest. But I’m not leav­ing with­out din­ner.

I’ve trav­eled half­way across the Pa­cific to the Mar­shall Is­lands in search of a chal­lenge, a fair fight. Any­one can cast a line, crack a beer, and hope for a bite. Ninety-nine per­cent of rod-and-reel work is wait­ing, in­ter­rupted by the rare frenzy of a fish on the line. The big­gest dan­ger? Sun­burn. For any­one seek­ing a truer test, there’s no bet­ter op­tion than grab­bing a spear­gun and tak­ing the fight to the fish.

Spearfish­ing is one of the most hon­est and phys­i­cally de­mand­ing forms of hunt­ing, one that re­quires you to face your prey on its terms. In a mod­ern world that val­ues com­fort and con­ve­nience, the sport is rig­or­ously ar­chaic, a way to tap into the eons-old strug­gle be­tween man and na­ture our an­ces­tors faced when they stabbed their din­ner with sharp­ened sticks. It’s just you, the air in your lungs, and a glo­ri­fied rub­ber-band gun in your hand.

At its purest, the sport is a breath-hold­ing af­fair. Scuba tanks are bad form; plus, bub­bles spook the fish. So be­fore my trip, I spend three days in a pool where I’m taught proper form and the art of “breath­ing up”—tak­ing quick in­hala­tions to fill my air­ways. The hard­est part is cop­ing with the siz­zle that racks my lungs. It’s an un­nat­u­ral state, but one I grad­u­ally adapt to. Af­ter a few days, I’m hold­ing for three min­utes and hit­ting 80 feet.

As with any wor­thy en­deavor, the con­se­quences of fail­ure while spearfish­ing are harsh. Stay down too long and you’ll black out and drown; spear a tar­get in­cor­rectly and it could swim around you and tan­gle you in your own line, leav­ing you co­cooned and help­less. Fire a shot into the flank of a 200-pound fish and pre­pare to be dragged through the deep. And then there are the sharks. You aren’t the only preda­tor in the wa­ter nurs­ing a blood­lust. That said, if I wanted things safe, I’d stick to the shore.

Or that’s what I tell my­self as I perch on a catamaran in the Mar­shall Is­lands. Sur­rounded by 750,000 square miles of ocean and com­posed of 29 atolls, the area may be the world’s fishi­est. This is­land coun­try near the equa­tor has also es­tab­lished it­self as the world’s largest shark sanc­tu­ary. They’re here for the fish—just like me.

We set an­chor at a reef pass where the atoll’s la­goon flows into an un­pre­dictable ocean. From a depth of five feet, the area drops to in­fin­ity, and I’m con­fronted with the fact that I’m about to join a food chain in which I don’t sit at the top. But I si­lence the voice in my head and jump in.

A four-foot gray shark greets me as I hit the wa­ter. Grays are gen­er­ally mel­low, but I’m glad to be hold­ing my spear­gun, four feet long, cocked and ready, bands taut as ten­dons. Weigh­ing roughly eight pounds, it can hit tar­gets up to 15 feet away but is most ac­cu­rate at close range.

I head down­ward, body stream­lined, chin tucked, kick­ing my fins as a weight belt pulls me deeper. My ears pop, and I hit the “sink stage,” the point at which pres­sure over­comes buoy­ancy and the dive be­comes a smooth glide.

This ocean is teem­ing. Green and blue par­rot­fish ca­per along on the reef; but­ter­fly fish flut­ter through the coral. There are lots of op­tions, but the goal isn’t to blast ev­ery­thing in sight. Rather, it’s to find that one fish that’s go­ing to make the best meal. I hover, search­ing for a tar­get, but a gag­ging in my throat in­di­cates it’s time to sur­face.

The sport is as ex­haust­ing as it is in­vig­o­rat­ing: I see more ac­tion in 20 min­utes than in a week of fish­ing. I de­velop a rou­tine: two-minute-long dives be­tween 30 and 50 feet, then three min­utes of rest. Hours pass with­out a wor­thy tar­get. Then the snap­per ap­pears. My spear re­leases with a hol­low gulp. It hits just be­low the gills; blood and scales erupt in the wa­ter. A black­tip reef shark, sens­ing the kill twitch­ing at the end of my spear, noses up from the depths. But he’s 20 feet be­low, and this is my prize. I kick to the sur­face, gasp­ing. Air never felt so sweet; din­ner, I’m sure, will never taste this good.

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