Winter spearfishing on Australia's Great Barrier Reef

This year I decided to head back to the Great Barrier Reef off Gladstone in Queensland for a winter spearfishing trip. So I booked a live-aboard that can take 18 divers, and after advertising the trip asking for interested parties, I got nearly 30 replies. This meant two trips! The first group arrived late in July to find flat-calm seas and 25-degree air and sea temperatures. We left port around 4pm and steamed all night, arriving at the first dive spot mid-morning the next day. Our boat, the Booby Bird, an 80ft steel ex-commercial fishing boat, carries five tenders on the roof for us to use. It’s a great setup

I wanted these trips to be more about the total experience than trophy hunting, which can be very one-dimensional and often result in divers ending the trip with not much to show for it. Instead, I primarily wanted my divers to learn about some of the species we often overlook, including where they live and how to get them.

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Over the following week the group split into like-minded parties, with me spreading myself between as many of the guys as I could to help finetune their diving, advise them on what to look out for, and teach them about spearing tropical species. For example, many fish species on the reef are protected and some have ciguatera, a toxin that, when ingested by eating the affected fish, will make you very ill and stays within you forever.

Everyone gets hung up about the importance of deep diving. Yes, it can help, but as I have said in many of my previous articles, if you know how to hunt fish, you will beat a deep diver most days. This trip was to prove my theory right, with some of our older guys coming in with class catches.

The main type of hunting on this trip was over sandy, broken coral edges and sand flats with bommies spread all over them. (A bommie is a coral-reef outcrop that houses a community of fish, which in turn encourages pelagic and other predator-type species to hang around in the vicinity.)

A good way to hunt a bommie involves diving to the bottom about 20 metres away from it, lying flat and still, and waiting for fish to come out to you. If you swim up to it, all the fish dart back into the holes and hide!

It doesn’t hurt to throw some sand up; many of the target species are suckers for this. It imitates a feeding ray; fish swim around a ray in this situation, grabbing any little creatures the ray stirs up from under the sand.

Another point when you hunt like this is to always check behind you: fish and other creatures have a disconcerting habit of sneaking up on you. Often, if you keep your movements to a minimum, these fish will circle. Slowly move your gun in the direction they are circling, and wait for them to swim in front of it. Don’t swing onto them if possible, because they will spook. Also, keep your gun as flat to the bottom as possible, because a raised gun is seen as an aggressive act – and make sure your feet aren’t moving either. Long fins are hard to control sometimes, but you must try to keep movement to a minimum.

Range is another issue many divers struggle with in topical conditions. When you think the fish is close enough, let it get two metres closer. Trust me on this one!

Sharks are something we dealt with every day, often big bull sharks – and I mean big! These needed plenty of respect. I schooled the guys on never turning their back on them, and if fish turned up and they wanted to shoot, they needed to make sure a mate had their back and that the boat is close.

Handling fish with any shark around is something you need to take plenty of care doing. You must get the fish in fast, iki’ it, and get it out of the water smartly. Handle a fish for too long with an agitated shark around, and you are at risk of injury or worse.

The crew was given strict directions concerning the tenders being used, with the boat having to stay in contact with the divers at all times. This mitigated any problems we may have had, but meant we all had to take turns in our respective tenders. Personally, I found this to be a good thing, providing time to rest, drink plenty of water, and check out the reef from above the water.

One thing I learned in the process was that even though you think you know where the hot-spot is, there is always a little tern that knows better!

There were never many terns, maybe one to three, but they would be diving right at the critical point where the current hit the reef and peeled off to either side – a spot where you could find an eddy to sit in without much effort. These spots were where the baitfish were holding.

Consequently, every time we targeted where the terns were diving, we found it was the best area on the reef.

The other thing I noted was the different styles of the divers: some focused on a spot, others swam in circles, and several just kept swimming, failing to recognise a hot spot’s potential. This helped me when I spent time with them.

During both weeks we had excellent weather, the teams were just the best, and we all got on well. Everyone was keen to learn from one another and we made some class catches.

Next year we have the same two weeks booked. Some of this year’s crew have rebooked already, hoping to learn some more of what it takes to hunt warm tropical waters.

   This article is reproduced with permission of   
New Zealand Fishing News

October 2017 - Darren Shields
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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