I have some close friends from back home who visit Thailand every winter, and this year we had out fourth annual boat trip. Every year we rent a boat, fish a little, snorkel, grill our catch, beach-hop, and drink large quantities of booze. This year was the first year my speargun came along. We set out early from the island of Koh Chang.
Spearfishing is something I’d wanted to do for a long time, but the gear is just too expensive in Thailand. I finally picked up a gun on a visit home in 2013. I’ve had it over a year now, but have only really had it in the water a handful of times, and then always just offshore. I’ve gotten plenty of smaller rockfish – tasty, but never much bigger 15 inches (38 cm). I’d been looking forward to this boat trip for a while as my chance to finally go for something bigger.
A quick note to the hippies: Spearfishing lets you be totally selective about what you catch. When done responsibly, the spearfisher selects only fully grown adults so no juveniles or endangered species are caught. There is no bycatch and no nets that kill dolphins, turtles, and anything else that gets in their way. A speargun is powered only by rubber bands; it’s really more crossbow than gun. It takes skill to dive on one breath of air, stalk a fish, aim your shot, get to the surface, and fight the still-living fish up with you, then wrangle it in and put an end to its suffering. I don’t take it lightly killing any creature, and I’d never kill anything that I wasn’t planning on eating. Also, I love you hippies, I only joke 😉
On the day of the boat trip, I was sick. Really sick. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t even think about drinking, and the last thing I needed was to be in the sun, swimming, exerting energy, and diving down looking for fish. But that wasn’t going to stop me. We anchored in about 45 feet (14 meters) of water in a sandy area just off of a reef. Not far away, a rocky pinnacle jutted up from the sea floor to above the surface making a great habitat for corals, fish, turtles, and more. My friends were on their second round of beers and cocktails, and I geared up: fins, mask, snorkel, rash guard, and speargun attached to a blaze orange float line. That was attached to a buoy (actually just a water bottle because that’s how I roll)
I headed out towards the pinnacle and immediately knew how lucky we were with the visibility that day. It was about 80 feet (25 meters) and I could see clear to the bottom. There were small reef fish everywhere! Below me I saw three queenfish, and I dove. The schools of smaller fish are easily spooked and they alerted the queenfish before I could get in range, and I was forced to surface for air. Looking up through clear blue water at a sunny sky is a beautiful sight you’ll never get tired of! I saw queenfish again and dove, but got the same result.
I continued on toward the rocks, and then I saw a big dark shape down about 35 feet (10.5 meters) that I immediately recognized as a cobia. I first encountered this fish years ago in an excellent ceviche at a restaurant where I poured drinks in Chicago, and have wanted to catch one on a rod in Thailand for years. I dove, but not from directly over the fish. I swam to the bottom, then moved along toward the fish. Two queenfish swam in front of me and I had a shot but didn’t take it. I took off the safety, then got into range. The fish wasn’t spooked in the least. I got even closer, to where it had to be a sure shot, and I pulled the trigger.
Cobia have a reputation as very strong fighters. Even with a speargun, it’s still necessary to fight. Fish are strong enough to pull you helplessly along, and even to break the steel line that attaches the spear to the gun. Most people attach a rope to their gun so they can drop it, swim to the surface, and use the rope to fight the fish in the same way rod and reel fishermen do: by letting out line when the fish makes a run, and bringing it in when it tires.
My shot was on target, right through the top of the cobia’s wide flat head and out through the gill plate. I dropped the gun, grabbed the line, and started swimming up to relieve the burning sensation in my lungs that I’d just started to notice. I waited for the fish to bolt, but it had gone limp. I’d stoned it, or so I thought. I got it to the surface and started swimming toward the boat. It’s hard towing a big fish, so I held the spear on either end and kept the fish streamlined in front of me.
I made it halfway to the boat, and then the fish caught its second wind. It shook the sharp spear straight out of my hands, and dove hard. I fought the fish as I finned closer to the boat, making sure to keep the rope taut the whole time. I came up behind the boat, and between my friend Gavin on deck with a gaff hook and me fighting it in the water, we landed it after about a minute. Back on board, my adrenaline was still pumping but I was starting to remember how sick I was.
I got out of the sun, drank some water, and felt like I’d had my fill for the day. That lasted maybe an hour. I geared back up, and headed back out. This time I got about 50 feet (15 meters) from the boat and I saw more queenfish. I dove, took off the safety, tracked one of them, and shot. It was moving fairly quickly so my shot was a bit behind the head where I was aiming, but I got it. This one fought from the moment the spear hit it until I ended its life on the boat, but with nowhere near the strength of the cobia. It was a nice fish; an hour earlier it would have been the catch of my life!
I called it a day at that point, Gavin was just starting. He took his gun out and was gone a while. I must have scared off all the nearer fish because he was around the far side of the rocks. He came back with a perfect finish to the day: a very nice barracuda. Unfortunately, none of us thought to take a picture of it, but why would I lie about someone else’s fish? 😉 A bit of cobia filet and some ‘cuda were grilled that day on the boat. A lot was given to our boat captain and his family, and the remaining cobia was made into some delicious fish tacos the next day. All in all, a pretty damn good day on the water. It really is just better here.
The cover photo to this post I took from a GoPro a few weeks after this trip. We went again but had nowhere near the visibility that we had the first trip. Unfortunately, there was no underwater camera along this trip. Look for a future post soon on another spearing trip with video!