The sport of spearfishing has become increasingly popular in the past few years. Being able to selectively hunt for fish while experiencing the underwater realm in its entirety can be exciting.
As the sport has grown, it has gained attention in print and television media outlets. ESPN's Offshore Adventures features sport fishing and freedive underwater hunting, and the Outdoor Network now has a show called Speargun Hunter, which is all about spearfishing and features some of the world's top divers hunting in a wide range of locations from Hawaii to North Carolina to the Florida Keys.
The show recently brought its crew to Pasco County to film an episode showcasing the diving opportunities of this area as well as the rich history of sponge-diving that grew out of the bountiful local waters.
The Speargun Hunter crew consists of producer Robin Berg, an expert videographer who can freedive deeper than 80 feet, U.S. national champion freediver Mike Hickey, who operates underwater cameras, and Sheri Daye, a world record holder and the show's host and primary hunter.
Freediving pioneer Dr. Terry Mass hosts the show when it is filmed in California or other locations in the Pacific Ocean.
Daye, who had been my diving partner at the Florida State Freedive Championship in Bayport for a few years, called to ask if I would be interested in taking the crew out to shoot the show. As a fan, I jumped at the opportunity, as did Pat Bennett of E-SeaRider Marine Seating, who volunteered to run the boat for us.
I planned to incorporate some of the offshore charter fishing techniques we use into the dive plan.
The night before the trip, I cast-netted about 1,000 scaled sardines and put them in a pen next the boat. Then I rigged a specialized spinning rod for a method of deep jigging known as butterfly jigging and removed the hooks from several topwater plugs.
I stocked the boat with three types of chum — standard ground menhaden, a bucket full of frozen scaled sardines and a mixture of sand, oatmeal and ground fish known to make sand balls for chumming the bottom.
When the crew members showed up in the morning, they weren't quite sure what to make of all the nondiving gear, but I assured them that it would make things interesting.
After shooting some dialogue at the dock, we headed out to a wreck in 80 feet of water. There we found great visibility (an important variable when filming underwater) and moderate currents. Having fished the spot the week before, I was confident that the amberjack would be there. Unfortunately, they did not appear on the sonar as we set the anchor.
To test the waters, I dropped the butterfly jig to the bottom and bounced it a few times. Within a minute I was tied into a good-sized amberjack. As I fought the fish to the surface, the entire school followed it up. Once we could see them, we began tossing handfuls of the live sardines out, and the ensuing melee was incredible.
Dozens of amberjack were crashing the surface, leaping out of the water and fighting each other as they ran down the unfortunate baitfish. Bennett pulled out the hookless topwater plug and began casting it and retrieving it as fast as he could, which made the amberjack even more excited. Hickey dropped over the side with a camera and caught a fish's view of the feeding frenzy.
Time to hunt
Next, it was time to get in the water.
Daye, Berg and I joined Hickey in the water and proceeded to dive into the swirling mass of amberjacks in two-person teams.
I tried to pick out the biggest of what looked like 100 amberjack as a shark came in to investigate. But it soon went away.
Daye and I took a single good-sized fish then began stalking the big snapper that had risen from the wreck into the water column to check out the chum. They were mangrove snapper and were wary and difficult to approach.
After numerous dives to 70 feet, I managed to score a personal best mangrove snapper, and Daye shot several nearly the same size.
We had all the footage we needed, and a big bull shark showed up, so we moved inshore to hunt grouper and hogfish.
We had great visibility at that spot as well, allowing the crew to film some memorable shots on the shallow rocks off Hudson and New Port Richey.
The episode will likely air in July or August during the show's regular slot Monday mornings, Berg said.