By Alex Blevins, Owner and Instructor at Adventure Outfitters
One thing I love about Florida are all the outdoor activities you can do all year long – especially spearfishing. Now is the season for great inshore spearing, marked by shallow depths, cold water, unique dive sites, and plenty of fish to be had. You can always use a boat but there are also tons of spots to walk or kayak to. After only a short paddle from the bay bridge by my apartment, I can usually max-out my limit of Mangrove Snapper and Sheepshead after visiting only a couple spots.
The water is on the colder side, with temperatures between 64 and 67 degrees. This may still sound cold, but keep in mind you do a lot of swimming and with a good wetsuit, you can stay warm spearing for hours. With the shallow depths of Tampa Bay, I usually spearfish freediving. I’ll wear a low-volume mask, snorkel, 5mm or 7mm wetsuit, 2mm socks with freediving fins, thin Kevlar gloves and a rubber weight belt. I usually bring my old single-band 75cm gun and a 4ft polespear as a backup. All of this fits comfortably in my kayak, allowing me to hop on and off with ease.
With the cooler water, brings clearer visibility and some species of fish move closer to shore in greater numbers. If you plan it right, the visibility can be 8 to 30 feet. Weather makes a difference but so does the tide. With higher water levels, high tide is usually the best time to go. I can hit rock piles not normally accessible, and the high tide carries particulates in the water out, allowing for better visibility. Some spots like bridges, can have a ripping current making fishing impossible and unsafe. Plan for a slack tide then, when the tide is neither going in or out. Always go with a buddy or two. It’s to have someone on the surface watching out and they can be used to push the fish right into your sites.
The Bay provides a variety of fish to shoot. Different spots will have different fish – a lot depending on luck. You can usually count on finding at least a few Mangrove Snapper (Gray Snapper), Sheapshead, Mullet, Spadefish and Stone Crab. Mangrove Snapper are one of my favorite fish to eat but can be challenging to shoot. Sheapshead are particularly abundant and can get pretty big in the winter. They taste great but are a little tougher to fillet with their thick scales and skin. Mullet swim in large schools closer to you and are best smoked. Depending on where you go you can also find Gag and Red Grouper, Hogfish, Crevalle Jacks, Yellowtail Snapper, Cobia, Flounder, Grunts, Black Drum and more. Watch the size and catch limits, as well as the closed seasons for some fish. I regularly check FWC’s website, regulations change all the time. I usually keep a measuring device with me and try to only shoot fish I know to be bigger than the minimum limit. Keep in mind all the fish will look so much bigger underwater!
If you are successful, you will probably have more fish than you know what to do with. Keep the fish on ice to stay fresh. Freeze any extra fish you want to save for later as soon as possible and it will make for a great fish fry later down the line. The smaller fish are great to gut and cook whole with fresh herbs. I usually fillet the larger fish and cook in skillet with olive oil or beer batter and fry up.
Wintertime Florida diving may be a bit different from what you are used to, but there is a lot of great, easily accessible spearfishing during the winter. Even with a cooler full of fish, you never know what you might see in the Bay. It’s definitely worth it to see a whole school of 40 to 60-pound black drum swim and grunt their way across the channel.
The 2015 Interbay Spearfishing Championship also takes place on Sunday, Feb. 1. Learn more here: 2015 Interbay Spearfishing Championships
Have fun, stay safe, and catch lots of fish!