This is one of the most common questions I get asked when I get into conversations about hunting lionfish in depths deeper than 40 meters/130 feet, which are considered beyond “recreational” limits and into “technical” diving depths. Most divers have been to 40 meters/130 feet but far fewer have ventured to deeper than 45 meters/150 feet and beyond.
Diving within safe standards permits a maximum depth for any recreational diver, no matter how much advanced training, and certification, of 40 meters/130 feet. This is not to say that any recreationally-certified diver that you meet has never been beyond this limit – quite the contrary. It would be far easier to count the recreational divers that have never ventured beyond recreational limits.
You see, divers have balls… big balls compared to most people in this world, anyway. It takes a certain kind of person to submerge themselves in a deadly liquid solution more than 100 feet deep, swim around in it for half an hour, or more, and not bat an eye. Eager to do it again, and again, in fact. Of course, everyone believes that the biggest lionfish are DEEP and what hunter doesn’t want to bag the next monster lionfish? Divers are adventurous to say the least.
This sense of adventure usually doesn’t go away either. In fact, it usually grows….and grows, and grows….all the way out to the far reaches of one’s comfort zone- and sometimes a little beyond. This is what gets most divers into trouble when things break down or bad luck comes to visit; pushing their limits to points of extreme danger and not realizing it. This is the greatest challenge of moving from a new Open Water Diver to becoming a good, safe veteran diver. It is also a foundational skill to master when entering the realm of technical diving. You have to go deeper and stay longer to progress in the field of technical diving. In order to do it properly and stay safe, you must do this incrementally over a series of dives, with each dive focused only on the primary checks.
This means no hunting, no cameras, no mindless swimming around simply enjoying the view. You are always checking, checking again, and then rechecking to make sure the dive is going as close to plan as possible.
Developing and pushing your own personal limits, especially in deep, technical, solo diving is tough. Not only are you adding new tasks to a busy schedule, but you must go slow, be extremely thoughtful and make sure every action is done with intention. You, literally, have twice as much gear to keep track of, and must be able to do so with your eyes closed. Good diving is done like driving SHOULD be done; everything outside of the basics of the activity take a far back seat in the scope of focus.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of growing good diving habits. I keep regular intervals between air checks, even early in the dive. I constantly monitor my depth and rate of breathing to ensure I retain sufficient gas supply to allow for emergencies, as well as to improve my breathing rate. One or more of these activities is happening at all times during my dives. Anything else I want to do is done in between these “primary checks”.
Since we’re talking about hunting here, you must classify the hunting as just another piece of task loading that comes after you have all your primary checks completed. You CANNOT get caught up in the hunt and neglect your primary checks.
You MUST dive first and hunt second!
This is such an underrepresented danger. Many divers do not understand just how dangerous hunting and diving can be. They get lost in the excitement of the hunt and forget to dive. Lionfish hunting is exciting; it’s exciting as hell. Hunting also takes focus…no, no. Hunting COMMANDS focus!
If you let it, hunting will take ALL of your focus without you realizing it until its too late. Hunting will easily suck up your focus like a hot-ass 21 year old diva girlfriend will suck up your bank account. Some of you guys know exactly what I mean. Some of you guys have no idea what I mean…and to you guys…I am truly sorry.
A word on hunting while diving – anyone can get into the water and go look around for lionfish. Anyone can swim up to one and shoot a sling at one sitting there on the reef. But hunting well; hunting with the intention of killing every son-of-a-bitch lionfish on your reef is a totally different activity.
This is hunting with a passion; hunting with extreme focus; hunting with the devil on your side. This is my kind of hunting.
Hunting to the best of your ability is very different. Hunting at this level takes 4 times as much focus as a lazy man’s hunt. Getting this done takes a level of focus I can only find in the water…alone…in deep, unforgiving territory where lionfish feel safe because they’ve never seen a human here. Places so alien in appearance and isolated in feel that you might as well be floating over the edge of a Martian chasm searching for that phantasmic impression of a lone lionfish perched above a deep water coral head. Hoping that at any moment the faint impression of that distinctive profile will materialize before your eyes. This is the kind of deep, unforgiving place that holds my preferred kind of “gold”. The moment I realize that the apparition I’m looking at is indeed a lionfish at 185 feet deep coming into clear view, my brain goes into “work” mode. I get focused; I get very focused.
First up in my TIP “Target Identified Protocol” is to stop all current activities except keeping my breathing rate low. Once I have a grip on that, I move outwards from myself to my primary checks on gear and air supplies. I need to get all this task loading done before I can start my mental stopwatch for 2 minutes which permits me to focus entirely on capturing my target for those 2 minutes. At the end of those 2 very short minutes, I need to re-visit my checks and reassess the progress of my collection and that of my dive. Throughout my pursuit and collection of the targeted fish, I continue to include my breathing rate in my top priorities. This is the one thing I do not fail to do. It, alone, can cut my air supply in half in just a few minutes at these depths. And, for me, that’s just not an option.
In order to execute the capture as efficiently and successfully, as possible, I move with the intention of getting into an optimum shooting position. As with most shooting, shot placement is absolutely key. For myself, this is true for a few reasons. First, I want to incapacitate the fish, if possible, with a “kill shot.” In spearfishing this kind of shot is called “stoning” the fish. It’s a direct head shot to the vital areas of the central nervous system that shuts the fish down entirely and immediately. This allows easy handling and placing into your containment device, saving valuable seconds and risk of envenomation at depth due to a flailing fish.
Given the less than accurate nature of the Hawaiian sling, this kind of shot is fairly rare even with the best of shooters. Each prong of the sling, having so much surface area to push through the water, creates unique currents around each prong each and every time you shoot it. This prevents the sling from hitting the exact same point, reliably, shot after shot. It creates a point of impact pattern that covers a given area, depending on sling profile design and how far from the target the sling is at the time of release.
If I cannot get into a satisfactory position to try for a stone, I want to at least get my prongs into tissue that will be held easily by the barbs of the prongs. This means the skull or gill plates usually. If it’s hard to penetrate, it’s probably going to hold well. This also means the soft meat of the sides and tail is not a good option. It will easily tear and will permit the fish to escape fairly easily, especially if it’s a big fish. This is unreliable to say the least.
Once I make my initial shot I try and stick the point of my sling, along with the fish, down into the sand on the bottom or possibly some dead coral, rock, or any solid surface that is not living that will allow me to better secure the fish by pushing the fish further onto the prongs. Once I have the fish secured, I get a good hold on my containment tube, position it for safe, easy entry, sometimes scooping the fish off the bottom, with the mouth of my container, and pushing it deep enough to pass the one way valve. I then give my sling a sharp jerk out of the one way valve and off to get the next fish I go.
I call this method “The Stick And Stuff,” and it’s the safest, fastest, most consistent way I know of getting lionfish home and on the plate. By the way, you’re more than welcome to utilize this patent-pending technique.
So, what do I say when people ask me, “What’s it like down there?“
All I have to say is……it’s really freaking cool!
Special thanks to Kelly Ash for contributing this article.