Back to Basics: How to Improve your Spearfishing Bottom Time
Taken from Ultimate Spearfishing Magazine Volume 16.
In the past few editions we have covered the typical dive from the breathe up, the duck dive and how to descend correctly to your target depth. You might be thinking that once you have gotten this far, the hard work is over and all you need to do is look for fish.
The reality is that what comes next will determine if you are able to capitalise on all the work you have done and make the dive a good and effective one. A good bottom time will be one where you have safely maximised your potential time in the hunting zone. Please note the emphasis is on safety. It is impossible to dive beyond your potential. So, everything in this next section needs to be executed with extreme caution and a clear understanding of your own limits.
The first goal of having a good bottom time is to conserve oxygen and energy. The question you constantly need to be asking yourself is: "Is this taking up too much energy?" By constantly questioning yourself while diving, you will naturally find good solutions that will help you achieve more by doing less.
The second goal is to maximise your effectiveness as a hunter, by maximising your time in the 'kill' zone. This will also mean you will need to be able to have a keen awareness of what is going on around you and at the same time be putting yourself in the best position possible to hunt from. When hunting reef fish this is generally in the lowest part of the area holding fish. For game fish it's a compression point or an area where fish travel through. This, however, will not necessarily mean always going to the bottom, although you will still need to be able to spend time in the 'kill' zone.
The last goal of a good bottom time is to limit the time on the bottom. This may sound contradictory to what this article is about, but each dive needs to be seen as part of many dives throughout the day. This is not freediving and you will need to consistently execute many dives in a row. For this you will need to have a plan and an understanding of what you are doing to get the most out of each dive, so don't push every dive.
The first two goals can easily be achieved by eliminating some of the basic mistakes that we all make. Note that I said "we" all make. Spearfishing is a sport where there are so many variables and changing conditions that we need to constantly be questioning and analysing everything we do. Sometimes you get it right, other times you get it wrong, and it's how quickly you pick up on your mistakes and make changes that will determine how well you dive.
Here are some of the common mistakes and the remedies that will help to improve each dive:
1. The biggest mistake is being too busy on the bottom. It is easy to fall into the trap of unnecessarily swimming around on the bottom. This is where good hunting strategy comes into play. For the most part, fish don't like to be chased and are generally more likely to approach you if you are still and quiet. So in an ideal situation find a good (fishy) spot and settle down as quickly as possible. By lying quietly on the bottom you are not using much energy and so will have the potential to stay longer. This will also give the inquisitive fish more time to come over and investigate you.
Now, spending ages on the bottom where there are no fish is also pointless, so if you don't have a good spot to dive on you will need to swim and find one. If the water is dirty or deep you might need to cover distance underwater.
Covering distance underwater is an art; it is basically trying to get as far as possible with as little effort as possible. The key here is to get into a smooth steady rhythm that you are comfortable with. One trick is to dive just deep enough for you to make out the bottom structure. This way you are not diving all the way to the bottom and if you do find the fish, you are in mid water and can return to the surface without spooking them.
Quietly returning to the surface after finding a fishy spot is also key. Often you see guys at the end of their breath trying to make a last ditch effort at a fish that for all intents and purposes was not going anywhere and would be easy to shoot on a second dive. I learnt this valuable lesson while catching crayfish. Find the spot, go up relax and prep well. It just makes the job a lot easier.
So don't rush, take your time, find the spot and prep well. This will also enable you to take more time on the bottom to assess what is there, and what other fish are around that you did not initially see.
2. How you lie on the bottom is also important, not only for reducing energy consumption but also for being an effective hunter. Fish are more likely to approach you if you are calm and relaxed.
Bad posture on the bottom mostly occurs because you are diving at a depth you are not comfortable with and your thoughts are more on how deep you are rather than hunting and doing things correctly. Be methodical, especially in the comfortable depths so that it becomes second nature when diving deeper.A big no-no is standing on the bottom. First of all it is amazing how much effort it takes to stand on the bottom, especially if there is any current or surge from the swell above. Worse still is that your profile is huge, you are probably not relaxed. This is probably the most ineffective way to hunt.
Rather level out of your glide as near the spot you want to land on and lie flat and relaxed on the bottom (or in the mid water). This way you will not use nearly as much energy as standing or even kneeling.
3. Incorrect weighting will also affect you bottom time. This occurs when diving shallow and you do not have enough weight. You will not be unable to relax on the bottom and your buoyancy will constantly be pulling you up. This problem is even worse when there is a strong surge or current. You will need to add a few weights to help you lie calmly on the bottom. Remember to take the extra weights off when moving to deeper water.
4. Another big energy drainer is trying to hang mid water or sink slowly when leveling out early. In my experience, unless you are either trying to attract fish to you by hanging in the mid water or the bottom is too deep to get down to, it is better to go straight to the bottom and relax.
If you are trying to hang in the mid water, there are a few things that are vital. Firstly your weighting needs to be correct, if you are too heavy then you will sink too fast and you will land up using energy to stay at your target depth. The opposite applies if you are underweighted.
Secondly, try not to hang in a vertical position. Position your body as horizontal as possible, like a sky diver. This way you will have a greater surface area and again won't sink as fast. Most of all it is easier to relax in this position and you don't land up kicking to hold your position.
Once you have mastered these 4 basic steps you should find that it is easier to spend time at your target depths. But just because you can stay longer does not mean that you should, and this is why.
Firstly you have to be thinking of your safety. The risks of black out become exponential the longer and deeper you dive. Dive with a dive computer and take note of your bottom times (your average and comfortable times at specific depths). You will soon become aware of when you usually leave the bottom. Use this as a guide and dive within to your ability.
Never see how long you can stay down, especially if you are not in a controlled environment. For instance, imagine blacking out on a shore dive and having to rely on your mate (if he is even around) to swim you back to shore through the surf for help.
Some guys don't believe in using dive computers and say that diving to your watch is dangerous. Yes it is, if you are being competitive and trying to beat your dive times. However, I have found it to be an incredible safety device, especially when diving deeper. I set myself strict limits and try leave the bottom within those time frames. Without an idea of how much time has passed, it is difficult to know when you are pushing your limits, especially when you are distracted by a potential fish.
The second reason for limiting your dives is that the longer you are on the bottom, the longer you will need to recover. Again, a dive computer that shows your surface times is critical to good dive planning.
For most fit guys, a surface to surface time of 1:30 min in 18m will only mean that they will need 1:30 min rest and prep on the surface before the next dive. Take the same guys doing a 2:30 min surface to surface dive in 18m and they will need anything from 3 to 4:30 min for their rest and prep before the next dive.
Knowing that the longer you stay down is going to mean that you will need longer on the surface, it is sometimes prudent to cut dive times down to decrease your surface time and increase the amount of dives you do in the day. This is extremely helpful when hunting reef fish in dirty water where locating the fish is the biggest challenge.
On the other hand there are times you need to extend your bottom times to get fish. It is in these situations you need to be conscious of still limiting your dives, always diving on the safe side and making your day more productive.
If you get these 4 basic strategies right you should be able to improve your time on the bottom. But as was said before, staying longer on the bottom is not necessarily going to get you more fish. You will still need to focus on being a good hunter. This is going to take time in the water, learning to read different situations and having a good understanding of the reef you are diving.
Hopefully all of this will help you become more comfortable on the bottom and learn to be a better diver for it.