In this article I will discuss the advantages and some of the drawbacks of reelguns. How to overcome or avoid the downsides and also how make sure you are diving safely.
Once mastered, diving with a reelgun is a far simpler way to dive than having to deal with a buoy line. If you are boat diving, you don’t have to pull in the buoy line every time you get back on the boat to move spots. Similarly, if you’re shore diving, it is great not to have to drag around your buoy and fish (see USM Vol. 11 for an article on shore diving with an anchor). But it is mainly the freedom you have of being able to dive down untethered and free that makes diving with a reelgun so great. Well, that and having a big fish strip off your line in seconds. It is a thrilling experience.
However, the drawbacks are that you have limited line on your reel. It is also thin and it tangles easily. It also takes time to wind back up and if you don’t have the technique worked out, it can become a massive bird’s nest that will take forever to sort out. This being said, reelguns do have some massive advantages that will drastically reduce many hassles and headaches during your dives.
Let’s first look at some of the components and setups and how they should all work together. Firstly, let’s look at the reel. This is often glossed over, but there are certain things to look for in a reel. I think the biggest thing is to find a reel that is not only strong, but is also light. It is very important that a reel is not too heavy as it will affect the buoyancy of the speargun. Your gun needs to be able to float with the reel and without the spear. For example, you don’t want to shoot a fish at 20m and your gun does not float back to the surface, or you shoot a fish on the surface and your gun sinks down. Your gun needs to become a small buoy and stay on the surface.
If you have a short gun (1m and less) it is a good idea to use a carbon barrel to increase the guns buoyancy. With the bigger guns (1.2m and over) buoyancy becomes less of an issue.
Other factors that are not critical but make a difference include, the drag of the reel and if the reel is detachable. With the drag, it is important to be able to lock the reel and then free it up easily. It is nice if you can have a little bit of drag so that it is not free spooling. This stops the line from going everywhere while diving and also adds some resistance when a fish is running. That said, a reel is essentially a line holder and you don’t fight the fish off your reel like in rod fishing. You control the line and how much the fish takes by feeding line through your hands in front of the muzzle or by “palming” the reel.
If the reel is detachable, it is an added bonus because good line is expensive and it is not always possible to have a reel all of your guns. If you can swap from one gun to another, it means you can have fewer reels.
Choosing the right line is also important. The best line to have is a stiff Dyneema braid. Dyneema has a very high abrasion resistance and breaking strain. It also does not rot so it will last for years. I still have some reels with Dyneema on that are more than 10 years old! Polyester is an alternative, but is not as strong and does fray easily. However, it is often a fraction of the cost of Dyneema. Polyester is also not as slippery as Dyneema which makes it a bit easier to handle.
Another advantage of Dyneema is that you can go fairly thin, down to 1.5mm, whereas polyester is normally 2mm. This means that at 1.5mm you can get more line on the reel, making it ideal for game fish that take a lot of line. My suggestion is that if you are just shooting reef fish where there are no sharp corals or smaller game fish, then a polyester braid will more than suffice. Dyneema will be better suited to situations and diving environments where your fish are likely to wrap you up in corals and wrecks on the bottom that will easily cut a polyester line.
If you are targeting game fish like Wahoo or big Spanish Mackerel then you need to have as much line as possible to let the fish run and tire out. In this case, the thinner Dyneema is the best choice.
So, now you have a gun with a reel and you are about to use it for the first time. May I suggest that you don’t go hunt Wahoo, but start with something more manageable, like some little reefies? And for the first few fish it is probably a good idea to still keep a buoy line attached. I know many guys that have forgotten that they are using a reelgun and they let it go like they were tethered to a buoy line, only to watch their gun zoot off into the distance never to be seen again.
Some guys attach a 1m bungee to their weight belts and clip it to the gun as a failsafe against letting it go. This is good, but I think taking a 1m bungee and attaching it to your belt reel is even better. This way if you get a muzzle wrap or a reel jam, then you can just let the fish run off your belt reel without the gun letting out line. This is really important if you are at depth and you get a tangle as you can just leave everything on the bottom and come up on the belt reel line. You are not confronted by the decision of having to try swim a fighting fish up to the surface, or leave your gun on the bottom.
This makes the belt reel a must-have “safety device” if you are using a reelgun. It also means that the line on the belt reel must be neat and tidy at all times. I often pull my line out at home after a dive where I have used the belt reel and wind it back up neatly. This just gives me peace of mind that it’s not going to snag when I need it most.
While on the subject of snagging, I also suggest that you use a “quick release” knot to attach the reel line to the shooting line as snap clips and the like are prone to snagging the reel line. (See USM Vol. 9 on how to tie a quick release knot)
Belt reels also come in handy when shooting big game fish, and if you can afford to put thin Dyneema on the reel, it will mean that you can have a lot more line to play with. On a standard Rob Allen reel you can get 100m of 1.5mm Dyneema on the reel, which means that with both the gun reel and belt reel, you can have 200m of line. This is enough to land most big fish. Remember to always attach the gun to the belt reel with a 1m bungee if you are targeting big game fish as they take off incredibly quickly. I have almost lost a gun because the gun reel was emptied in seconds, and it’s difficult to clip the gun to the belt reel while a big fish is pulling you and your gun through the water.
Here are some tips to help you manage the reel line and not get tangled up all the time:
The most important thing is not to let the line bunch up. You want to keep the line as straight as possible when retrieving a fish. A good way to do this is by letting the gun float behind you like a buoy would. This keeps your line straight and clear from you. This means that once you are on the surface and you have the fish under control, to the point that you should not need the assistance of your belt reel, clip off your gun and let it drift away.
It is a good idea to tighten up the reel so that it does not free spool when trying to retrieve the gun after landing the fish. If I am diving off the boat and using a flasher, I clip the gun onto the flasher float when I hit the surface. This way I don’t need to look after the flasher and the gun is nice and visible with the float.
Keeping the line clear of you is a bit of a trick. I often see guys shoot a fish at depth, hit the surface and then pull the line in all around them. It is best to keep swimming slowly in one direction, preferably up current while retrieving the line. This way the line you retrieve flows behind you and out of the way. It is also good to pull the line to one side and not underneath you, where it can get tangled or caught on your weights or weight belt.
I have seen some guys do the ‘backwards swim’ where they put their back into the current and swim backwards pulling up and letting line out in front of them, this is also very effective.
The place you are most likely to get tangled is when you are trying to land the fish, especially if it is still strong and swimming in circles underneath you. If you can keep swimming along and most of your line is trailing behind you, then half the battle is already won. From here there is no real way to stay out your line other than trying to follow the fish as opposed to letting it swim around you. If you do cross your line, always go under, never go over. Then try swim away again to get out of the loop.
Lastly, wind up your line before getting back on the boat. Pulling the line onto the boat and then trying wind it up is only looking for trouble. You can wind up the line from the boat if all the line is still in the water, but just check you are not hindering the boat moving to go pick up other divers. There is nothing worse than a diver who holds up the drift by sorting out their gear. Sort it out, then call the boat.
Lastly, with boats, don’t assume the boat knows where your line is. If you hear the boat approaching, double check where your line is, see where the boat is going and if necessary, signal to the boat where you line and gun are. This is where white Dyneema or bright lines are nice as it does make it a bit easier for the boat to see them.
So, if you have never used a reel, I hope that this gives you a little more insight into how to go about freeing yourself from buoy lines and floats. As always, dive safe.