Underwater challenge

First-ever spearfishing tourney held in Alpena draws teams from all over

News Photo by Julie Riddle First-time spearfisher Meaghan Gass of Bay City receives a spear gun from captain Nick Myers before a dive during Saturday’s Michigan Spearfishing Association spearfishing tournament in Thunder Bay.

ALPENA — A smart white boat motored out of the Alpena harbor Saturday morning carrying a cheerful handful of adults. Rampant sunshine glinted off the spear guns standing at attention and danced with the water that blanketed the gloomy shipwrecks and elusive fish below.

Saturday marked the first-ever Michigan Spearfishing Tournament held in the waters of Alpena’s Thunder Bay. The annual competition, begun last year by the recently formed Michigan Spearfishing Association, was brought to Alpena by the club’s founders, Aaron Dalman and Peter Rick, who together formed one of the dozen or so two-person teams who vied for the biggest catch in a five-hour underwater hunt.

Spearfishing, Dalman explained, is a sport not well known in the United States. It combines diving, fish and hunting in an exhilarating pursuit that leaves participants, quite literally, breathless.

Encased head to toe in thick neoprene suits, tugged on with the help of a layer of hair conditioner, divers don goggles and simple breathing tubes and strap fins the length of yardsticks to their feet. Grabbing spearguns, they slip quietly into the water beside the stilled boat and begin the hunt.

Spearfishing requires stealth and patience. The divers float slowly at the water’s surface, breathing through their snorkels, scanning the depths below for signs of a prize fish. When they decide to make their move, they jackknife in the water, gun in hand, slipping silently beneath the surface.

Once underwater, the freediving hunter has only a lungful of air with which to locate and sneak up on a fish, fire, and return to the surface, hopefully with a prize but often without.

For tournament founders Dalman and Rick, a good dive lasts about a minute and a half to two minutes. In shallower waters, that’s enough time to look about and sometimes even lie submerged on the lakebed in wait for a passing fish.

At deeper depths, the breathful of air has to take the diver 30, 40, even 60 feet deep, down to bitter cold depths where elusive whitefish and prized burbot linger. Not able to make the slower descent of a scuba diver with a tankful of air, freediving spearfishermen fight the effects of a rapid increase in pressure on their bodies as their internal organs become squeezed smaller.

Equalizing the pressure in their heads by plugging their noses and forcing pressure into their ear canals, the divers in Saturday’s tournament scoured the depths of Thunder Bay, sinking with the help of their weighted belts to scout the shipwrecks and remains of Alpena’s logging days that line the lake floor. More often than not, the hunters emerged from their dives empty-handed, having seen nothing but zebra mussels below.

Dalman, a dentist in Grand Rapids, and Rick, who is in his final year of dental school, started the Michigan Spearfishing Association four years ago for sheer love of the sport. Both avid outdoorsmen, they found spearfishing a way to combine two of their loves — diving and hunting. The group’s first tournament was hosted last summer in Traverse City.

“It’s a great day for a dive,” Dalman exclaimed onboard the Dilemma, as Rick rubbed his hands in anticipation. Each time the boat came to stop, the two hunters sprang into action, eagerly strapping on fins and masks and slipping into the water with their hand-made spearguns powered by super-sized rubber bands.

Sports enthusiasts from downstate and beyond made the trip to Alpena to be a part of the tournament.

Northern five-pounder catches pale in comparison with the exotic big fish that freediving spearfishermen can bring in from the saltwater coasts of southern U.S. or the coral reefs of Australia, but the sport is a community, Dalman said. Those who know the sport want to dive for a competitive hunt, whenever and wherever they can.

Freediving requires an entirely different skill set than scuba diving, according to Nick Myers, owner of the Great Lakes Divers shop, who captained the Dilemma for Saturday’s competition. His shop, the oldest dive shop in Michigan — founded in Rogers City in 1976 — and the only such store in the state to carry specialized freediving and spearfishing equipment, offers classes in snorkeling, freediving, and scuba diving, plus workshops in spearfishing.

One of the most important elements of spearfishing, Myers said, is learning to relax. The sport hinges on efficiency of movement, every action taking as little energy as possible so that the diver’s body can be underwater as long as possible and still make it safely back to the surface.

“You don’t need to breathe,” Myers said. “That’s a myth they’ve been telling you your whole life.”

Freedive spearfishing is a personal kind of fishing, Myers said, allowing divers to get to know the underwater environment of the fish, and to be selective of their prey as they move in the water’s depths.

It’s also a physically taxing sport. By the end of Saturday’s tournament, the hunters were spent, a day of sun and water and breath-holding and deep dives making them glad to head to the scales for the weigh-in and then to the dive center for a celebration dinner of bratwurst and pop.

Tournament rules allowed each hunter to bring in two of any of the species of fish allowed to spearfishers, including catfish, carp, and drum — which, according to Myers, make great fish tacos. The fish were weighed and points assigned to each team, one point per fish and one point per pound. Whitefish and burbot were worth double points.

Back at the marina, as catches were weighed, the teams of spearfishers stood in the shade of a friendly tree and told fish stories. They enthused about spectacular hits, reenacted underwater drama, and gushed with awe about the one that got away. Sore muscles and tired lungs forgotten, the hunters reveled in the pleasures of their sport and the camaraderie of good-natured competition. As Dalman said, it was a great day for a dive.