One man’s passion, ethics lead to underwater spearfishing regulation changes

By Jonathan Durtka

What is Underwater Spearfishing? It is the act of submerging yourself under the water’s surface with a single breath to harvest fish. Engaging in this method of fishing allows for a more intimate experience with the fish and the ecosystem they live in.

Let me pose a few questions: Have you ever seen a school of smallmouth bass so large you couldn’t count them all? Have you seen a school of walleye attacking a school of perch in the weeds? What about a catfish hiding in the rocks or resting under a log pile? Maybe a pike hiding in the weeds awaiting an unlucky prey fish? These are probably things you’ve only seen in aquariums or on television. I have seen all of the aforementioned spectacles while spearfishing.

Spearfishing also allows anglers to see firsthand how fish utilize different cover and structure types throughout the fishing season, and there is a short seasonal window of opportunity.

When submerging yourself into the waters of the Great Lakes, you’ll find your body dissipates heat at a rate 30% faster than in open air. This means summer months and water temps in the upper 50s are ideal to start the season. Generally, those conditions become present in the mid to lower portions of the Great Lakes somewhere near memorial day.

Spearfishing carries a few differences compared to hook and line fishing. There is no catch and release with spearfishing. The sole purpose of spearfishing is to harvest fish. You may observe the fish and choose to pass the opportunity. You may shoot at and miss the fish, but once you have struck the fish, it’s over. That fish is coming home with you. This means that each fish harvested was intended to be. There is no harming or handling of any fish that wasn’t intentional. No accidental hooks in any fish’s eyes, gills, fins or bellies. Additionally, spearfishing does not bring along any of the debris created by modern angling, such as bait containers, lure packages, discarded or lost rods and reels, hooks, sinkers and fishing line left in waterways to potentially entangle wildlife.

underwater spearfishing

So, what led me to try it for the first time? I learned about spearfishing through my brother. He posted pictures on Facebook, and that piqued my curiosity. Being a fisherman and underwater adventurer most of my life, having the opportunity to join two things I love to do had boosted my excitement to a level it hadn’t been in some time. A few quick messages later, I was westbound to Lake Michigan to go for the first time. After meeting up with my brother and his friends, a brief rundown on the speargun, safety and a regulation review on targetable species, we hit the water. It was late August, and the water was pleasantly warm and visibility was good at close to 20 feet. The fish we were after were those I had bow fished for in previous years. Carp, suckers and drum were plentiful in this area we were going and potentially a catfish if we were lucky.

After arriving at our spot, we geared up and jumped in the water. My initial thought was to swim at the fish as fast as I could to get as close as possible to get a shot. After all, the effective range for a speargun is about 15 feet. I quickly learned that this was the wrong strategy. Fish are much quicker, and when presented with unfamiliar life in their environment, swimming at them at an aggressive rate of speed, they swim away. Understanding this, I adapted a much slower approach, hoping the fish would allow me a better encounter. This allowed me to get much closer and harvest my first fish with a speargun — a common carp that weighed about 12 pounds. We fished the area for about four hours, harvesting several suckers, drum, carp and one healthy catfish. Cold, tired and hungry, we called it a day. We kept the catfish and drum for eating, but we disposed of the rest of the fish.

It didn’t feel right. It felt unethical. I went one more time a few weeks later and again had an absolute blast, but still, I didn’t particularly appreciate killing fish to just dispose of them. This has been the largest deterrent for newcomers interested in the sport. Why kill fish if you don’t plan to eat them? This sentiment was shared among our community.

underwater spearfishing

Regulation change

I decided to reach out to the Natural Resource Commission (NRC) to start a dialog about underwater spearfishing. After a quick email, I was given a spot on the agenda to give public testimony at the April 2019 meeting. I wanted to make some points to bring understanding to this harvest method and hopefully affect change. After all, I am the same angler I have always been, just using different gear. I buy a license and abide by the same regulations; why don’t I have the same opportunities? I highlighted these points along with the physical difficulty and the lack of regulations surrounding safety and user conflicts. The DNR had no regulations to prevent spearfishing anglers from fishing in designated swimming areas, around boat docks at boating access and egress points, blocking boater navigation channels between lakes and similar things.

Ultimately, the DNR didn’t have an accurate depiction of underwater spearfishing in Michigan. This led to a sit-down meeting with Jim Dexter, then chief of the DNR Fisheries Division, and his staff. We talked about underwater spearfishing, who does it and when you do it. He mentioned hurdles we might encounter in a public discussion like fish identification, determining legal size and other anglers’ concerns about this method being used for gamefish.

After this meeting, Dexter reviewed our conversation topics with internal department staff and biologists and concluded that they would move forward with their review process. I was instructed to draft the regulations I would like to have implemented, and the fisheries staff would present them at the warm and coldwater resource steering committee meetings to receive input and feedback. The DNR uses a series of meetings with stakeholder groups as a means of vetting new regulations that are being considered for the following year. Chief Dexter said he would recommend implementation to the NRC if supported by most attendees in these steering committees.

The NRC had the final authority to implement the order as presented or amend it as they saw fit. The drafted fisheries order had the following updates: an established underwater spearfishing season that included lake trout, northern pike and walleye in Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron. It included new safety regulations, such as distance boundaries around occupied swimming areas, boat docks and boating access and egress sites. It also prohibited nighttime diving and using artificial breathing devices such as scuba gear to address concerns of “fair chase” brought up during the review process.

Waters included in the Tribal consent decree were removed as well. Additionally, all spearfishers must obtain an underwater spearfishing E-license and complete mandatory monthly reporting of their effort and harvest to the DNR. At the NRC meeting in August of 2021, the drafted order was presented and recommended to be implemented at the start of the 2022 season. On October 14th, 2021, the order was amended by commissioners to remove Lake Superior, delay harvest of northern pike until July 1 and a three-year sunset was added to rescind the order for department analysis to determine the outcome of underwater spearfishing for the new gamefish on the Great Lakes.

This allows for the NRC to make any changes they see fit to ensure the protection of the fishery. After these amendments were added, the NRC passed the order unanimously, establishing a season for spearfishing anglers to harvest more table-worthy gamefish.

underwater spearfishing

How to get started

The gear you use needs to be comfortable! From your mask to your wetsuit and even your fins — they need to be fitted to your body. Unfitted masks will create painful pressure points that can result in headaches. Unfitted masks will likely have leaks in the silicone skirt and fill your mask with water, which will fog up your lenses, resulting in minimized diving time and inability to see, identify and accurately shoot your targeted fish.

A wetsuit that is too tight can restrict your breathing and create a feeling of claustrophobia. Too large a wetsuit will result in no thermal protection from the water and a cold spearo is not a happy spearo. Your fins need to fit correctly as well. Foot pockets too small will result in painful blisters and sore feet. I highly recommend stopping by a local dive shop and allowing the staff to help you get the proper fitting gear. They know what you need and how it should fit. Choosing a speargun is your last step!

Spearguns are dangerous if not handled with care. Please treat them as if they are firearms. Don’t aim at anything you don’t intend to shoot, don’t transport a speargun while the bands are loaded and make sure the components are in good functioning condition. I recommend a speargun about 40 to 50 inches in length with two bands and a loading pad on the butt of the gun. This setup is the best, in my opinion. The spearguns are maneuverable and can offer up to 12 feet of effective shooting distance. Having two bands offers a second chance in the event one band breaks. Your effective range may be decreased, but you won’t be out of the game.

Moving on to the physical demands. Spearfishing is the most physically demanding form of fishing. You will find yourself swimming and diving thousands of yards every trip. I recommend visiting a public school or recreational pool to improve your swimming skills. A good goal is swimming 500 yards continuously and being able to swim one length of the pool underwater. This will be an ideal place to start your spearfishing journey.

Additionally, find a dive buddy. You should always dive with someone whenever possible, especially as a beginner. You may find yourself in trouble and need of assistance. Having a buddy with you could be the difference. Never dive without your diver down flag, and always stay within 100 feet of that flag (it’s the law). Keep your eyes on the horizon for recreational boaters. They tend not to know what diver down flags are and pose a significant risk. Stay clear of high boat traffic areas — no fish is worth your life or limb.

Lastly, remember you are responsible for every fish you harvest. Know your fish, how to differentiate between species and the size limits. If you have any doubts, follow this time-tested saying: if you don’t know, let it go. Don’t risk shooting a fish that is borderline legal. Be studious. Be certain. Be ethical. I hope these gear and safety tips help you on your path to discovering the underwater world of fishing. Safe Diving.

Johnathan Durtka is a lifelong outdoorsman born and raised in Southeast Michigan. He is President of the Michigan Spearfishing Association and an IBEW member.