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Hunt Under Water

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You gaze out over the plain from your rocky lookout and out of the haze a shape materializes, cautiously edging closer. The range far exceeds that of your weapon – patience learned in your training must prevail. You are well hidden but must catalyze the partially aroused curiosity of your striped prey.

This is a delicate matter – if you are not subtle enough you will send it off with a series of deep thuds as the heavy tail drives into the water. Remaining too well camouflaged may cause it may loose interest and drift off back into the haze from where it came.

You slightly expose yourself, ensuring that your eyes are essentially out of direct view, then tuck away completely. Only the glistening tricut tip of a 1700 mm cylinder of hardened spring steel is now visible. The steenbras’s curiosity is now overriding caution and it steers in for a fatal closer look.

The fish

The white steenbras is one of South Africa’s larger sparidae family. It possesses an elongated body and a rather pointed snout which evolved for feeding on sand/mud prawns. They also feed on other bottom invertebrates, including worms, crabs and occasionally appear to scavenge redbait when single fish accompanying schools of musselcracker.

Live specimens are silvery white with six to eight dark narrow vertical bars, which are lost after death. The scales are large with a silvery grey edge. These fish are normally found in sandy areas near prawn colonies in the ocean and estuaries. The fish may reach a size of almost 30 kg but a 16 kg specimen is considered large with specimens over 20 kg being considered rare.

The SA angling record is 29 kg which leaves some room for improvement for underwater hunters whose record is 21 kg.

The steenbras is considered to be under considerable pressure from fishermen in certain areas such as False Bay. It is not a commercially available species. Fishermen and hunters may take only one fish per day and it must exceed 60 cm in length. Typically a 1.2 m fish may weigh 18 kg.

Preparation for the hunt

It requires some effort to prepare to hunt these fish as they are rather shy and do not often occur in very shallow water. Training will typically include swimming in the pool, running, and dry apnea (breathholding).

Part of the training includes becoming comfortable and extroverted underwater while holding ones breath. In South Africa spearfishermen may not use artificial breathing apparatus. A downtime of 1-1.5 minutes will be needed to successfully hunt these shy fish. Training may be difficult at first, but with persistence breathholding becomes easy as a phenomenon termed the mammalian dive reflex kicks in. When this occurs, breathholding becomes surprisingly easy. Also the hunter must get to know and use the rubber powered spearguns that have an effective maximum range of 4-5 m when used for fish exceeding 15 kg.

Concurrently to self conquest in extending your breathholds you will venture into the domain of the white steenbras, seeking their feeding grounds – the massive prawn beds. The ideal hunting grounds are reefs or shipwrecks near these prawn beds.

Tracking the steenbras is actually rather easy to the few that know the signs. The great tails of these of these fish are raised and heads lowered when they feed. Craters up to 1.5 m across are blown onto the sand as they blast the hapless crustaceans out of their sand grottoes with jets of water from their mouths.

Even if visibility does not permit, one may easily detect their feeding activity by the thudding sound of their heavy tails against the water.

Their presence is readily confirmed by fresh bits of prawn left lying about the craters. On such days hunters will have great expectations.

Optimum conditions

The ideal time to seek the white steenbras is when cold water is being raised by specific weather conditions. The upwelling of the cold water (thermocline) is normally brought about by offshore winds that cause a lifting of the water from deep in the ocean. Along the South African coastline it is predominantly the easterly winds that cause this phenomenon. The reason this rising thermocline is so effective is that fish, just like their land-based warm blooded counterparts, are also sensitive to temperature changes.

The cold water herds fish up from the depths as it sweeps upward and concentrates them on reefs. The ideal scene for a steenbras hunt is a thermocline on a reef that juts up from a sand bottom, which is occupied by a colony of sand prawns. When the cold water is a meter or so above the sand but has not yet covered the reef one has a good chance of meeting the steenbras; singly or in shoals of up to 200 fish. Predators also follow such conditions as hunting is then considerably easier. Sharks such as sand tigers and bronze whalers are the most common predators of concern but the occasional great white is not excluded.

On some days the surface water may be 20 ΊC and the thermocline perhaps five or six degrees cooler. Thus, to increase the probability of taking a trophy the underwater hunter must expand his knowledge of underwater "weather" conditions and learn to forecast the rising thermocline on good reefs.

Due to the shy nature of these fish many hunters prefer to seek them in conditions of reduced visibility – perhaps only 2.5 - 4 meters. This way they may hunt with a shorter speargun. In such poor visibility the hunter can often obtain a solid shot at any time he can aim at the fish.

Some experienced hunters even predict the path of the fleeing fish and shoot where they expect it to be through the murk and still land their fish. Personally I have taken many a fine steenbras this way – often expecting to have missed the shot completely but in fact having rolled it over with a spine shot.

Equipment

Typically an underwater hunter will require a good pair or spearfishing fins – either thermoplastic or carbon fiber. Freedivers, Spierre, or Rob Allen are good brands often used by South African underwater hunters.

Spearguns can be either pneumatic or rubber powered, the latter preferred for their simplicity and robustness. A seven or eight mm spring steel spear with a downward barb of about 70 mm is desirable.

The spear is ordinarily powered by a single rubber (elastic) of 18-20 mm, or on occasion by two 16 mm bands. A 5 mm open cell wet suit will provide protection against cold and a weight belt is required to retain neural or slightly negative buoyancy.

Placing the shot

The fish most often determines the shot. If unaware of the hunter, it may swim above forcing a shot from below. Most often the white steenbras will approach and then broadside to have a good view of the alien body of the hunter in its aquatic domain.

This type of side shot is most common. The ideal place to spear a big white steenbras is through the brain or just behind the head thought the spine(neck). The neck shot is risky though since if the shot is just too high the fish may tear free as there is little sinew in the flesh just behind the head. Such a wound is not mortal and will readily heal, as is the case with most fish, scales will eventually grow over the scar.

Aiming directly for the heart is undesirable, unlike in hunting land dwelling animals. A 15 kg steenbras has a heart of only 2.5 cm(1 inch) in diameter and this presents a small target, especially in a moving fish. Similarly, a direct brain shot is seldom attempted. Instead a body shot is often the best option and very seldom tears out.

Once speared the fish will often run extremely hard, hence the nickname white steamboat.

The fish may easily bend a seven mm spring steel spear. Another shot that holds superbly is placing the spear through the fishes’ cheeks, but in this case the fish will fight hard and a bent spear is almost guaranteed. My personal favourite technique is to wait for the fish to turn and spear it obliquely from behind as it departs – in through the body just behind the gills and out through the cheek.

The spear is seldom bent and the fish may run hard if not spined and the flesh does not tear significantly.

Dr. Gletwyn Rubidge holds four South African spearfishing records and represented SA as Springbok spearfisherman in 2007 in Spain. He is an author, holds a doctorate in analytical chemistry, has done over 1300 dives and spent more than 6000 hours at sea in the last 17 years.

Pan fried or fire roasted steenbras is excellent. Braaing (fire roasting) should include a baste to prevent the flesh drying out.

Underwater hunting is rather similar to bow hunting where the hunter must closely approach the prey to allow for an effective shot, only that it must be achieved in an environment where man is disadvantaged by his lack of mobility and the need for air.

However, the very strangeness of his presence beneath the waves combined with the inherent curiosity of fish is the catalyst that brings the prey to him.


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