Last of the Blue-Water Hunters
Credit: Photograph by Woods Wheatcroft

Don't worry about the speargun!" Terry Maas barks at me. "I'll hand you the gun in the water. Just hurry up and get your wetsuit on!"

We're 25 miles off California's Santa Barbara Island, with the depth gauge reading 914 feet, and Maas's directives have me fumbling and a little unnerved, not least because I'm a semiseasick neophyte and he's easily the most famous spearfisherman on Earth, with four world records to his name, including one for a 398-pound bluefin tuna he shot in the very place where a shark killed his best friend. Maas also pioneered blue-water hunting: jumping off boats in the open ocean, carrying gigantic spearguns and even rifle shells – in case you have to slip one onto a spear tip to blast a shark – and then free-diving into the abyss in pursuit of aquatic big game. He's not the kind of guy who suffers fools.

Already in the water is the third member of our team: the burly and bearded David Laird, a legend in local dive shops. He's summoning me to a kelp paddy – a free-drifting clump of seaweed. "Yellowtail, Dan! Right here! Come on!" calls Laird.

After buckling on a big weight belt, I drop off the boat and find I have to kick my three-foot fins just to keep my nose in the air. From a speargun rack at the back of the boat, Maas selects a thousand-dollar Daryl Wong – a giant crossbow, except it doesn't have a bow and is more like a maritime bazooka, powerful enough to kill a thousand-pound fish or blow a hole in the boat. But first I have to cock it, a ridiculously awkward and difficult task, my arms straining to stretch three heavy rubber tubes from the top of the gunstock to the base of the spear. A hundred feet of tubular plastic cord connect the spear to a surface buoy; once I pull the trigger, in theory, the spear will detach and the fish will fight this so-called float line instead of me. But I've been warned that if I let the line tangle around my leg and then shoot something big, I could easily drown.

I snorkel over to the kelp paddy, where I see Laird's dangling legs and Catalina perch schooling together. Then I spot a genuine gold-and-silver California yellowtail, a.k.a. hamachi, about three feet long and 35 pounds, offering $300 worth of premium sashimi and the lifelong opportunity to say, at key moments, "Well, back when I speared my first yellowtail...."

But a slamming heartbeat doesn't help with complex operations that involve killing and not getting yourself drowned, so I try to breathe slowly.

A wave sloshes over my snorkel and I have to cough and spit out the water and start all over.

"Dan! Dan!" It's Laird.

I lift my head, noticing the boat, small and far away.

"It's over there!" Laird yells, pointing to where I already knew the fish to be. So I nod, dip underwater, and pull the trigger – missing by a country mile – and then watch the yellowtail vanish.

"Back on the boat! Back on the boat!" Maas screams. "The fish is gone!"

Not a moment after I crawl onto the deck, Maas cranks up the throttle and the boat lets out a cloud of diesel smoke and roars onward.

"A lot of blue-water hunting is like this, just run and gun," Maas says. "You got to know when to move."