Last of the Blue-Water Hunters
Credit: Photograph by Woods Wheatcroft
All over the warm-water world, from Fiji to the Florida Keys – everywhere authentic masculinity demands physical mastery of the sea – breath-hold spearfishing ranks with foul-weather sailing and giant-wave surfing among the ultimate encounters between the athletic male and the forces of nature. My father was into it when I was a kid. He'd tell me stories about grabbing his speargun after work at the concrete plant and hunting halibut off California's Balboa Island. I'd always wanted to learn, so I'd called every dive shop in California looking for somebody to teach me. They all mentioned the same two names: the cocksure 67-year-old Maas, a wealthy retired oral surgeon, real estate magnate, and spearfishing's leading expert, author of its definitive reference book, subject of its best documentary film, ''Blue Water Hunters,' and former host of the Outdoor Channel series 'Speargun Hunter'; and Laird, an unassuming 42-year-old who burns every spare second stalking fish, occasionally as a guide, but makes ends meet as a harbor diver, maintaining yachts by dipping underwater to scrub their hulls of algae and the like.

Maas told me to give him a call only after I'd learned the basics from someone else. So I spent three months with Laird, going out again and again near San Francisco, learning the breathing pattern that best fills your lungs before a long dive (four slow, deep inhales) and how to slip downward from the surface without a big splash (bend into the water, pointing one leg in the air and gun hand straight down). He taught me that a speargun is accurate to only about 10 feet, so the trick is to remain limp and calm, never looking a fish in the eye, letting it come to you. He even played mystical fish-whispering tricks like thrumming on the taut bands of a speargun or making clicking sounds in his throat to pique his prey's curiosity.

Most important, Laird prepared me for Maas: He told me Maas was gracious but competitive and cautioned me not to question his authority on his boat. He also counseled me to be careful when asking about Maas's children, given that his youngest son, an accomplished free diver, died in his teens while diving off Hawaii.

When I told Maas I was finally ready, he invited both Laird and me on a three-day trip to the world-class spearfishing waters around the Channel Islands. Maas looms so large in the sport that on the flight down Laird confessed to me that he'd been having performance-anxiety nightmares, dreaming fitfully about blowing easy shots on great fish and running out of air during pitifully short dives.

But he needn't have worried: It's Laird who gets the first fish on this trip, a beautiful 25-pound yellowtail speared at the very next kelp paddy. Maas guns the engine and roars onward once again.

"We're coming right up to this underwater mountain!" Maas shouts. "It's such a small spot I just want to get right on it." Then he screams out the window to Laird, "Go! Go! Drop the anchor!"

"See, this is bait," Maas explains to me, pointing at a dark mass on the LED screen of his computerized fish-finder. "The baitfish are right under us."

Little perch and blacksmith tend to edge out of the relative security of their local kelp forest, heading upstream into the current, in hopes of catching incoming food. The trick for us is to linger just upstream, where the big predator fish, like yellowtail, come cruising.

I am hypnotized from the moment I hit the water. Kelp crabs crawl up and down hundred-foot stalks, and multiple fish species swirl in the dappling light. But then I notice something else: a huge gray form, moving upward, coming toward me – a giant gray fin clearly visible behind the giant head. Wait a minute, that's not a shark, is it?

I look back and see the vague gray fish face growing closer, still huge and still bearing that fin – until it gets close enough that I can see it's just a giant sunfish. Harmless.

Back on deck, I find Laird hauling up yet another yellowtail and looking nervous; he doesn't want to piss off Maas, having caught two fish before Maas, who's been busy ferrying us to all his prize hunting spots.

"Please don't comment on my fish, okay?" Laird tells me. "Don't make a big deal. He's our host."

But then Maas appears, also dragging a yellowtail.

"Oh, thank God," Laird says to me, quietly.

"So whose is bigger?" Maas asks, laughing. "I think yours is!"

"No, no. Yours is bigger, Terry. See, it's wider."

"That's 'cause I was waiting, and I didn't take an easy fucking shot on a hundred goddamn…" Suddenly, Maas turns to me. "See, I'm just getting everything organized for my shot. There's about a thousand fucking yellowtail, and then this guy went across my path!" He gestures at Laird, and I can't tell if he is seriously disgusted or playing around.