Freshwater Spearfishing: Fishing’s Controversial New Frontier

Freshwater spearfishing in the Sacramento River.
Freshwater spearfishing in the Sacramento River. Logan Mock-Bunting

The morning air on the Sacramento River is thick with mist as we anchor our inflatable motorboat to shore. "I scored some monsters here a month ago," says Paul Young, a 37-year-old plumber with cropped black hair and sleeves of tattoos on both arms. "I'll take the first hunt." He pulls on a camouflage diving suit, swim mask, and snorkel; secures a weighted belt around his waist; and grabs a Rob Allen Tuna 800 loaded with a three-foot spear powerful enough to pierce the fattest part of a 100-pounder. Riding the river's current, he drifts toward a small pool beneath a canopy of willow trees, a hot spot named after a local vagabond said to be serving a life sentence for manslaughter. Young takes a final breath and sinks down into the water. Two minutes pass before he resurfaces, his head ringed in yellow foam and moss. Between his gloved hands is a striped bass about the size of a pit bull. "There's dinner!" he cries. "Beats sitting on your ass all day and waiting for fish to bite, huh?"

Young is one of a few hundred divers pioneering a new niche sport: deep-sea-style spearfishing, in the waterways of California's Central Valley. Striped bass is not just a prized catch around here; it's an invasive species whose numbers have exploded since first being introduced for recreational fishing over a century ago. In the American and Sacramento rivers, stripers are threatening to push out a number of native fish, including endangered Chinook salmon. But the supply was off-limits to spearfishing until the California Fish and Game Commission lifted the ban two years ago. About 500 miles of relatively calm water with massive fish in every direction is now a spear-fisherman's paradise.

Young first learned to spearfish when he was 20 years old, while living in Marin County, north of San Francisco. After he moved 150 miles inland a decade ago, he would still make the trip to his hunting grounds in the Pacific, now a three-hour drive. During his first season in the Sacramento River, he shot a 30-pound striped bass, far bigger than anything he could hope to catch off the coast. He has since spent nearly 100 days exploring the riverbed. "I can't tell you how awesome it is to finally be able to do this in my own backyard," he says. "This is all new territory, too. We're exploring it for the first time."

Not everyone is so thrilled about spearfishing's debut on California's inland waterways. Young and other spearos, as they're called, have dealt with heavy opposition from traditional anglers, many of whom find spearfishing unsportsmanlike and worry it will decimate the bass population. In 2013, a group of Central Valley fishermen began petitioning the state's fish and game commission to recriminalize it. Young has received threats online and on the river. One fisherman tried to ram him with his boat; others have cast lures at him. "It ought to just be banned," says Jim Jones, a rod-and-reel advocate at the California sportsman website Western Outdoor News. "It's like shooting fish in a barrel."

That is, a 20-foot-deep barrel that you enter without air and with 30 pounds of lead strapped to your waist. During the past year, Young has been sucked into whirlpools created by the river current, gotten snagged in tangles of hooks and fishing line, and once landed on a two-foot lamprey, a jawless fish whose circular mouth is filled with razor-sharp teeth for boring holes through the flesh of its prey. "It's a risky sport in general, but when you add big current, bad visibility, and dead trees, it gets really crazy," says Young. "But at least you don't have to worry about great whites!"

We drift downriver, spearing along the way until stars dot the horizon. After six hours fighting currents, avoiding exposed rocks, untangling grass from fins, and generally trying not to drown, it's abundantly clear that this is a far cry from sitting on a dock with a line and bobber. "This takes endurance, fitness, skill, and tons of patience," Young says. "The fact is most people — especially rod-and-reel guys — don't have a big enough set of balls to spear. So they resent us and try to stop us from doing it."

We pull our boat onto Dick Point, a stretch of sand that once had an eight-foot-tall pile of driftwood on it. We roll out sleeping bags on cots coated in raccoon and rat hair. Young lights a grill with gasoline and a plumbing torch. A half-hour later, we sit on the bank, drinking cold beer and eating two-pound striper steaks. "The rod-and-reel guys think we're just killing everything in our path," Young says. "I could have shot a dozen fish today, but I didn't. You get a good one and call it a day. That's what it's all about."

Learn to Spearfish

Shooting fish in a river doesn't have to be daunting. "There are some people who get so stressed out about producing fish that they forget to have fun with it," says Greg Fonts, owner of Sacramento's Freedive Shop. "Spearfishing's as complicated as you make it."

Get the Gear
A wetsuit, mask, snorkel, fins, weight belt, knife, and speargun cost about $1,000. Proper fit is essential, too, so ask your retailer for help.

Contact Fish and Game
Spearfishing laws can vary. Most states require a license, allow hunting only during certain months, and limit catch.

Find a Guide
A shop can connect you with more experienced spearos. Fonts recommends starting with a free-diving course as well: "It'll make you feel more at ease in the water."