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Free-diving spearfishermen rely on the buddy system

By: By Susan Cocking, McClatchy Newspapers

MIAMI (MCT) - Tony Miranda and John Campbell shook their heads in disgust as, once again, South Florida weather forecasters were way off the mark in their wind and wave predictions.

"You call this 2-4?" Miranda said, sarcastically, as a six-foot wave splashed over the port quarter of his 21-foot boat.

But the two Miami spearfishers, with Campbell's brother William, had already cleared Elliott Key in south Biscayne Bay and continued to bounce over bumpy seas to get to the dark-hued patch reefs in 40 to 85 feet of clear blue-green ocean water.

"Fishing's been bad this season," John Campbell said. "I haven't seen the same amount of fish. Seems like the Keys are the last resort."

Miranda stopped the boat upwind of one of the patches as he and Campbell donned camo wet suits, low-profile masks and extra-long fins, then readied their pneumatic spearguns. They tied 120 feet of line to each gun to make sure they would be able to retrieve them if they managed to bag a really big fish. Spearfishing together for the past seven years, using no scuba tanks, Campbell, 36, and Miranda, 58, work as a team.

"If two free divers are really experienced, one diver on the bottom can hold the line, and the one on the surface can pull you up and the line and the fish," Miranda explained. "If I have a diver I trust on the surface, I can spend a little more time because I know he can pull me up."

The two prefer breath-hold diving to using scuba gear because the lack of exhaust bubbles lets them get closer to fish. The range of their spearguns is only about 18 feet, so the closer they can get, the more accurate their shots are likely to be.

Before dropping into the water, Miranda told William Campbell to keep an eye on them without idling too close in the boat. When the divers were ready to be picked up, they would wave him over.

Time to go hunting.

Drifting with the foamy waves on the surface, the divers peered down through their masks to spot a school of bar jacks about 40 feet deep. Unlike amberjack and jack crevalle, bar jacks - also called yellow jacks - are quite tasty.

Campbell took a breath, held it and plunged silently down ahead of the approaching school. When the fish were in range, he took a shot, impaling a 10-pounder just behind the gills.

But instead of immediately pulling in the line, Campbell left the fish on the spear and watched as the rest of the school circled around its fallen comrade. This fatal mistake allowed Miranda to spear a second jack.

The remaining fish belatedly realized they were in danger - especially when a school of toothy, mean-looking barracuda approached - and beat a hasty retreat. The divers signaled their skipper to come over in the boat.

"That was a big school of 'cudas," John Campbell said as he tossed his speared fish into the boat. "I thought that four-footer was going to eat the jack. Some of them look like ugly sailors down there. They're all scarred."

The divers said 'cudas don't usually give them too much trouble, but bull sharks are a problem. Miranda said he has been forced to shoot more than one between the eyes when it keyed on the scent of a speared fish and refused to back down.

But the most serious injury Miranda has sustained was during the U.S. National Freediving Spearfishing Championship in the Keys in 1999, when a competitor's boat propeller nearly severed his left foot. With surgery and physical therapy, he was able to resume diving a year later.

"I believe this leg is stronger than the other one," he said, pointing to his scarred ankle.

Miranda said he keeps up with the much-younger Campbell through regular exercise. Earlier this year, Miranda competed alongside his 24-year-old daughter in the Escape to Miami triathlon.

"The idea was to finish," he said. "I was pushing my daughter; I wasn't training that heavy. It was a hard triathlon. I enjoyed it."

The divers continued scouting the reef for likely fishing spots and managed to shoot a small hogfish and a large triggerfish before calling it a day. They were disappointed - but not surprised - at failing to locate any legal-sized grouper. "The reality is, there's not too many groupers around, especially the gag," Miranda said.

He said he once located a prime gag spot off Key Biscayne but hasn't seen one there in nearly a decade.

Both said they have no problem with a pending four-month federal closure of Atlantic waters to protect gag, black and red grouper.

"It'll take the pressure off a little bit," John Campbell said.

Added Miranda: "If I want to eat fish, I can shoot triggerfish and hogfish."

For Miranda and Campbell, safety always trumps fishing. Besides the dangers of errant boats and aggressive sharks, free divers can succumb to shallow-water blackout - potentially fatal if buddies are not looking out for one another.

"Never leave your partner's side," Campbell said. "I had a blackout once with a bunch of black groupers flying around. If (my partner) had been somebody else, they would have found me in West Palm Beach. You are in your partner's, and God's, hands."

© 2008, The Miami Herald.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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