By Steve Waters
Florida’s lobster season closes March 31 and the seasons for grouper and hogfish don’t open until May 1, so what’s an underwater hunter to do in April?
Jim “Chiefy” Mathie sets his sights on a great-tasting exotic fish.
“There’s really not a lot of species to go after because of the lack of opportunity for lobster, hogfish and grouper,” said Mathie, a retired Deerfield Beach fire chief and the diving expert on the Nautical Ventures Weekly Fisherman radio show that airs from 6-8 a.m. Saturday on Fox Sports 940 Miami and live-streams on the Nautical Ventures Facebook page. “So we target lionfish.”
Native to the South Pacific Ocean, lionfish were first discovered off South Florida in the mid-1980s. The fish have no natural predators in local waters, and lionfish feast on tiny grouper, snapper, shellfish and other native species. Left unchecked, lionfish can take over a reef.
Mathie, who said he and his dive buddies had “an outstanding lobster season” diving primarily in 35 to 45 feet of water, noted that spearfishermen keep lionfish populations under control on coral reefs in those depths.
“We’ve seen a few lionfish, but in this location we do a very good job of harvesting lionfish in the shallow waters, just because it gets a lot of pressure from the divers. That’s actually a good thing because we’re kind of keeping them in check shallow,” said Mathie, the author of the lobstering and spearfishing books “Catching the BUG” and “Catching the Spear-it!” which are available at local dive shops and online.
Deeper reefs that don’t receive that much pressure tend to have more and bigger lionfish, so that’s where Mathie and his Chiefy crew hunt.
“We change our tactics in April to head out into roughly the 80- to 100-foot depth. We call that the third reef or the east side of the third reef,” Mathie said.
Lionfish are an ideal species for divers new to spearfishing because, as Mathie noted, they don’t swim around a lot, so they’re easy to shoot, especially compared with grouper and hogfish, which are the ultimate species for the majority of underwater hunters.
Mathie and his crew use 3- to 4-foot hand-held pole spears with three- or five-prong tips, which prevent a fish from spinning after it is speared.
Lionfish have 18 venomous spines, 13 on the top and five on the bottom, so care must be taken when handling them. Getting stung by a spine can cause intense pain. The pectoral fins, which are not venomous, give the fish its name because when they’re fanned out in the water, they look like a lion’s mane.
“Typically, after you spear them, you treat them like a bass. You put your thumb in their mouth and you hold them, that way you’re pretty much away from their spines,” Mathie said. “What we like to do is use a pair of paramedic shears to trim up those venomous spines. But there is an element of danger when you’re trimming them up under the water with shears.”
Mathie said a safer alternative is to use a Zookeeper, “a plastic tube with a one-way funnel. You keep the lionfish on the spear and stick the fish in there without having to touch it at all, pull the spear back out and the lionfish stays in that tube.”
The hard-sided Zookeeper also keeps the spines from accidentally touching your body as you swim. They are sold online and at local dive stores.
This time of year, Mathie and his friends try to fill their Zookeepers, put the fish in a cooler when they get back in the boat and fillet them at the dock.
“They’re excellent eating,” Mathie said. “They have a pure white fillet, no bloodline, a flaky texture, and almost a sweet taste. You can do anything with them. You can make ceviche or sear them in olive oil with salt and pepper and eat it right out of the pan, it’s that good.”
For more spearfishing tips, as well as the latest information on where the fish are and how to catch them, listen to The Nautical Ventures Weekly Fisherman radio show every Saturday morning from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. live on Fox Sports 940 Miami, an iHeart station. If you can’t tune in live, the Weekly Fisherman radio podcasts are available through:
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https:// foxsports940.iheart.com/featured/weekly-fisherman/about/ (click on podcasts)
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