By Steve Waters
April is a tough time for local scuba divers. The lobster season closed on March 31 and doesn’t re-open until August 6. And the seasons for grouper and hogfish, which are among the prized targets of spearfishers, don’t open until May 1.
That’s why a dedicated diver such as Jim “Chiefy” Mathie turns his attention to spearing lionfish on local reefs this month.
“April is sort of a dead month,” said Mathie, a retired Deerfield Beach fire chief and the diving expert on the Nautical Ventures Weekly Fisherman radio show, which airs from 6-8 a.m. Saturday on WINZ 940-AM and live-streams on the Nautical Ventures Facebook page. “We’ve kind of devoted April to just harvest lionfish.
“I really enjoy it. It’s fun. I tease people: I don’t shoot any of the little ones, I shoot only the big ones so that I can eat them.”
Lionfish are an exotic species from the South Pacific Ocean and the Red Sea that were first discovered off South Florida in the mid-1980s. One theory is that the lionfish were someone’s pets and when they outgrew their aquarium, the owner dumped the fish in the ocean. From there, the invasive lionfish have spread down to South America, throughout the Caribbean, into the Gulf of Mexico and up the Atlantic coast to North Carolina.
The fish have no natural predators in those waters, which means bigger reef fish such as grouper don’t realize they can eat them. Lionfish are voracious eaters, scarfing up tiny grouper, snapper, shellfish and other native species. Left unchecked, lionfish can take over a reef. That’s where spearfishers come in.
Although lionfish are here to stay – researchers in submarines have seen lionfish as deep as 1,000 feet of water off South Florida – divers do their part by reducing the lionfish population on shallow reefs. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is doing its part to combat the lionfish invasion by having no size or bag limits and no closed season. The FWC, which also promotes lionfish competitions, has a wealth of information on its website at myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/lionfish.
“In the shallow end of the pool, so to speak, we’re doing a pretty good job,” 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. “On that second reef, first reef, we’re seeing some, but there’s nothing of any size or quantity. When you get out to the deeper stuff, which is 85 to 100 feet, that’s where we start to see large quantities of lionfish and larger lionfish. That’s kind of where we play in April.”
Divers who target lionfish not only help native reef species, they also provide their friends and families with healthy, delicious meals. “If you like mutton snapper, if you like hogfish, if you like dolphin, you’re going to love lionfish,” said lionfish expert Charley Schram of Coconut Creek. “It’s sky-high in omega 3 fatty acids with very little mercury content.”
A Louisiana native who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Schram loves blackened lionfish, but the species also is delicious served fried, sautéed, grilled or in ceviche. “You can really do anything with the fish,” said Mathie, who noted that lionfish are sold at Whole Foods. “It’s a flaky, almost a sweet flavor. It’s a pure white fillet with no bloodline. It’s absolutely delicious.”
“I hunt them almost exclusively all year … 99.9 percent of the fish that I personally target and take nowadays are lionfish,” said Schram, who saw and shot his first lionfish in 2009.
Schram, whose biggest lionfish was 17½ inches in 99 feet of water off Boca Raton, carries two spears with him: A JBL tapered pole spear that has a three-point tip on the end and a small, JBL Explorer two-band speargun for lionfish that are tucked deep into a hole.
“I use the speargun when they are in the back and I cannot reach them, or if it’s an especially large one and I feel that the pole spear may not be at the right angle or I can’t get the hit that I want,” said Schram, who added that lionfish usually don’t flee immediately when a spearfisher approaches. “It’s like any other spearfishing you might do. If you look directly at a hogfish, he’s going to figure it out. If you look hard at a grouper, he’s going to figure it out. Lionfish, they are not as smart as those other fish, but they do figure it out.”
Lionfish have venomous spines, so divers have to take care when handling them. Schram uses trauma shears underwater to cut off a lionfish’s spines or he uses a Zookeeper, a cylindrical, hard-plastic container, to hold untrimmed lionfish so their spines can’t contact his body.
The reaction to lionfish venom can range from mild to deadly.
“For people who are heavily affected, they literally wish they could cut their finger or their arm off,” said Schram, adding that the pain can last for a few minutes to a few hours to a few days. “It is excruciating for some people.
“If you have a problem with bee stings, wasp stings, this is a very dangerous thing for you. Don’t hunt them, be a spotter for someone else. It’s fun to shoot your own, but it’s also fun to point them out to other people, and they zap them.”
For more spearfishing and fishing tips, listen to The Nautical Ventures Weekly Fisherman radio show every Saturday morning from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. live on 940 WINZ, an iHeart station. You’ll learn where the fish are biting and how to catch them. If you can’t tune in live, the Weekly Fisherman radio podcasts are available through:
iTunes: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-weekly-fisherman-show/id1117007850 Website: https://www.nauticalventures.com/TWF Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/nautical-ventures WINZ: https://940winz.iheart.com/featured/weekly-fisherman/about/ iHeart Radio: https://www.iheart.com/podcast/53-weekly-fisherman-28270572/ You can also watch the show on Facebook Live by liking our Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/The-Nautical-Ventures-Weekly-Fisherman-Show-136020173136939 You can watch past Facebook live shows at: https://www.facebook.com/The-Nautical-Ventures-Weekly-Fisherman-Show-136020173136939
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