Sunday, August 21, 2011

What did you do this Summer?

By Lee Tolliver
The Virginian-Pilot
Anyone who has ever fished for cobia knows what kind of frustrations this species can cause.  It's nothing for a big cobe to dart at a live spot or eel as if it's going to slam it, only to stop on a dime and toy with the offering. Or ignore it completely, then disappear under the boat.

Ned Horton was having that kind of day recently while sight-casting with Jeremy Hostetter in the Chesapeake Bay.  We'd been screwing around with a couple of them for a while, casting to see if they were interested," Horton said. "They weren't. So we decided to go in."

Horton and Hostetter are free divers - people who can hold their breath for long periods of time. Often the goal of free diving is to spear fish.  That's exactly what Horton had in mind. Wearing an aqua camo-colored wetsuit that helps him blend in with the environment while in the water and carrying a speargun, Horton jumped in and stayed under long enough for the cobia to settle down so he could bang off a good shot.

Horton caught the fish just behind the gill plate.  But just like bow hunting deer, the kill is rarely instant, and Horton had his hands full.

"It felt like it lasted about three hours," said Horton, a 21-year-old Hampden-Sydney College senior from Norfolk. "I went under several times and it took several tries to get a good shot. It took about 35 to 40 minutes to get him in.

"He was just so strong. You just have to hold on for dear life.

Horton runs extensively and weight trains. He's battled a 100-pound amberjack while in the water. His recent cobia weighed 78 pounds.

Being in shape, having the right equipment, having a partner and having countless hours of experience are key factors in success.

Horton says a lack of those elements is asking for disaster.

"I've been free diving for about four years now, and it's a worse and worse addiction for me," he said. "It's incredible. But if you are not totally prepared for handling big game, it could kill you. Spearing spadefish and sheepshead and (tautog) is different. Big amberjack or cobia is another animal. You're in their element, and they are 100 times more powerful than you.

"And if you do this alone, even for small fish, it's a death wish."

A licensed boat captain and avid rod-and-reel angler, Horton said he understands that many hook-and line anglers don't like what he does.

"People will talk about free divers being cheaters, but they just don't understand," he said. "For starters, we're about the most conservation-minded people out there. We follow all of the size and bag limits and make sure before we take a shot.

"And to put yourself in a wild animal's environment shows how much respect you have for them."

Spearfishermen and women, be they scuba or free divers, are a huge help to traditional anglers. They're in the water, face to face with the fish. Many let nearby boaters know what's going on below.

"Like anything else, there are bad apples," said Horton, who is studying military leadership. "But like everything else, most of us are good people who obey the rules."

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