Humans have engaged in spearfishing for eons. From the South Pacific Islanders and their hand spears to the Aleuts of Alaska using atlatls, spears have evolved into distinct types, depending on the various environments and fish species hunted. Some spears were used for hunting marine mammals as well as fish. Modern spears borrow from the native designs and use modern materials and technology to improve the efficiency of the spears.
Spearguns are hollowed-out tubes that house the actual spear or dart. Modern spearguns borrow technology from antique spears and use the physics behind rifles and firearms. A common method of propelling the spear out of the tube uses high-tensioned rubber bands, which a fisherman draws back, cocks and then releases, forcing the spear out of the tube at high speeds. Another method uses compressed air, which makes the spear a high-speed projectile by propelling it much like gun propels a bullet, but without an explosive gunpowder charge.
The spears themselves are thin rods, much like arrows without feathers, that have barbed tips that penetrate the fish and set in when the dart is retrieved via a taut line.
Hand spears come in two basic types: thrown spears or pole spears. The thrown hand spear typically has a line attached to the end, making retrieval of the spear as easy as pulling the line back until the spear is within reach. Barbed hooks or tripod style blades extend out from the tip, allowing the fish to be speared and then set in for retrieval.
The Tom Hanks film "Castaway" showed the main character fashioning a crude pole spear, which allowed him to gore fish for survival. The modern pole spears work much like the one in the film. A fisherman keeps the spear in both hands and thrusts it into shallow waters to spear crabs, shellfish or shallows-dwelling fish species. Underwater divers also use pole spears for spearfishing.
The Aleuts of northwest Alaska used atlatls as a type of a hybrid fishing spear and slingshot. Atlatl use is kept alive today by many groups and clubs designed to keep this ancient fishing and hunting technique alive. The atlatl is a two-piece spear. Users place the actual spear in a narrow hand-holder and brings it back behind themselves with the holder. A quick and unique thrust propels the spear harder and farther than possible by just using arm and hand strength. A line attached to the spear makes retrieval a simple matter of pulling in the line. The ancient Aleuts used atlatls to hunt for fish, sea lions and sea otters.
Article Written By Eric Cedric
A former Alaskan of 20 years, Eric Cedric now resides in California. He's published in "Outside" and "Backpacker" and has written a book on life in small-town Alaska, "North by Southeast." Cedric was a professional mountain guide and backcountry expedition leader for 18 years. He worked in Russia, Iceland, Greece, Turkey and Belize. Cedric attended Syracuse University and is a private pilot.