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The Men Who Battle the World's Biggest Fish Face to Face

"You have to jump off the back of the boat, while it's still moving, into boat wake, swim below the bubbles, open your eyes, and hope that dark shadow isn't a mako or a tiger shark staring back at you."

by Marcus Thompson
Jan 23 2015, 3:53pm

Photos by Titus Bradley and Colin Chester.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

A select group of spear fishermen sail three nautical miles offshore, searching for large black shadows looming under the ocean surface. Once the silhouettes are spotted, a captain shouts from the lookout tower. The dive call is given and the fisherman plunge the depths among the boat wash, loaded with one shot in their spear gun, one breath and the very real fear that they may not be coming back up.

This is the coastline of Ascension Island, a UK military outpost situated in the middle of the Atlantic. Once occupied during the Falklands conflict, it remains a commercial fishing exclusion zone and harbors the highest prized and most dangerous fish on the planet.

Tony Eyon with a marlin

Tony Eyon is one of the island's spear fisherman. After a ten-year relationship bust up four years ago, he decided he needed to shift his life focus; hunting fucking massive fish was the path he settled on. Within four hours of his first dive on the island, he was staring a 12-foot tiger shark in the eyes.

Tony and a small collection of spear fisherman hunt of some of the biggest tuna, marlin, and sailfish in the world—miles away from any medical support. In the waters off Ascension Island, they've found out the hard way that hunting for trophy fish with a sharp stick offers incredible rewards, but one mistake can be your last. I asked him to talk me through the hunt.

VICE: Can you tell me about Ascension Island? What's the set up?
Tony Eyon: It's a small volcanic island based in the heart of the Atlantic. If you Google it, it's a pinprick in the middle of nowhere. Hardly anyone knows about the place. You can't fly there on any commercial airline, and you need to apply before you can travel there. Civilians can only get there going through the [Royal Air Force], and the only RAF base you can use is Brize Norton [in Oxfordshire]. They allocate a small number of seats from each flight for nonmilitary.

There is no indigenous or permanent population on the island, although around 880 people live there as of 2010. Six-hundred ninety-six come from Saint Helena and are nicknamed "the Saints." They are great—they drink a lot. Accommodation is pretty rudimentary, but plush living isn't the prize you're chasing on Ascension Island.

How did you find out about the fish there?
It kind of started as rumor, then pictures started coming through internet forums of giant fish in huge densities. I'd been spearing for about four years when I heard about it, but was still pretty green. I had savings I'd been holding for a small boat, but seeing as I'd lost my missus—who'd been my first mate—I decided to drop it on the trip. It seemed like a wild opportunity.

Despite my lack of experience, I was in the water with a spear within two hours of landing, and, within four hours, face-to-face with biggest tiger shark I had ever seen in my life.

What did you do?
I got out!

But it didn't deter you?
It definitely made the experience a lot realer, a lot faster. But it also got me pretty hooked. That sounds really counterintuitive when you say it out loud.

What do you hunt for?
Sailfish and marlin are the prize fish in any fishing discipline. They are prize fish even to just see—but to spear them is next level.

What's the process?
You need a big boat, because you're going deep offshore and you chum the waters, which is basically cutting up small fish and creating a blood slick and bits of fish meat. You're also drifting over deep ledges, which attract predatory fish like wahoo, tuna and sailfish, but also hammers, mako sharks, and Galapagos sharks.

How do you know where the fish are? Do you use fishfinder technology?
No, it's all done by sight, and by reading the birds. If you see birds diving down on shoals of baitfish, you can take a guess at what fish are attacking the baitfish.

You'll be waiting for a while some days; you won't even get a call in. But when it happens, it happens in a split second. You get a shout from the captain who is spotting from a bird tower on top of the boat, usually swearing and yelling that there's something big in the water. There's often no time to put on your masks or load guns. You have to jump off the back of the boat, while it's still moving, into boat wake, swim below the bubbles, open your eyes, and hope that dark shadow isn't a mako or a tiger shark staring back at you.

Have you come across a mako?
There was a chap who disappeared, but we're not sure what happened to him, sadly. He jumped in the water and never surfaced. No one knows if he got taken, passed out or got caught in his gear. So yeah, your heart's in your mouth when you jump in. That period when you can't see anything? It's scary.

How deep do you get, and how long do you need to hold your breath for?
We dive to about seven meters [23 feet], and you need to hold your breath for at least 90 seconds to give yourself a chance for a decent hunt. Once you're underwater and you spot a sailfish, there's a bit of an art to hunting them. You can't swim straight toward them; you get as close as you can, and when they start to show their flank then you know they're about to ping off. By zig-zagging towards them, making them move their head from side to side, you make them swim towards you. It's a little weird dance between you and the fish.

The scene until then is almost beautiful, like a calm before a storm. They are intimidating and magnificent, for sure—their colors underwater are genuinely breathtaking.

Then what? You've got your shot. What's next?
As soon as you take the shot, all hell breaks loose. It's chaos. The best shot is behind the gill plate. The gill plate itself is bulletproof, so it's a high-risk shot. Once you make contact it goes completely mental and you pray it chooses flight over fight.

What happens if it chooses the fight option?
Then you have 130 pounds of pure muscle propelling a big spike at 60 miles per hour through the water.

They charge?
Oh yeah, for sure. When they feel threatened, they go for you. It's happened to me a few times. I was helping a buddy pull a sailfish up from the depths when it wasn't tired enough to be pulled and it wasn't affected by the shot. As soon as it was within 15 meters [50 feet] it went straight under his arm and then straight at me, swinging this sword from side to side. There isn't much you can do, other than try to get a shot off and get out of its way, which is nearly impossible because of their speed.

A lot of it at this stage is out of your control—it totally depends on the way the fish dives. It's chaos! You're wearing belts and knife holders, so there's a heap of stuff to get hooked on. Or the line can just hook up around your leg. Because the mask blocks your field of vision, it's hard to see everything going on, and the wetsuit means you don't feel the line on your skin. You just need to have your knife at the ready to cut the line if it starts getting dicey.

So assuming you don't have a triangular piece of fish sticking into a vital organ and you're not spiraling to the bottom of the ocean, what's the next stage of the hunt?
Essentially, fighting the fish then involves holding onto your floats and tiring the fish out until it's ready to be pulled up. You get composed and let it pull you around the ocean. You're trying to shorten the line so it has to fight harder to reclaim it. A buddy will jump in at this point and spot for sharks. All the blood and vibrations are pretty much a written invitation for those guys.

When you haul it up and swim to the boat, you have to hold it by its bill. The idea here is that, if a shark attacks, it will come up very fast from right underneath you, attacking the tail of the fish you've caught first.

Seems like a pretty intense battle for the fish.
It may look a bit gruesome, but most fish are dispatched much quicker than if they were left to suffocate. There are also no wasted fish like all the by-catch you get with netting and long liners, who have no idea what they'll pull up. In the UK, for every fish you see in the supermarket, two more have died via by-catch. Spearfishing, by its very nature, is the complete opposite of this. Spearfishing is the most selective and sustainable form of fishing on the planet, actually.

And you eat them?
We eat everything we catch. I probably don't need to tell you how a prize fish that you've risked you life for tastes, but it's better than fish fingers from Tesco, that's for sure.

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