Justin Willis and Ronald Smith are drawing stares from the drivers who flash by
on Interstate 80. Its not surprising, given that they are dressed in rubber
suits and carrying spearguns.
Smith, a deputy sheriff from Truckee, and Willis, co-founder of The Dive
magazine, are here to hone their spearfishing skills in the Truckee River.
Their target is the carp, considered a nuisance/non-
native species by the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
Spearfishing is the most environmentally sound way to take fish for
the table, Willis says.
You target the exact fish, the exact species; no by catch, no gill nets,
They are members in a growing tribe of perhaps 20,000 divers nationwide who
practice this ancient art, two of perhaps 20 in the Reno-Tahoe area. Together,
they form the two sides of the spearfishing coin. In the ocean, Smith prefers
to dive on SCUBA, staying close to the bottom, searching out halibut and rockfish.
Willis is a freediver, surviving under water on a single breath of air.
Freedivers are shark bait, Smith says. Youre safer on
the bottom. You have to admire freedivers though; the best divers go 100-plus
feet down on a breath of air ... and the fish theyve speared, pretty unbelievable.
Willis pulls a picture from an envelope. In it a man is standing in front
of what looks like one of those plywood models you see at an amusement park.
Its an enormous tuna.
Paolo Gaspar from the Azores. World record 650-pound Bluefin. Tuna are
the Holy Grail of the sport, Willis says, looking towards the river. No
tuna down there, he laughs.
Or sharks, replies Smith.
On the Truckee, Smith forgoes SCUBA. The river is no more than five or six
feet at its deepest and carp avoid bubbles and noise. The men finish suiting
up, load their rubber-band-powered guns, and in a few minutes submerge in the
river, their snorkels the only link to the terrestrial world. They pull themselves
hand over hand along the bottom, using their fins as rudders. The noise of the
freeway is gone, replaced by the sound of moving water and an occasional knock
of debris flushed downstream.
Unlike the loud colors of the tropical diving featured in most SCUBA publications,
below the surface the Truckee is a mixture of earth tones, the beauty subtle.
Stones polished from a millennium of flow anchor plants that wave at the divers
as they pass. Startled crayfish dart off leaving slow motion mud clouds, or
hold their ground, tiny claws held aloft to warn off the giant intruders. Every
so often a rainbow trout streaks by, on a mission to somewhere. The divers engage
in a slow motion ballet, disappearing and reappearing on the surface, holding
themselves for minutes at a time on the river bottom.
Nice to see the trout, even though we cant spear them, Willis
says. He explains each body of water in Nevada has different regulations; here
in the Truckee, only carp can be taken with a spear. Carp like slower,
deeper water, especially mud bottoms. Theyre smart, and really wary. Well
move out of the flow and work that channel over there, he says, pointing
to a dead piece of water near a large stump.
The water clarity near the stump is tenuous; you can barely see an outstretched
hand. A minute or two passes as the eyes adjust to the darkness when several
large orange scales appear out of the gloom. More scales flow by, then a tail.
Big one! Willis shouts a few seconds later. Maybe 10 or
15 pounds. Missed him, but no worries. Theyve been at this for several
hours and its becoming clear that actually landing a fish might be secondary
to spending time in this liquid world.
Up there, Willis points to the freeway, its all rush
to here, rush to there, but under water, time slows down. You can dive for hours
and it feels like minutes. Stress goes away and you move at natures pace.
In the late afternoon sun he returns to the river, glides downstream, and vanishes
around a bend.
Kurt Bickel currently is senior editor of Spearfishing Magazine. His
first book was published when he was a sixth-grade student. Since then he has
written on a wide variety of topics. A spearfisherman for more than 20 years,
in 2000 he survived an attack in the Gulf of Mexico by an 800-pound Mako shark.
Spearfishing instruction and adventures are available to local residents
through the Sierra Diving Center and at Breathhold.com.
Several other dive shops in the area carry spearfishing equipment and accessories.
Spearfishing Magazine and The Dive Magazine cover the sport of spearfishing.
Subscription information, and additional links may be found on their respective
Web sites, spearfishingmagazine.com
For more information regarding rules and regulations governing spearfishing
in Nevada, contact the Nevada Department of Wildlife at 688-1500 or visit