BROOKINGS — Stuart Johnson slipped over the boat gunnel and into an underwater paradise he could only have imagined two months ago when he pulled on a dry suit and oxygen tank for the first time.
The shallow Pacific floor just off Brookings sprang alive with starfish, sea anemones, scallops and cloud upon cloud of black rockfish — some of them finning within 6 inches of his spear gun.
The path from angler to spearfisher is not as long, difficult or expensive as you might think.
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"Just to see all the sea life was awesome," he says.
Simultaneously, it was a bit intimidating when he realized this was no in-ground pool at the Talent dive shop where he trained.
"Knowing you can see 15 feet out and knowing how big the ocean is, you don't know what might be swimming after you," says Johnson, 28, of Grants Pass. "But I'm pretty good at staying calm and focusing."
Those traits served him well during the 35 minutes he spent spearfishing for black rockfish and lingcod Thursday during his first foray into this small but growing Pacific Northwest watersport.
A combination of reasonably good weather days, excellent water clarity and an immense mass of rockfish makes Southern Oregon's near-shore reefs prime hunting grounds for those who prefer band-loaded spears to rods and reels.
"The spearfishing here really is quite epic," says John Souza, a 23-year diving veteran who gives spearfishing lessons and runs regular trips out of his Bottom Time Scuba shop in Talent.
"You'll be sitting on the bottom and schools of rockfish will swim by 300 to 400 at a time," says Souza, 43. They literally will come within a couple of inches of your spear. I've even used my spear to nudge them and line them up to get two or three in one shot, like a shishkabob."
Try that with a lead-headed jig while fighting motion sickness.
"Up here, everything looks the same," says Dave Heryford, a two-year spearfishing veteran. You go down there, everything's different. The quantity of fish is amazing and you don't have to go far to get them."
The big draw that drags anglers who are used to jigging from the surface to spearing in the depths is selectivity.
Spearfishers can choose exactly what black rockfish they'll take home, and they can see the lingcod so close up that they can detect the gold blotches on females to leave them be.
"It's kind of like going to Red Lobster, pointing into the tank and saying, 'I want that one,' " Souza says.
Taking a shot at turning the ocean floor into your personal seafood cabinet has become easier, cheaper and more comfortable in recent years.
This club sport has come far in recent years, thanks largely to reduced equipment costs and better gear for divers who want to ply the Oregon coast's often frigid waters.
About 100 divers make up the spearfishing club Souza runs out of his shop. Most come to the sport as certified divers looking for a new twist, he says.
Souza offers regular spearfishing classes for $60-$90, depending upon how much rental gear is needed, he says. The classes culminate with a trip to Brookings, Port Orford or wherever the conditions take then.
Thursday, it was water less than 80 feet deep off Brookings, where the visibility was about 15 feet and the sea life plentiful. In two separate dives, each of about 40 minutes, Johnson hustled up his limit of black rockfish and couldn't wait for the next trip.
"I can see how this can become pretty addicting," Johnson says.
Souza runs trips every weekend that weather allows. They run west in 24-foot boats as far as 8 miles offshore to where the visibility can be 80 feet at times, usually targeting shallow pinnacles flagged on Souza's global-positioning system.
Spearfishers buddy up for the short dives, with half underwater and half on board at any given time. Their band-loaded spears have a range of 12 feet, but the average shot is about 4 feet, Souza says.
Black rockfish are the most plentiful fish below, and they typically will swim to a stationary diver, Souza says.
"The blacks," Souza says, "are dumb as rocks."
The more prized lingcod, however, must be hunted. Divers swim along the bottom, shining flashlights into crevices and rock piles to find the predator ready to pounce on a meal that swims by.
The views, the rush and the quarry turned Heryford from skeptic to devotee two years ago. Cajoled into it by a fellow electrician, the 49-year-old Medford man instantly was astonished at the scenery and productivity.
"I never really had the desire to Scuba dive," Heryford says. "But I can't get enough of it now. I like it even better now than hunting."
Souza has seen only a handful of sharks over his diving tenure here, and never any orcas while submerged, he says. Occasionally there are sea lions swimming about, but he prefers diving amid fish not harassed by pinnipedia or hook-and-line anglers.
Souza says he's surprised he doesn't have to share this piece of paradise with more fish-philes willing to trade the surface's predictability for the sea floor's majesty.
"It's a huge, foreign world down there that you don't get to see on a day-to-day basis," Souza says. "Even if the visibility is poor and you have a bad day spearfishing, you still have a good day diving."