freediving23

First Catch

by Eric Freeze

Whatever ethical quandaries I had been having, my actions had led me to do this thing: to kill a fish that we would take home to eat. 

Just across the street from our apartment in Nice—en face, as the French would say—is a small grocery that’s open late. Next door to us is a halal butcher run by a man named Mourad. Around these core businesses are two art galleries and Media Cité, a community organization that offers free French classes for second-language speakers and helps immigrants adjust to life in France.

Mourad is the most ubiquitous of our neighbors. His shop is always open at 7 a.m., and every day he smiles, greeting us in his white smock, pacing in front of his rotisserie machine where you can buy a roast chicken for 4.80 euros. He stopped me the day I decided to spearfish at the inlet on the other side of the port. I was carrying my new speargun capped with a cork.

Oh, un harpon!” he said when he saw me.

Arbalète.

Bien sur! Un arbalète! Oh il est beau.

Mourad fished every Tuesday with his friend Laurent on the west side of Monaco. They caught liche and tassergal, the kind of fish people mounted on their walls. He was familiar with the arbalète I had purchased, and he said that it was a speargun for going deep. Could I go that deep? I plan to, I said. Did I know where to go? The best place was the point past Coco Beach.

“I always see spearfishers there,” he said. “Dorades as long as my arm.”

I had scouted out a few places to start fishing near La Réserve restaurant. The beaches were tiny coves nestled among white and tan rocks. Stone stairs led down from several points along the boardwalk. Beach towels and sunbathers filled every moderately flat space.

I wanted to get to a pristine pebble beach that was accessible only by water. From there I could swim in the bay or over to the point that Mourad mentioned. I took the stairs down, navigated through the rocks, and then sloshed through the water holding my speargun and gear above my head like a Marine.

I laid out my beach mat and snorkel equipment. The cove secluded me from the crowds. For a moment, I had the impression that I was all alone: just the rocks, the sun, and the water lapping the shore.

I zipped my wetsuit up, spit in my goggles, put on my travel fins. I pushed off and a little water entered my suit from the back. Already the marine life and clarity were impressive. Off to the left, a small sea cave and a gigantic rock encrusted with coral and sea urchins promised fertile fishing.

But first I had to arm my spear.

At Nootica where I bought my speargun, I had stretched the elastic but hadn’t attached it. The guy just showed me where the clasp hooked into the teeth at the spear’s base. Now, I pulled the elastic with the speargun handle pressing into my thigh for support. I could stretch it only about halfway before the speargun slipped off my leg. I tried again and this time wound up submerging my head so my snorkel filled with water. How was I going to go spearfishing if I couldn’t even arm the thing?

I needed more leverage. This time I put the handle on my abdomen. I clenched my abs and pulled the elastic down, down. I was almost to the first rung, suddenly aware of the amount of tension I was about to release. If I didn’t get it to catch, the metal clasp in the middle of the elastic could slice off my bare fingers. Another inch and it clicked into place.

I pointed the speargun away from me. It was like a ticking time bomb. I was careful not to bump anything, to destabilize it and send the spear rocketing out.

My acrobatics in arming my spear had scared all the fish away. Now all I saw were rocks. Maybe the fish were all hiding? I took a deep breath and dove deep, descending 10, 15, now 20 feet. I pinched my nose and pushed out the air to equalize my ears. For weeks I’d been building the length of time I could hold my breath. Now I hoped that training would pay off. 

A couple labres flitted around the base of the rock. They were striped and colorful with purple, gold and green hues. They glided away from me like little submarines. Any effort to get closer sent them darting away, like I had just zapped them with electricity. After a couple of minutes I was out of breath. I kicked up to the surface.

This was going to be much harder than I thought. The fish seemed to intuit that I was a threat. I considered randomly discharging my spear into a school of saupe. There were about 50 or so, nipping at some vegetation. I heard anecdotes about saupe being hallucinogenic; markets sometimes refused to sell them for fear they’d send their customers on acid trips. During the Roman Empire, socialites would serve them for their orgies. But every angler I knew would take them. They had a strong flavor and a firm white flesh, perfect for a bouillabaisse or en papillote with olive oil and herbs.

I fired.

My spear flew into the rock and the fish scattered.

Nothing.

I pulled the spear up by the string and inspected the dented tip.

Whatever ethical quandaries I had been having, my actions had led me to do this thing: to catch a fish that we would take home to eat. I was on sabbatical, living on half salary, and the speargun was an expenditure I justified by the promise of the kilos of fish that it would bring. Every day I snorkeled next to the same fish I’d see lying on beds of ice at the market for prices beyond what we could afford. Now I had the basics to start—a spring suit, a mask and snorkel, a speargun—but I lacked gloves to protect my hands and a weight belt to compensate for my wetsuit-assisted buoyancy. I was an amateur who was hoping to luck out, to find a fish willing to give itself for our sustenance.

I decided to swim out farther, to the point that the butcher had mentioned. The sea floor receded until I could barely make out the beds of sea grass. Out in the open like this I felt small, a little like prey.

It gave me vertigo. The Bay of Angels where I usually snorkeled didn’t have such clarity and depth. Now white calanques appeared before me, plunging 15, 50, 100 feet to the sea floor. I was at the point. Small fish nipped at coral or seaweed coating the rocks. Farther down I could see a school of mulet and another of saupe. I wondered if this was where I would find those monstrous dorades the butcher hinted at, fish that could strip the flesh off my wiry frame in a couple of minutes if they had a mind to.

I practiced my breathing, filled up my lungs, and dove.

Nothing. My snorkel gurgled as the air siphoned through. I had armed my spear but the high visibility meant that the fish saw me, my shiny spear like a floodlight. I was going to need patience and stealth in more quantities than I possessed. I tried hiding as the rocks turned corners. But if I didn’t keep moving, kicking my flippers to send me lower, my air-filled lungs and wetsuit pulled me prematurely back to the surface. Fish flitted away, out of reach with every kick, every move, every glint of light.

I’d been out now for almost two hours. My thighs were starting to cramp. I was unable to stay submerged more than a few seconds. The whorls of my fingers had puckered like grapes.

One last dive. I aimed for a small shelf. I could wedge myself under it and get a fish coming around the corner. I bent at the waist and plunged headfirst. I kicked down and positioned my shoulder against the rock, using my buoyancy to keep me stable.

Then I waited. A few seconds, maybe ten. A roucaou finned its way toward me. I had read about the roucaou, poissons de roche the anglers called them: rock fish. They were plentiful and largely undesirable for anything but soup. This one was still out of range but it didn’t seem to see me as a threat. It came closer. Three feet, two. My lungs were on fire. Then it turned so it was transversal, almost like it wanted to give its body up to me.

I fired. The spear drove through the back of the dorsal fin. I pushed off from the rock and shot to the surface.

I pulled the string attached to my spear. The fish was still alive, and smaller than I expected. The depth and distance had distorted the size. Its stripes were green with flecks of purple and blue. The colorful ones are males, the peacock of the labre family, and its beauty filled me with regret. I could eat this fish no bigger than my hand, but I knew it would be bony, not large enough to develop the thick filets I craved. Plus, I had barely nicked its dorsal fin. I had completely missed the head. If I let it go, it would heal.

The roucaou still wriggled on my spear, trying to swim away. I wondered if I really had the temperament to do this thing. The complicity of buying fish at the market was so much easier. Spearing fish felt like losing my life force, like I’d somehow killed a part of myself.

I awkwardly grabbed the fish, the spines of its fins pricking my fingers. A couple strategic pushes and it slid off the spear, swimming vigorously back into the depths of the sea. 

ERIC FREEZE is associate professor of English at Wabash. He and his family spent his sabbatical living in France and now spend summers there, where dinner is often fish that Eric has caught. “First Catch” is from his memoir French Dive, which will be published by Slant Books later this year.