ANTIGUA, WEST INDIES — The other day as Louie the Boat Driver and I eased out of English Harbor on this island we rigged two stout lines off the stern and pointed the bow into the Trade Winds.
The trades blow from the northeast unrelentingly and our 27 foot open boat climbed atop cascading rollers before falling off their backsides precipitously.
To port we trolled a squid-type bait and to starboard a hard bait. Each ran at or near the surface and trailed our boat one or two large waves back.
We were the only fishing boat in sight. But not the only fishermen.
Up the coast, Thieu Henry, 26, and Bernard Lewis were just then shuffling slowly backward into the Atlantic Ocean. The men wore giant swim fins and after they had walked backward far enough and when the water was deep enough they dissolved into it.
Then they turned and began swimming.
The men wore face masks and each carried a spear gun.
At age 47, Bernard Lewis has spear fished for 30 years and hopes to make it another five or six years. He needs the money spear fishing brings him — maybe $60 U.S. on good days — but spear fishing is very demanding physically and he is unsure how long he can last.
He is reminded of this now as he and Thieu Henry swim in the aquamarine water that rings Antigua, over the estuaries where many smaller fish reproduce, toward York Island.
When they reach York Island they swim to its windward side and spend the next five or six hours diving there.
No boats. No life jackets. No wet suits.
“We fish in 30 feet of water, mostly,’’ Bernard Lewis says. “The fish are all near the bottom. We dive to the bottom, swim until we find fish, and shoot.’’
Each man swims with a wire attached to him, and when a fish is killed, it is strung through the wire toward its end. A cork float on the surface marks the end of the wire, and the wire, the fish and the float follow each man throughout the day.
“The problem,’’ said Louie the Boat Driver, explaining the difficulties of spear fishing, “is that the more fish a spear fisherman kills and puts on the wire, the bigger an attraction he is to sharks.’’
Hour after hour, the men dive, looking for fish. The spear guns are spring loaded and the spears themselves are tethered to the guns so they can be used repeatedly.
Some spear fishermen on Antigua dive as deep as 70 feet for fish, and can stay under water for more than two minutes.
“The more you practice, the longer you can stay under water,’’ Bernard Lewis said.
Usually the fish the men shoot are not big. Some are only the size of large crappies. Others are twice that big and more.
“We can only shoot six or seven feet, so we have to be pretty close to the fish,’’ Thieu Henry said.
“Some fish get scared away as we approach, others don’t,’’ Bernard Lewis said.
Many fish the men kill are remindful of aquarium fish. Wildly colored, they are poked one by one onto the men’s wires and trail behind them on the surface.
Louie the Boat Driver and I missed the first fish that hit.
That fish smacked the squid bait and somehow jumped the hook.
Our next fish hit on the other side and when it did Louie the Boat Driver killed the outboards. Without the engines our open boat lacked purchase and we were cast about in the rough seas. We braced our feet and knees along the boat’s gunnels as the boat tumbled. Louie the Boat Driver reeled in the other line and as he did I struggled with the bending rod while line tore from its reel.
Then the rod went slack.
Whatever the fish was broke a 5-inch hook completely off the hard bait.
We headed in.
So did Thieu Henry and Bernard Lewis, swimming through waves, 35 pounds of colorful fish trailing behind.
“We saw only one shark today, a lemon shark,’’ Bernard Lewis said. “The bad part is it’s jelly fish season, and we get stung all over our bodies, all day.’’