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By Steve Waters

The last day of Florida’s lobster season was March 31 and it doesn’t reopen until the lobster mini-season at the end of July. The seasons for grouper and hogfish don’t open until May 1. So, what’s an underwater hunter to do in April?

Spearfishing expert Jim “Chiefy” Mathie sets his sights on a great-tasting exotic fish.

“There’s really not a lot of species to go after because of the lack of opportunity for lobster, hogfish and grouper,” said Mathie, a retired Deerfield Beach fire chief. “So, we target lionfish.”

Native to the South Pacific Ocean, lionfish were first discovered off South Florida in the mid-1980s. The belief is that the lionfish were someone’s pets and when the fish outgrew their aquarium, the owner dumped them in the ocean. From there, the invasive lionfish have spread throughout the Caribbean, into the Gulf of Mexico, down to South America and up the Atlantic coast to North Carolina.

The fish have no natural predators in those waters, which means bigger reef fish such as grouper don’t realize they can eat them. Lionfish feast on tiny grouper, snapper, shellfish and other native species. Left unchecked, lionfish can take over a reef.

Although lionfish are here to stay — researchers in submarines have documented lionfish in 1,000 feet of water off South Florida — divers with pole spears and spear guns help reduce the lionfish population.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is doing its part to combat the lionfish invasion by having no size or bag limits and no closed season. The agency has an informative web page at https://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/lionfish.

Mathie — who has written lobstering and spearfishing books Catching the BUG and Catching the Spear-it!, which are available at local dive shops and online — said spearfishers keep lionfish populations under control on coral reefs in 35-45 feet of water.

“We do a very good job of harvesting lionfish in the shallow waters, just because it gets a lot of pressure from divers,” he said.

Deeper reefs tend to have more and bigger lionfish, so that’s where Mathie and his dive buddies hunt.

“We change our tactics in April to head out into roughly the 80- to 100-foot depth. We call that the third reef or the east side of the third reef,” said Mathie, who does much of his diving out of Boca Raton Inlet. “It also gives us an opportunity to check out what’s going on out there, because lionfish and lobster like the same terrain. So those are areas we can go back to for lobster.”

Lionfish are an ideal species for divers new to spearfishing because, as Mathie noted, they don’t swim around a lot, so they’re easy to shoot, especially compared with grouper and hogfish, which are the ultimate species for the majority of underwater hunters.

Given their small size — the state-record lionfish speared in the Atlantic Ocean was 18.78 inches off Islamorada, and an 18.7-inch, 3.77-pounder shot off Destin is the Gulf of Mexico state record — lionfish don’t require the use of big spear guns. Mathie and his crew use 3- to 4-foot hand-held pole spears with three- or five-prong tips, which prevent a fish from spinning after it is speared.

Lionfish have 18 venomous spines, 13 on the top and five on the bottom, so care must be taken when handling them. Getting stung by a spine can cause intense pain. The pectoral fins, which are not venomous, give the fish its name because when they’re fanned out, they look like a lion’s mane.

Charley Schram of Coconut Creek said the reaction to lionfish venom can range from mild to deadly.

“For people who are heavily affected, they literally wish they could cut their finger or their arm off,” he said, adding that the pain can last a few minutes or hours, up to a few days. “It is excruciating for some people.”

During lobster season, Schram and Mathie use trauma shears to cut off a lionfish’s spines underwater. In April, they use a Zookeeper to hold untrimmed lionfish. The cylindrical, hard-sided container, which keeps lionfish spines from accidentally touching your body as you swim, is sold online and at local dive stores.

Besides helping native reef species, divers who shoot lionfish provide their friends and families with healthy, delicious meals. As Schram said, “If you like mutton snapper, if you like hogfish, if you like dolphin, you’re going to love lionfish. It’s sky-high in omega 3 fatty acids with very little mercury content.”

A Louisiana native who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Schram loves blackened lionfish, but the species also is delicious served fried, sautéed, grilled or in ceviche.

“They’re excellent eating,” Mathie said. “They have a pure white fillet, no bloodline, a flaky texture, and almost a sweet taste. You can sear them in olive oil with salt and pepper and eat it right out of the pan, it’s that good.” And that alone is a good enough reason to keep diving this month instead of waiting until May.

12420168660?profile=RESIZE_710xCapt. Cliff Albertson (right) and First Mate Ken Walczak from Briny Breezes hooked into a 45-pound wahoo off the coast of Briny around 10 a.m. March 7. After a lengthy fight, they were able to land it ... and a fish fry ensued.
Photo provided

Outdoors writer Steve Waters can be reached at steve33324@aol.com.

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