Saturday, February 20, 2016

Ascension & the Birth of The MAMBA Speargun


WORDS BY STEVE ELLIS founder of MAMBA SpeargunsAscension Island Spearfishing Trips 

I was almost speechless, seeing that crystal sparkling blue water and white sand shining below. I looked straight down from the pier head and saw hundreds of Black Triggerfish with the odd Black Jack swimming through them.
USM Article on Spearfishing Ascension

Our group had just arrived, made up of guys from KZN in South Africa. Tony Doult (An ex navy diver), Miles Stead and Piet Du Toit (who both farm in Middleburg). Karl Maingard (local entrepreneur) and myself. I have known Colin Chester, (owner of the spearfishing charter in Ascension) a small island in the middle of the Atlantic, for some years. The stories and pictures of crystal clean water and massive Yellowfin Tuna eventually got us to commit to a trip last year. With almost 5 months ahead of us, we started planning. Tony was on the ball with organising the frozen sardines for chumming and the loads of gear that went ahead on the RMS St Helena and he applied for the permit visas that the RAF require. Karl got the medical supplies, and some Race food mini-bars, a type of nougat made by Wedgewood for mountain bikers, spearos etc, which were excellent on the boat. Miles and Piet handled all the air tickets. I arranged all the spears and new Mamba guns.

Visitors that get permit visas for Ascension Island, or “The Rock” as the locals call it, are screened by MI5 to make sure there are no dodgy characters. It’s a military refuelling base for the RAF halfway to the Falklands, and a US space shuttle emergency landing strip and refuel ops base for the US military, so it’s an extra long runway. The French Arianne space program has facilities to track their satellites and NASA tested their Moon rover years ago on the old lava flows and very rough terrain.

Getting to the Rock is an adventure in its own. You can only get there via Brize Norten RAF base in Oxford UK on a military charter plane (Airbus 320). If you’re flying from South Africa and landing at Heathrow early in the morning, arrange a taxi to Oxford. The RAF plane only leaves at 11 o’clock that night, and you have to be there 4hrs in advance. Being a military flight there is a dress code. You won’t be allowed on the plane in board shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops. So arrive looking presentable.

There are two flights a week to the Rock and Falklands and the Marines are back and forth. About 10/15 seats are available for civilians. The flight is about nine hours long and you get to Ascension at about 06:30am. The first thing Colin did was to take us to the pier head to show us the visibility and this is where it all began.
Ascension island diving
Not many places in the world have water like this.

Our group was staying with Colin and we got all the gear unpacked and settled in at his house. Colin suggested a shore dive to start. Karl and myself had very little sleep on the plane, so we thought a shore dive would be a great cure for jet lag. We drove to a point that had no surf, you just leopard crawled out, over these flat smooth rocks. Visibility was 50 metres, and there are Rock Cod all over the place, called a Rock Hind. The water temperature was about 26/27 degrees Celsius, so a rash vest and board shorts were fine to shore dive in. On the boat, you need a 3mm suit, as you get wind chill and the wind is strong on most days.
We were told that the Black Triggerfish are like Piranhas. At the pier head where all the fish cleaning takes place, the carcasses are thrown into the water and it just erupts into a feeding frenzy as they strip them clean. When you’re spearing, you have a shoal of Black Triggers, like a cloud around your float, eating the fish on your stringer. They even beach themselves in the shore break when you’re getting out.

The next day, Colin had errands to run, so Craig (one of the guys who helps with the Marlin charters) was our skipper for the day. He suggested we head West of the island, to the Golfball were they have good results on Wahoo and big Tuna in about 50 metres. As we got in, Craig immediately started getting a chum trail going. Visibility here was easily 50/60 metres. About 10 minutes in, a Wahoo swam up the chum line and I dived in straight away, lined up, fired, hit it mid body at about a 5 metre range and had it on the boat in about 15 minutes. I was stoked!

Ascension Wahoo shot with Mamba's
It was the first shot at a fish with the new Mamba gun and it had struck its first victim. Later that day, my second shot was another Wahoo of about 25kg. Karl, not to be outdone, also ended up with two good size Wahoo’s of 25 kgs each. Four shots and four Wahoo gave us lots of confidence with the new Mamba guns and the range they have. On weighing my 1st Wahoo it was 27.2 kg and later Craig turned it into a delicious curry.

Mamba Spearguns
Custom Mamba Spearguns Ondeck 
We knew on a trip like this that standard guns would not cut it in that super clean visibility. I decided to make up some long, stronger carbon barrels, of 1 to 5 metres, winged on the sides, tapering from narrow in the front to wider at the rear of the barrel. You need the extra volume and weight in the water to help stop the recoil and muzzle lift of long guns. To get range and penetration you need a minimum of two rubbers. With the 2x14mm rubbers and no shooting line, the gun shot the spear to a distance of 18 metres in the pool tests. Chris Coates of USM filmed slow motion footage, so we could analyse the recoil etc. Chris and Karl helped me out in the pool testing, with lots of target shooting to determine the accuracy, we could hit an area the size of a small cereal box at almost 7 metres. I managed to finish the last 5th gun two weeks before we left, so now each of us had a Mamba barrel with Rob Allen components. I called it the Mamba, because with the carbon fibre weave finish, it looked like a Black Mamba skin and it certainly struck like one, and being African built it was an apt name for the tasks ahead. .... and so the Mamba Speargun was born.
 
On Friday, we tried to repeat the previous day’s catch. Visibility was about 40/50 metres, with a hazy and overcast sky. We spotted the odd big Yellowfin Tuna a couple times, sometimes two together, but never going in the same direction. We were never down or in the right position and did not get close to any Wahoos that day. There were Black Kingfish around us, but in that environment it was big fish or nothing.

Saturday was Ascension Day on the Rock, which was also a public holiday and the official raising of the Island’s newly designed flag in the Georgetown Square. A whole day was planned with a festive atmosphere and all the locals were in full force. We spent a couple hours there, and with still no wind the flat oily ocean was calling. Colin and Craig were needed to help out with the day’s festivities. So Karl and myself took the Power Cat and went to Groupers. It takes 5 minutes to get there and it’s about 25 metres deep, with big boulders and ledges with caves, spread out over the brilliant white sand. Insane visibility again, maybe better than 50/60 metres. A shoal of about 100 big Horse Eye Kingfish circle you for about 10 minutes before they move off. Giant 25kg Barracudas stare at you with their large mechanical eyes.
The Crystal Clear Water of Ascesion Island

I manned the boat first, hanging onto the side taking pictures of the fish. A giant Yellowfin Tuna slowly swam up to me on the surface. I could have placed a shot anywhere, but I had no gun in my hand, only the camera. As he turned and swam away, I managed to get a picture of him. Karl had also seen the same fish, but was too far away for a shot. We now knew those big fish were lurking in the shallows. The reef had loads of Black Triggerfish, which are the staple diet of Tuna and Wahoo. We saw some Wahoo over the sand after the reef, keeping their distance. When we were back at Colin’s place going through the pictures, he told us that was a big Yellowfin Tuna that easily weighed over 100kg, with the long pectoral fin going back almost to its tail. But, the top pectoral fin was unusually short…

On Sunday morning Colin and myself were up early to meet Tony, Piet and Miles at the hotel Obsidian. A Hemmingway’s style place, with loads of fish pictures on the walls and a very laid back vibe. They were staying in the outside hotel rooms. The average temperature was about 32/34 degrees Celsius in the day, so air conditioned rooms at night were a pleasure. Once they were settled in, we took them to the pier head to see the incredible visibility, then to Colin’s house to check their gear that the RMS St Helena had delivered a few weeks previously. Colin suggested a shore dive, so the five of us drove to Panam point where the Americans had a roofed camp. It’s situated on a rocky point where you can normally jump in, but there was quite a surge with the swell that was pushing through and we swam off the beach to the West. Once in, it was warm, crystal clear and full of the local Rock Cod. Just being in that water was such a pleasure. Tony had a Gopro mounted on his gun and shot some awesome footage. Everyone shot Rock Cod and we saw small Amberjack, but no big stuff. Just Black Jacks and no crayfish. The guys couldn’t believe how the Black Triggers beach themselves, following you out.
accommodation george town ascension island
George Town Ascension Island
On Monday, the guys were at Colin’s house early after a good sleep. We got busy setting up our Mamba guns with the 2x14mm rubbers and the double wrap dyneema for the extra range needed. There were three guys with Craig on the Power Cat and Colin, Karl and myself on the semi rigid. Both boats could go in different directions to find the fish, and it helped many times being able to cover more ground. Tony, Piet and Miles came back raving about the visibility, having shot Wahoos and Piet put a spear into a huge Tuna that took off like an express train, snapping the 200kg Dyneema shooting line!

Colin told us when we were assembling the Mamba guns what the best local set-up was:
A) 30- metre RA Wahoo bungy
B) 35- litre RA Remora inflatable float.
C) No breakaway, shooting line connected to the gun.
D) Fixed barb on the spear, no drop heads, basic, basic.

They have lost plenty of rigs here.

Piet was using a 10mm shock cord that was connected to a boogie board on a cleat pulling system a third back of the board. Great if you’re using a big wooden gun, with a 2,5mm shooting line, an 8mm spear, and a drop head with 3mm stainless cable. The board puts tremendous pressure on your gear tiring the fish out. That definitely works in Cape Town. It would work in Ascension too. You need practice shooting with that type of big gun set up. With us being there for less than two weeks, we did not have the time to spare. The Mamba guns are just a longer version of what we use.

Twenty minutes after Piet lost his spear to the huge Tuna, it was back in the chum line again like nothing was wrong. It still had Piet’s spear in it, mid-body sticking out either side. Miles managed to get another spear into the same fish, and it roared off again, past Tony who saw two spears in it, unfortunately Miles’ spear got torn off too. Whilst he was frantically reloading, it was still hanging around, slowly circling below his fins. Finally reloaded, he started diving down as it was spiralling into the deep. Eventually out of range and sight, was a giant. The same size we saw on the first couple of days, around 120/130kg.
Tuesday, was our boats turn in the same area. Colin was chumming up a storm and we could see small Tuna coming up the chum line. I was down when a good fish swam up to me, eating the chum and when the time was right I fired, getting a good mid body shot. I could see the spear easily on the other side when he took off at speed, bending it backwards like a loaded bow. What a strong fish! I had that fish in my hands 3 times and he just took off again to the bottom. The fourth time I had it in my hands properly, I managed to slip one hand into its gills and it went crazy. The tail gave me a smack on my arm that I felt for days. I was stoked the Mamba had struck again. It was a great feeling of achievement for me with a gun that I had built, tested and was using. It was my biggest fish landed, a 60kg Yellowfin Tuna. This is what we had come to spear and I had landed the first Wahoo and now, the first Tuna with the Mamba gun. I was ecstatic!

Karl and Colin each landed a Wahoo. Colin used my Mamba gun and was impressed, as he had taken a very long shot and already wanted us to leave the Mamba guns behind with him. The other guys with Craig all got Wahoos, so it was a great day in the ocean.

On Wednesday, we started off at the Golfball area where we didn’t have much luck and then we heard that Miles had landed a 50/60 kg Tuna and was seeing more. Colin made the decision to head to their area, where we got onto the line the other guys were on. I saw some Tuna deep down, but we couldn’t get them close onto the chum line. After trying that area for several hours we went inshore and speared some Rock Cod and Moray Eels, which was harder than it seemed. For every two Morays you shoot, you only land one as they wind themselves off the spear. They were needed for a local Charity braai and regarded as a delicacy.

On Thursday, Colin was planning to take us on Harmattan, his Marlin boat to Boatswain Island that was about 45 minutes around the front of the main island. In the lee of that island there is a calm area, where they see lots of big Tuna that feed on the Black Triggerfish. The morning arrived and so did the wind, blowing stronger than ever and getting there was really bumpy even in a 38ft Rampage sport fisher. It took over an hour and a half, but the scenery was spectacular. It was like something out of Jurassic Park where you almost expect a dinosaur to make an appearance. There were black lava flow ledges, big cliffs going straight down into the sea and no sand beaches, just flat areas full of boulders.

At the island’s leeside, Colin skillfully maneuvered Harmattan onto a mooring buoy. What a fantastic place this was, calm with super clean visibility and all the usual suspects in full force. Black Jacks, Horse Eye Kingfish, masses of Black and deep-sea Silver Triggers, a good feeding area for the Tuna. It wasn’t long until Tony saw the Black Triggers suddenly bolt for the bottom and a big Tuna glided into view. He managed to get a spear into the fish and it took off towing the boogie board and stretching his shock cord. Colin, up in Harmattans Tuna tower, saw the board get pulled under a couple times, but the spear did not hold so another big fish was lost. 2-0 to the big Tuna.

Colin decided to head back home, stopping on some of his marks. The next place was also pretty deep at 50 metres. We saw shoals of Rainbow Runners that weighed around 5kg. Even with them hanging off the spear to try and attract some bigger fish, there were still no takers. Determined, we tried another spot. But still, no Wahoo or Tuna…

That same night, we were all invited to dinner at the Governors residence on Green Mountain. About ten of us went on a small bus, driving high into the mountains, about 5 km out of Georgetown. The road goes back and fourth like the Alps, with the bus stalling many times because of the tight turns. Once we arrived, the views from the front lawns of the Residence were spectacular. It was still just about light and the whole of Georgetown was in our view, with the sunrise in the distance.
How to get to Ascension
Some of the views at Ascesion are just surreal.

Friday morning arrived with a late start and a couple of thick heads after the evening we had. Diving close by was the call for today. We only had two days left of our trip, so we decided to start at Groupers and then drift out to the deeper marks in the offshore wind and get a good chum line going. Both boats drifted together and we were so close, almost in a line. I was next to Tony on his right side, having just drifted off the reef onto a sandy, pebble shale area, when this giant Tuna swam up to us on the surface. Tony was closer than me and took a early shot, unfortunately his spear pulled up 1 metre short. He thought he was in range, but it was a huge Tuna further away. The super clean visibility really messes up your distance perception.

As we all drifted out, the two boats got further apart and the offshore wind was pushing the semi rigid faster. We still had loads of Sardines, so the chumming was turned up a notch. Eventually we started seeing some small Tuna eating the chum, maybe 5kg -10kg in size. Karl managed to land another Wahoo that appeared at the same time. I speared one of the slightly larger Tuna that came into my range very fast and I fired as he went past, getting the spear in mid body and facing back, I horsed him in not giving him much line and had him on the boat in about 10 minutes. He was about 25 kg and I still had a straight spear. Back home I would have nursed him carefully, but here with the giants, that’s a small one. Colin gave Craig (who was on the Power Cat) a call and they had some Wahoo on board. Tony had two and Piet had a 50/60kg Tuna after a hard fight.

We went night fishing on Harmattan one late afternoon, to fish for Tuna. Colin had a buoy 4 km offshore anchored in about 90/95 metres deep, which he calls Tuna.com. We tied up on it and started chumming straight away and put out some drift baits on short rods with Shimano Stella’s. Tony and Craig were fishing on the bottom and were catching Bulls Eyes, a type of redfish about 2kg in weight with very large eyes. The night was quiet with no Tuna around. Only their 3rd miss since they had been fishing Tuna.com. A week earlier, Karl and myself had been out there with Colin and some UK clients where it had been action almost immediately, they landed 3 fish of 45/65 kg on light tackle.

On Saturday, Craig went off to get ice and Sardines for another day, while we got all the gear ready. It was a relatively quiet day. We were still seeing Tuna, but far down and out of range. They were not coming up to the chum line much. Karl and Colin managed to get a Wahoo each and I missed one. Tony got a 50/60kg Tuna on the Power Cat with Piet and Miles, a Wahoo and some Kingys between them. We went into the inside of Groupers were there are some big old chassis and wheels on the white sand, where I managed to spear a 12 kg Amberjack.

On Sunday, we had a dive on the end of the Fuel transfer buoy with lots of small Amberjacks of about 4/5 kg there. I was diving with my reel gun and was trying for Dorados that frequent the buoy. Pulling myself down the mooring chain to a flat reef on the bottom, I spotted some debris, which looked like bits of a plate, bottles, etc. One piece was Blue Willow pattern china and an old ceramic jar in perfect condition. I left behind an old Coca Cola bottle with raised writing that Colin later mentioned was quite rare. Back in the days of the sailing ships, lots of vessels moored here getting water and supplies and probably chucked all their rubbish overboard, so there is lots of stuff on the bottom. After doing some research on the Internet about the ceramic jar, I discovered it’s over 100 yrs old and worth approx 100 US dollars for one in good condition. A local Saints scuba diver has found complete Blue Willow pattern china teapots. It looked about 12/15 metres deep, but on the Aeris free dive watch I was using, it was 19.2 metres, and spending loads of time on the bottom, we were all diving pretty deep and with long bottom times towards the end of the trip. A good free dive watch is essential when diving out in the deep on the chum line, you want to hover at about 10 metres near the chum while waiting for the Tuna to appear.

Another Yellowfin Landed
Monday was our last day on the island and we went for a really short morning dive, as we had lots of packing to do. We headed straight to the deep marks of Groupers and kitted up. Karl was first in, I was in soon afterwards and started loading up when a lone Wahoo appeared out of the gloom heading for the flashers. Karl dived and let off a long shot, spooking the fish, but it kept on going. Colin was swimming around the boat and getting the Sardines spread out, while some small Tuna were eating the chum way down. We wouldn’t have to wait long with all those Sardines. The smaller Tuna were near the surface with a larger Tuna deep down. Karl decided to dive on him (he had not shot and landed a Tuna yet, so being the last day this was his final chance.) He went past the chum to about 20 metres and then fired. It was a big fish and Karl had taken a  long shot in deep water. It pulled the 30 metre bungy to max immediately. I clipped my 30 metre bungy onto Karl’s 30 metre bungy to give the fish more stretch. It took all the bungys stretching them to about 3mm in diameter. We got Karl’s weight belt off and onto the boat. He was lying over the RA remora 35-litre float with it underneath him and getting towed. I could not keep up and Colin dropped me twice. Eventually I was also holding onto the line that Karl was retrieving and getting towed behind him. Slowly he got the line in and lost it all again. This was a big fish!

After almost two hours, we could see the fish deep down and another 15 minutes later, it was close enough for me to dive on it and fire another shot. Karl’s spear’s barb was right on the skin and he had shot it near the tail. I put a killing holding shot into the fish and it was finished. You could not hold that fish up, the dead weight of it pulled you down. What an epic fight!

Miles had also shot and landed a Tuna of 50/60 kg, and had a close call getting tangled in the line, but luckily the other guys freed him. Tony had seen a small Dorado deep down, chased and speared it and it turned out to be 15kg. The other boat was now right next to us and we got some pictures. We had landed a giant Yellowfin Tuna. At the weigh-in, Karl’s Tuna topped the scales at 125kg that’s the 3rd largest Tuna landed on Ascension.
Now rewind 8 days to last Saturday, when that Tuna of approx 100kg plus swam up to me with that short top pec fin, this fish had the same short top pec fin, less than 1km from where I took that picture and it was probably the same fish. What a strange coincidence!

I would like to thank Colin and Craig for all their hospitality, and getting us on the fish. And to Miles, Piet, Tony and Karl for the opportunity to be on the trip, thank you very much.
Karl with the fish of the trip and his MAMBA Speargun

To sum it up, it was a hardcore spearing trip. You will need to plan yours well in advance. Make sure you have good long-range guns, Rob Allen equipment, all the usual gear with spare spears, thin wetsuits, rash suits, etc. You need to organise frozen sardines from South Africa and Race food energy bars. Logistically, it’s very far away with all the long connecting flights, so you will need lots of time.    

We were so lucky to get Tuna. But the more we practice, the luckier we get.

Giant Yellowfin is what we all dream about.



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