Fish for the Future

JOHN DORNELLAS

Hometown. Where from.

Merritt Island, FL

Years Diving.

Since I was nine or ten.

Diving background – when you started. What moved you to spearfish.

I started freediving by watching my aunt swim underwater laps in the pool. I began breath holding when I was a kid as she would watch me do dynamic apneas (although I had no idea that’s what they were called at the time). I started spearfishing on a trip to the Abacos as a kid. I three pronged a white margate and was hooked. White margate sashimi isn’t very good by the way.

Top 5 fish you’ve landed and the experience behind it.

#5 Generally speaking, I would put most bigeye bream (Mu) into this category simply because they’re such a challenge to shoot. I’ve shot plenty of wahoo and yellowfin tuna, big grouper, giant trevally, you name it, but there’s something insanely fun about hunting bream species. Every time I dive on Mu, it pushes my patience and aspetto diving. It’s always worth it in the end because they taste so dang good.
#4 My first wahoo. It was maybe 15-20 pounds and was in the middle of the ocean under a floating fifty gallon drum. We were sailing from the British Virgin Islands up to Bermuda on our trip across the Atlantic and were 1000 miles from land or so. We had no wind, so we were just sort of putting around. It was easy to see the drum so we veered course to check out the barrel. The wahoo was right there waiting for me when I got in. My buddy Darvil McBride was further from it, so I got to shoot it. Luckily I stoned it with my Euro 130 because I had no reel or float line. We ate well for the next few days. What made the experience so memorable was primarily our location. You can’t have better visibility than we had a thousand miles from land. The wind was virtually nonexistent, I was with good friends and was able to enjoy the fish on a sailboat in the middle of the Atlantic after filleting it on a teak deck.
#3 Hunting Striped Bass. I’ve been running a water sports program on Fisher’s Island, NY for over a decade. All year long I look forward to my summers hunting Stripers. My spots are usually running with 3-6 knots of current. The current combined with limited visibility, big boulders and lobster lines/steel leader lines everywhere creates a chaotic type of diving that would grow hair on the chest of a baby. Hitting the bottom, you have to tuck in the eddy behind big boulders on some occasions. Watching the water rush by as you sit in place, the fish flying in and out of visual distance, being schooled by a cyclone of 35 pound bass, waiting for that 50 pounder…it’s an experience to behold. Properly prepared striped bass is excellent table fare as well.
#2 Big Bahamas Black grouper. I was spearfishing with a young heavy-hitter, Logan Stern. He put a solid shot on a black grouper that holed up badly. We worked so hard for over two hours together to get the fish on the boat. When it finally came out it was scarred up and battered, but we got it! Teamwork and some serious tenacity paid off big time. There’s an article in Hawaii Skin Diver Magazine about this one.

#1 Dogtooth tuna. I was in Fiji for the third time and had previously experienced no luck hunting doggies. I’d shot plenty, but they had all been eaten by sharks. My luck changed the last trip I was there when we were diving with Jaga at Freedive Fiji. I landed several smaller ones, but had issues with the big suckers. Mike Jutt was visiting me and my wife in Fiji and was able to land a 100 pounder. He was there when I lost one well over 200lbs without breaking any gear. It held down my floats for over an hour before tearing off or getting eaten. I was pretty down about it, and was crossing fingers that I would leave Fiji with a big one in the bag. Sure enough, a couple of weeks later, my wife and I went out to sea on a stormy day and after a slow start to our diving day we came home with a 106lb fish. I had a guy in the water with me who was new to spearing and was thrilled beyond belief to see the whole event go down, saying it was the coolest thing he’d ever seen. My wife was right there watching from the boat, hearing my victory yells and watching as the wind died, the sun came out and the day became as perfect as could be asked for. Having her there with me was the best part of the whole experience, especially since she was pregnant with our child. Everything came together perfectly that day. There’s also an article about this experience in Hawaii Skin Diver magazine.

Biggest fish you’ve seen and haven’t been able to land or most impressive fish you’ve seen in the water.

I was teaching a F.I.I. freediving class in Fiji a few years back. The students were breathing up, getting ready for their max depth when I startled everyone with the scream, “MARLIN!!!!” The fish had just come into view for a few moments and was near the boat. The visibility was perfect, so judging it’s size was based purely on the fact that that I was comparing it to our boat length. It was nearly the length of our 18′ boat and must have been pushing 1000 pounds or more. It was old and gray, almost white with age, it’s stripes faded. Even if I had had a gun in the water, I don’t know if I would have shot it. It was monstrous.

Favorite place to dive. Why. Describe one memorable hunt.

My favorite place to dive? Sheesh, that’s a hard one. Maybe Fiji? Yeah I guess if I had to choose it would be Fiji simply because I can hunt so many species in depths ranging from five to well over a hundred feet deep. Plus they have doggies. Big doggies if you know where to hunt. I’m already planning my next dogtooth trip there.

Favorite fish to hunt. Why.

I’ll give you one guess. It starts with a “D” and ends with “ogtooth tuna”.

Scariest thing you’ve seen while diving.

I had a fin bitten badly by a shark one time. That was pretty gnarly. On another occasion I passed my Riffe Bluewater Elite, fully loaded with five bands to a less-experienced diver without the safety engaged. That was a bad idea. I was going to take his euro gun to hunt for rainbow runner, thus creating some commotion on the reef to bring in larger predatory species. I just needed him to hold my gun while I was down. Within two seconds of trading guns, and as I looked the other way, I heard a loud “BANG!” and felt my right leg feel heavy. I looked down to see a .50 caliber hole through my carbon fins and coated cable running through it. Somehow the diver had pulled the trigger and almost sent an 11/32 shaft through my femur. That got my blood moving but I was so happy we were both ok. There’s a lot of other stories that scared me badly, but I’ll leave it there for now.

What’s the most rewarding part of spearfishing for you.

This is also a tough one. The clarity of thought, peace under water, general ability to leave the world behind while I’m holding my breath and at depth or feeling part of the underwater environment are all incredible. So is bringing home fish for my family and friends.
In the end though, I would say the most rewarding part of the sport is being able to teach freediving and spearfishing to others in official courses or in guiding trips virtually anywhere on the globe. Instruction of one kind or another has always been for me the gift that keeps on giving. It’s why I’ve put so much time into the spearfishing course F.I.I. has coming out. I want to see people caring more about their own safety, that of their buddy and the future of spearfishing. The next generation can and will be the best generation of spearfishermen and women ever. Working with a legend like Martin Stepanek and getting to be so hands on with the future of the sport has already been incredibly rewarding. I’m guessing we are just scratching the surface.

Favorite gun.

Riffe Euro 130, two 5/8 bands and a double flopper 19/64 shaft rigged with a reel. You can bring home almost any fish in the ocean with that gun.