John Tolmie – Art, and the Subaquatic Sharp Shooter
By Caryn B. Davis / Photos courtesy John Tolmie
John Tolmie caught his first fish using a rod and reel when he was just six years old. But that experience wasn’t the one that got him hooked on fishing. It was the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, a television program he watched religiously every Sunday night.
“I just wanted to do what he did: To be underwater and become a diver. That dream followed me until I was an adult; and in 1990 I joined the military and became a Navy diver,” says Tolmie.
While enlisted, Tolmie worked as a salvage diver and trained mariners how to safely get out of a submarine alive in the event of a sinking. He also assisted
Navy SEALs with Underwater Ship Husbandry (UWSH), maintaining and repairing their waterborne vessels. During his stint in the service, Tolmie met a gentleman by the name of Ulysses “Lucky” Marrerro who was originally from the Dominican Republic. Marrerro’s father was a spear fisherman and was able to feed his entire family with fish he caught. This was a skill he passed on to his son.
“Lucky went out one day with a spear gun and came back with a fish. When he told me he had shot it using a spear gun, I asked him to teach me. That was 1992,” recalls Tolmie, who immediately went out and purchased what would be the first of many spear guns.
Tolmie made his first dive outfitted in full SCUBA apparatus, unaware that the bubbles generated by the equipment were scaring away the fish. Once he figured that out he traded in his SCUBA paraphernalia for a mask, fins, and a snorkel, and instead, started free diving in 10-20 feet of water. As he became more practiced in the sport, and his ability to hold his breath for longer periods improved, he was able to dive deeper and deeper.
“When I ditched the SCUBA gear, my bottom time became a lot less. It’s sixty to ninety seconds, tops,” says Tolmie. “But what I have found over the years was after training myself how to slow my heart rate down and calm my body, I could hit 40-60 feet in the same minute.”
There really is a fine art when it comes to catching a fish with a spear gun. Tolmie’s method is to descend fifty to sixty feet and then lie quietly on the bottom trying his best to emulate a piece of flotsam and jetsam instead of a living being. Because the fish are naturally curious, they inevitability approach him. (The smaller fish come in closer while the larger ones tend to be more cautious). After ten seconds of lying perfectly still on the ocean floor, Tolmie very slowly raises his head to see where the fish are, but more importantly, which one will become his next meal.
“The fish see something coming to the bottom, and they want to know what you are. I am not aggressively coming after them so they start to school around me. As I progress, I can coax them into coming in closer. The challenge is to get the bigger fish,” Tolmie says. “It’s a real temptation when lying on the bottom to want to start looking around. But if the big fish sees that, he’s gone.”
Tolmie uses four-foot long fins to help propel him to the bottom rapidly. He also wears a weight belt and a neoprene wet suit. Once the bubbles inside the wet suit collapse from the water pressure, it no longer holds him buoyant. That, coupled with belt, enables him to sink to the bottom quickly. He can descend to sixty feet in about 5-10 seconds. When you are only able to hold your breath for a minute to a minute and a half and have to locate and spear a decent sized fish within that time frame, every second counts.
“The weight, the fins, and the crushing of the wet suit help get me to the bottom fast. And that’s the whole idea. To get to the bottom as fast as you can,” he says.
In most New England states, spear fishing in not permitted in fresh water for fear of depleting the resident fish population before it has a chance to replenish itself; so Tolmie hunts in salt water for striped bass, black drum, mahi-mahi, scup, flounder, fluke, tautog, eel, and trigger fish.
“In salt water there is a vaster area with so much more fish. We get different types of species different times of the year. The nice thing about spear fishing in the ocean is I can be very selective with the fish I want to catch,” Tolmie says.
Although he has dived in South Carolina, Florida and Connecticut, he prefers Rhode Island because the open ocean is a lot cleaner than Long Island Sound. Additionally, the Ocean State is more spear fishermen friendly as opposed to Connecticut where spear fishing for striped bass, for example, is outlawed. Tolmie and others have lobbied to have that law revoked in both Connecticut and Massachusetts. They believe the way in which they harvest the fish by putting themselves on the line going down to the bottom of sea and feeding their families with what they catch, entitles them to the same rights the rod and reel fishermen have.
“Spear fishing is a great sport. One I have total respect for. But we are looked down upon by hook and line guys because they don’t like the idea of us shooting fish. But we choose our fish and only take one or two at a time. We don’t catch 30-40 fish and release them. That can cause some of those fish to get sick and die from exhaustion and stress,” Tolmie says.
Tolmie eats all the fish he catches; but if it’s an especially large fish or beautiful fish, he and his wife Kate will create a piece of art from it first. Using an old printing technique from the 1800s that originated in Japan called Gyotaku (fish rubbing), they cover the fish with ink, place rice paper on top of it, and rub the fish so the ink adheres to the paper and produces a mirror image of the fish. In Japan, fishermen used the rubbing as a way to sell the fish. In the market, the print was hung above the fillet and contained information about where the fish was caught, its weight, and length. Eventually, these fish prints became a celebrated art form.
Tolmie can carry everything he needs for a day of spear fishing on his kayak including his handmade wooden spear guns, drinking water, foul weather gear, emergency supplies, a cell phone with a GPS in case fog so he find his way back to shore, a life jacket, and a whistle. The kayak provides mobility because he can load it onto his truck and basically launch it anywhere.
Connecticut has a very small spear fishing population of about 100 people, but many participate in local, regional, and national tournaments including Tolmie. Recently, he attended a spear fishing tournament in Sakonnet, Rhode Island, and won first place with a 34-inch striped bass that took him 30 dives to retrieve.
“When everyone was kayaking back in, I saw these guys pole fishing off the breakwater and decided to dive the wall. They call me the “diving tractor” because I don’t stay on the bottom long. I go down. I come up. I get a lot more dives in that way than somebody who goes down and holds their breath for a minute and a half. Because of that I was able to win the tournament by harvesting two bass,” says Tolmie.
Tolmie likes to see young people entering into the sport, and feels it provides a better outlet for them than being consumed by video games, for example. It instills confidence, gets them out on the water, fosters an appreciation for nature, and allows them to be part of an underwater world that few people ever get to experience. And if they catch a fish, they can share with their families and cook it together. Many of the kids Tolmie has witnessed coming up in the sport have gone on to participate in the United States National Freediving Spearfishing Championships.
“Spear fishing is a great sport, for me anyway. I get to enjoy the ocean, see these beautiful animals underwater, and choose a fish I would like to harvest for myself and my family. I get to come home and make a piece of art out of it and immortalize it. Then we get to eat it and use the rest of the fish as fertilizer for our garden, so it’s a very sustainable sport. It keeps me out on the water, it keeps me healthy, and it keeps me sane in many ways,” Tolmie says.
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