Joel Olenik

Joel Olenik
To be a spear fisherman is to operate in an alternate universe. Deep underneath the surface along the kelp patties, it’s a place where instinct rules all. It is down here that Joel Olenik finds his stride, immersing himself in nature and hunting pelagic fish like the White Seabass. He’s got countless stories from below the surface, and with a premise like diving over a sea mount 100 miles off Dana Point, we are listening. Joel is in it for the adventure and beauty that lives 50 feet down. And with his daughter spearing her first solid Calico off Catalina this past summer, he shouldn’t be slowing down any time soon.

The Word with Joel Olenik

How did you get into spearfishing?
I’ve always loved the ocean and fishing. On flat days me and my friend Randy Childress would swim out in front of the Dana Point headland with a pole spear. We shot a couple Calico’s and then we went in on a dingy, which could take us to some further out spots. From there we bought this beat up old aluminum boat we named the “Sea Beagle.” I shot a Dorado and then I shot a yellowtail. Those were early days of it, trying to figure it out. I was 28 when a friend told me I should start hunting White Seabass. The first time I saw one underwater I was tripping. I went on a solid 10-year obsession where all I wanted to do was hunt Seabass.
What about the White Seabass is so alluring?
It’s just such an iconic fish right in our backyard that I never really knew existed. You could spend hours, days, weeks not seeing one and then finally you see one and you're like ‘What the f--k are you doing in this kelp bed?’ This giant, out of place fish in the kelp room. They're silver and they're big and so gnarly looking. And the table fare is insane, it tastes so good. There's been so much conservation around them to keep the species at a sustainable level. It’s an example of a success story in fishing. They're the coolest fish in our ocean.
Are they pretty elusive?
They’re not rare, they are just hard to catch. And it’s hard to pinpoint and find out where they are going to be. They are a pelagic species, so they are always moving around. Back in the early days when Jay Riffe and those guys were shooting them, the fish would get massacred by gillnetters. The Seabass would never even stand a chance to get to the kelp beds because they would just be killed in the gillnets. They banned gillnets in the 80’s, and ever since then their numbers have grown exponentially. Shooting a 40 pounder back in the 60’s and 70’s was a big fish. Nowadays they get a lot bigger, a guy just shot a 94 pounder in 2023, my biggest is a 74 pounder. They have rebounded and their numbers are doing super well through conservation. Setting fish limits and banning and gillnetting has worked to restore the fish population. It's a cool conservation story.
How far down are you going on average dives?
In California you don’t really dive that deep. We're usually hunting the kelp beds that are in around 50 feet of water. Sometimes we are hunting yellowtails at 60-70 feet of water to pinnacles. But you don't necessarily have to be a deep diver to be a successful spear fisherman in California. I don't really like to dive that deep. An old timer told me once, “Never be the best free diver. Because the best free diver always dies.” I always try to just keep it mellow. I’m regimented in my diving. I pretty much do all my diving in one minute. Two minutes at the surface, breathing up and then one-minute dives.
Do you have breath holding techniques?
Oh, yeah, I've taken a ton of freediving classes, Waterman survival classes, everything. This is a dangerous sport. I blacked out once when my daughter was super young, and it scared the crap out of me. But because of the freediving class I had the wherewithal to recognize that I was blacking out. And I was able to react and take my weight belt off and get to the surface safely without dying.
What are you thinking about when you're down there looking for a fish?
I just try to immerse myself in it. It teaches you to follow your instincts, to live in that one moment, because when you're 40-50 feet down and you're on a breath hold you have no choice but to focus on the task. I always try to just let go and if my mind says go left, I go left. I don't ever second guess my thoughts. It's kind of like big wave surfing. Once you commit to getting over that ledge, you have one thought and that's getting down the face. Once you punch a dive and you see a fish, you have one thought and that’s to execute on that fish, put a proper shot on it. Make sure it suffers the least amount and you can land it. With freediving you're like relaxed the whole entire time because you're breathing up and punching dives, but once you shoot that fish your heart rate explodes.
Do you have a dive story that sticks out in your memory that you'll never forget?
Prior to 2015 I had spent a bunch of money going down to Mexico and doing these trips to try and shoot two species: Wahoo and Tuna. We didn't have Wahoo in California and the bigger Tuna weren't around in California. I went down to Mexico several times and for whatever reason got skunked. Bad weather, diving mistakes, just rookie errors. And then in 2015 this guy Aaron Shook shoots a big Bluefin Tuna off Dana Point. We all went crazy and started hunting these Bluefin. In 2015 I shot my first one, which was close to a 100 pounder. And then I shot a yellow fin, which was a 70 pounder and should have been the state record, but I had no idea. And then Wahoo showed up that same year, which was an El Nino. I ended up shooting a Wahoo seven miles off the beach in Dana Point. In a three month span I shot a Wahoo, a Bluefin Tuna and Yellowfin Tuna off my own boat, right off Dana Point. No more than 14 miles off the beach.
You were recently on a fishing trip with your kids. Where did you go and what's it like diving with your kids?
Yeah, my kid is 10 and she loves going on the boat and her favorite place in the world is Catalina, we’ve been going on trips out there ever since she was tiny. I taught her how to surf and now she doesn’t really need me anymore, she goes off on her own. But freediving she needs me. This is her third summer diving, one or two trips a year. It’s this fun thing that we have together. It’s a giant responsibility, giving a 10-year-old a loaded spear gun. She’s super responsible and when we're diving together, I can just feel the electricity coming off her. Her senses and her awareness are so heightened when we're in the water. She notices everything and is so alert and intuitive, it's crazy. As soon as she puts her face in that water and puts that mask on its infectious. Prior to this trip she had shot some little Perch and Opal Eye’s and smaller fish. She had set a goal to shoot at least a 14-inch, legal Calico, which are fairly hard to hunt. The big Calico are super smart and they're very aware and they know their kelp beds. She ended up shooting a 17-inch Calico on the fourth day. It was rad to watch, and she was so excited when she got that thing. We went to our friend's house on Catalina and cooked a killer dinner with it, which was a cool experience.
What are your favorite pair of Electric shades for on the water?
I love the Stacker’s, on clear days I use the blue lens, and on cloudy days I'll use a bronze lens. I really love the Bristol’s on the water too. I probably use the Stacker’s a little bit more on gnarly days, if I'm sitting on top of the boat looking for tuna, which I don't do very much anymore. The last trip I wore the Bristol's the entire time.
Do you have a favorite place in the world to spear dive?
I think the coolest place in our backyard is out at Tanner banks and Cortes banks. Especially on your own boat. It's a super challenging area to go to on a smaller boat, and our boats 25 foot it has 175 gallons of fuel. Cortes Bank is 100 miles away, I get varying fuel efficiency depending on conditions. I really must plan the trip properly and make sure I have enough fuel and make sure we're going on the right day. To go out and shoot a fish off Tanner Banks or Cortes Banks on your own boat, on a small boat, is to me the pinnacle of California spear fishing.
What's it like out there?
It's raw, super rugged, middle of nowhere. I probably should dive with a GoPro more, some of the stuff I've seen has been mind blowing. I remember punching a dive at Tanner Banks and we were hunting Bluefin Tuna. I saw a big school of 30-pound Bluefin and I was tracking them, getting ready to maybe shoot one, and all the sudden they balled up like they were bait fish. I turned around and there was an eight-foot Mako shark following them, herding them like he was hunting. It was the coolest thing ever, the Mako didn't care one bit about me, he was solely focused on the Bluefin. Diving over Cortes Bank on a clear day is ridiculous. It's super cool when you float over the top of the high spot, just thinking about the waves that break out there. I shot my biggest yellowtail ever out there, which was super special.
What about spear fishing keeps bringing you back?
It’s always different, ever changing. It’s an inconsistent hobby, like surfing. It’s eternally challenging, and you can always get better at it. It’s also just super relaxing to me. I went diving at San Clemente Island the other day and was in the water all day and didn't even pull the trigger once. I saw some fish, but I didn’t even really care that I came home with no fish in the bag, it was just such a rad day being on the water. I saw so much cool stuff. It’s immersing yourself in nature. It’s a constant reminder of how feeble you are as a human, when you see a sea lion, or a fish, or a shark, or anything in its element in the Ocean.
Do you have any spear fishing trips that you're planning for the near future?
I'll probably just solely focus on island diving for the rest of summer, and hopefully squeeze in a Cortes Bank trip this year. Hopefully do a few more kid trips to Catalina. Nothing major, just some local boating. I think we're going to have a really good August, September, and October.