When Matty Wong peaked into a dark Pacific Ocean cave he had no idea of the terror he’d encounter.
“I pulled myself into a cave that was probably at around 40 feet below the surface and, as my eyes were adjusting, I saw this massive head come straight at me,” Wong recalls. “As I pushed out of the cave, a 7-foot moray eel (chased) me out.”
In that moment, he was able to avoid potentially serious injury by doing what’s easier said than done — remaining calm. As we’ll see in a moment, Wong’s physical and mental training, which starts with strategic breathing, has also served him well in his rookie Elite season.
Irritating giant eels — not an everyday encounter, but definitely a possibility for the free-diving that Wong used to enjoy in the Hawaiian waters of his youth.
“Growing up on O’ahu, it’s a great recreational sport,” Wong said. “I had a few uncles that would free dive, my dad did a bit of free diving and SCUBA diving and I would just tag along with people ever since I was a young teenager.”
Wong began snorkeling nearshore sites as a young child and transitioned to free diving in his middle school years. Reaching 80 feet on his deepest free dive, Wong became proficient at spearfishing reef species like parrotfish (Uhu), grey snapper (Uku) and goatfish (Kumu).
“I got really serious in high school; I actually competed in two different spearfishing competitions,” Wong said. “I was obsessed with it until I was about 23 until I ruptured one of my sinuses.
“I did a dive when I was sick and I was trying to equalize when I already had a clogged sinus and ended up injuring part of my nasal cavity.”
Below and above
Recalling how he’d seek concealed positions — caves, coral overhangs, sand holes — from which to spear fish that responded to his grunting or sand disturbance; Wong notes how spear fishing strategies parallel those of bass fishing.
Find the right areas, leverage fish movement, employ attraction techniques — similar stuff.
“The only difference is, with spearfishing, you’re doing it in one breath,” he chuckled.
That being said, the same breathing technique that allowed Wong to manage free diving’s physical challenges — and occasional pulse-pounding moments — have also served him above the water’s surface.
Note: There’s a lot more to free diving and spearfishing, but focusing on the point applicable to bass fishing, Wong explains it this way: “From what I understand, your heart rate goes up when you inhale and on your exhale, your heart rate slows down.
“So, if you utilize a quick inhale — count of two — and then a slow exhale — count of 10 — you’re able to slow your heart rate in the moment and that helps you center what you’re doing. Otherwise, you can get lost with adrenaline and you won’t be able to make good decisions.”
Relaxed and ready
Pulling in some technical stuff, Wong said advanced free divers use a “breath-up” process that can extend their dive time, while helping them achieve an ultra-relaxed tranquility similar to the state of comfort babies feel in the womb. You’re aware of your surroundings, but so totally melded that distractions vanish and focus intensifies.
“You typically want to spend twice the amount of time that you were under the water up on the surface breathing,” Wong explained. “So, if your breath hold was 2 minutes, you’d want to breath up for a minimum of 4.
“Carbon dioxide can build up in your blood stream, so if you don’t give yourself enough time to flush out carbon dioxide, you’ll shorten your breath holds.”
Far more than a bunch of meditative mumbo jumbo, the pursuit of efficient breathing, even without that transcendent relaxation, moves a person closer to the mental clarity that filters out distractions.
“You have cut off all the competing (thoughts and sensations) in your head when you’re free diving because all of that stuff gets you amped up,” Wong said. “You slide under the water, you feel like you can hold your breath for hours and you’re just trying to make fluid, quiet movements.
“When you stalk a big fish and you get a shot, then your heart rate goes through the roof because you’re excited; these fish aren’t easy to shoot. That’s the reward of any hunter — being able to get the shot off and it’s a clean one and you’re able to get the fish. It’s an incredible feeling.”
When it mattered
Wong said his average spearfishing breath hold is 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. That’s a mobile dive during which he’s actively hunting. His static breath hold — motionless in a pool — is 4:30.
Okay, bass anglers never need to hold their breath that long — not even bed fishing for 10-pounders. However, Wong’s breathing techniques — short inhale, slow exhale — offer an undeniable benefit for the sport’s many tense moments.
Case in point: Day 2 of the season-opener on the St. Johns River is coming to an end. Wong’s fishing the Salt Springs area off Lake George when he boats a 5 1/2-pounder to make the semi-final cut.
Noticeably stoked, Wong suddenly pulled himself out of the moment, clustered his thumb and fingertips in a collective focal point and lowered his hand with a long exhale.
He boxed the fish and got back to work.
More recently, Wong breathed his way through an emotional roller coaster for a 14th-place finish at the Elite on Lake Chickamauga.
“On Day 1, I lost a 3-pound bass; it snapped off as I was boat flipping it,” he said. “I knew that every single bite that day was going to be critical.
“That (loss) was huge, but I also knew because of my prefishing that there was a bigger fish in area. I fished for another 15 minutes and I caught a 5-pounder off that same bank.”
Day 2 saw Wong rise 56 spots from 64th place on the strength of his 25-pound, 13-ounce limit. That second day did not begin well, but again, disciplined breathing kept him calm and focused until the moment of opportunity arrived.
“I had caught over eight shorts, but I didn’t have a keeper until 11:45,” Wong said. “I was throwing a bigger glide bait and I was about to make a bait change, but I was like ‘You’ve been doing it this long, finish up this stretch.’
“Literally, the next cast, I had a 7-pounder eat it at the trolling motor. That turned around my entire day and then I just went hunting for big girls and I was able to run into that second 7 1/2.”
Prepare for success
So, of all the many elements of professional fishing — the tackle, the electronics, the sponsorships and self-promotion — why are we talking about breathing? I mean, it’s pretty instinctual, right?
It is, but a relatively modest level of intentional effort can yield significant impact. Fact: What’s happening on the inside, affects how we perform on the outside.
“I’ve had sharks steal fish off a float 10 feet away from me and I’ve had encounters with tiger sharks,” Wong said. “I don’t know what breathing technique can help you in those moments, but if you’re training on being able to stay relaxed and focused, you’re able to center yourself faster in times of distress.
“If you don’t have that practice, when things hit the fan, you don’t have any way of calming yourself and you just ramp up into this anxiety and you usually make bad decisions; thus, spinning out.”
Ultimately, it’s about consistency — managing a physical function that we do without thinking, but one we can do better when we think about it. Wong’s free diving background has taught him to appreciate this truth, but the wisdom is broad reaching.
“As any competitor, we want to be successful and there are times when we’re not doing well,” he explains. “That can cause us to doubt ourselves; it can cause us to create negative thoughts.
“By keeping yourself centered, being able to think positively and being able to breath yourself through it, you’re able to turn any bad day into an incredible day.”
As an Elite rookie, Matty Wong knows there’s a lot of work to be done. Like all first-year pros, he has much to prove. But don’t blink. His breakout moment could be (sorry, had to) a breath away.