1977 – John Below (California)

John Below was was a serious and highly experienced diver in any venue he chose. However, at least in my eyes, he was the finest river diver I ever saw. John excelled at spearing Sacramento suckers, pike minnows (squawfish back then…) and carp in the rivers of the Sacramento Valley area, where I am told he spent of much of his young life, and nobody I knew could exceed his skills with a pole spear. Some very wily divers like Terry Maas, Chuck Cook, Don Barthman, Jack Harrell and others competed for the suckers in the brush piles, where they would stealthily creep into the tangled masses and shoot the suckers when they would seek refuge in the brush piles… Refuge from what? John Below….he would relentlessly ply the swift current/rapid areas where suckers abounded by the thousands. Most other divers, most would go to the brush piles, so John dominated the swift water riffles.
John would shoot them methodically, like a machine, efficiently bagging a large sucker every 1/2 minute or so, and often swimming his way/riding the back eddy back up stream to ply a productive rapid again and again. John was know to shoot 3 fish per breath hold and slap them into his quick release board system, with out coming above the surface. I would take one or two in the same rapid, just not having the skill John had to anticipate the suckers movement upstream, calculate his own down current motion, and the lack of current on the bed of the river…like your worst Algebra word problem. John rarely missed, and he would so run away with the scoring in the river tournaments he would sometimes skip an ocean meet and still be the highest scoring diver of the season. John one time disappeared prior to the weigh in at a river meet, and it turns out he came in early, went off and showered and showed up at the weigh in while we struggled for one last fish before “times up”, and he still won handily. John knew I was no threat and was helpful to me, not so much a mentor, but he would directly answer the right question and tolerated my clumsy effort to imitate him in the current. I loved the river dives, (I could dive as deep as anyone there!) and John Below inspired me so much I went back and dove repeatedly the river to improve my skills. I wanted to do it as he did, rather than what would probably have been better for me, working the brush piles, a more stealthy and perhaps less athletic endeavor. John was so efficient, I remember seeing a huge box of several dozen of Carl Krupanski’s 5 prongers, slightly modified as we did back then, that John used on the river
dives, changing spear points frequently, not wanting to miss a fish due to a rock impact damaged point. He was “La Machine”…just a wonder to behold of efficiency. At some of the pre-meet competition meetings, I would hear a lot of complaining and lame reasons NOT to go to the river. I believe this was largely because it was hard work and most divers knew John Below was in his
element there, and not likely to be beaten. His scores were just outrageous, so numerous were the quarry and great were his skills. His score were so high the a new system of counting your event points based on the % of the winner was imposed based on his nominee in freshwater. John was diving in the Anchor Bay area, on the remote North Coast of Ca. John had made a long paddle North of the access beach, and likely had driven much of the night before and was justifiably tired. Being so comfortable in the water, John lay his weary head down on his fiberglass dive board (like a kayak but paddled by hand/foot/fin power, and the fish/equipment go inside, the wet suit clad diver lies on top and paddles like surfboard). John said he was sound asleep and suddenly awakened as he and his dive board were a few feet out of the water! John said he thought it was a white shark as he crashed down into the sea, but seconds later a huge California sea lion bull surfaced next to him, just a few feet away. John of course was wide awake after that violent event, and pulled hard to exit the area. Soon his dive board was low in the water and he realized he was taking on water rapidly, the sea lion had apparently cracked the hull where it struck with its head. I think he made it in, as only the front compartment flooded, and he made it by carefully and slowly keeping the aft compartment buoyant and paddling in. Vic Herrick When John worked for Rix he designed a high pressure compressor to take air samples in space. I think it’s still in use in outer space. He was also the best fresh water spear fisherman in the country and only lost a couple of times. He could do any thing or design any thing he needed to do.He even beat Cancer the first time. Don Barthman John Below was great in the rivers pole spearing suckers. He could do it from the surface and we had a hard time. We developed several methods to try to keep up. He was OK in ocean waters. John Ernst Kind, caring and friendly beyond belief – that’s the John Below I remember. My first encounter with John was at the Carmel River meet in the early 80’s. I chanced upon him out by Pescadero Pt. Perhaps being a “C” diver at the time, he felt I was no threat and freely shared some awesome places to dive. Yes, this
is the John Below I recall – kind, caring and friendly. Jim Okumoto. I remember John showing up for a Cen -Cal meet at Lime Kiln Creek showing the effects of his ongoing medical issues. His
competitive spirit was able to keep him in the game. He and I dove the nearby rocks to the right of the cove. As a C or B diver I was amazed at his skills. He found fish where there were no fish. I asked him after the meet how he did it. His reply was he just relaxed and visited places he had been before. Relax and observe. It was a great lesson for me to follow.
(commented by Mike Gower)

John Below, is an incredibly knowledgeable free diver. Heard him at a spearfishing seminar in S.F.-Steinhart Aquarium. Also had the pleasure to dive with him at a, Cen Cal meet in, Carmel. He knew I was no threat to him at the time as I was only a ‘C’ diver. We dove just on the boundary of Stillwater Cove in about 20′ of water. John, said during one of the National meets, he had shot a couple of 20 plus pound lings. A very friendly and humble gentleman, indeed.
(commented by Tom M)

John was a perfectionist at what ever he set his mind to. His compressor he build went into space with NASA, his quick release 5 prong for river meets. Even when it came to his illness he would challenge the doctors on what was to be done. It was a shame that we lost him so young.
(commented by Conrad L)

JOHN was an excellent engineer – had multiple pattens for company (RIX in Emeryville) including designing a tiny air compressor size of a cracker jack box. He got in big trouble as a kid – tried to blow up garage. He graduated at UC Berkeley. He Married Holly Below and had 1 daughter – Jennifer – called Piper. He was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma about 1980 or so but he continued to dive – when lungs really bad, did a competition in 20′ of water and did well. One of first successful tx Hodgkins – mortality rate was 85% —
new tx made mortality rate 15% BUT 20 years later it killed him and others like him – His attitude, ‘I got 20 years, saw daughter born and graduate college – what do I have to complain about?
John was a serious young man who took his job with Rix compressors and his competition diving seriously.
He will forever be remembers for his contributions to the sport and his career
(commented by T Maas)

John myself and Roy Irwin or diving one of the sin CAL teammates at Santa Cruz and just an hour into the tournament John paddles up to me and says he’s not feeling well he can dive and he goes in and Roy and I complete the tournament come in way in we look up on the scoreboard and John had weight in one Fish a sea trout that weighed 2 pounds for John as a past national champion to walk up on that beach with just a little sea trout and weigh it in had to be hard for him but after the tournament scores were all added up myself John below Roy Irwin Took first place by two points the fish that John weighed in One is the CENCAL team championship. John knew there was something seriously wrong with him he checked into Stanford and was diagnosed with cancer that he fought hard for 20 years before it got the better of him. On a brighter note John Roy and myself were scouting Santa Cruz and staying at the holiday park with our motorhomes John and Roy went to the store I was at my motorhome feeling a tank the compressor has an automatic cut off at 2250 I was in my motorhome listening to the compressor heard it shut off I went outside expecting to see the gauge say 2250 instead it said 5000 psi I didn’t know whether to run or try to bleed The pressure off I was scared to death and then I heard some laughter there stands John below laughing at me because he turned off the valve to the tank allowing the pressure to build up in the compressor to 5000 PSI that was quite a story we shared often.
(commented by Ralph Tieman)

John’s ashes were scattered off Huli Cat at Half Moon Bay.