Hooked on Sharks

Somewhere locked in our psyche lies the primal fear of sharks, yet some fishermen can't wait to get Jaws on the line.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Flying in a small plane on a warm day over popular coastal beaches is an eye-opening experience. Fanning out from shore like fish pellets spewed from a feeder, bathers dash, frolic, bob and bodysurf. When the water is clear, you might also see numerous dark shapes moving parallel to the beach a hundred yards farther offshore, unobserved by the swimmers.

The dark silhouettes will sporadically dart or circle with purposeful intent. Sometimes they roam closer to the surf line, a good cast away from shore, but still undetected. The shapes are sharks of various species, some of them migrating toward unknown destinations, others foraging in businesslike fashion along the landward end of the sea's vast food chain.

Coastal communities that cater to tourists don't like to talk about inshore sharks. Swimmers, surfers, kayakers and even wading fishermen typically have no idea that sharks venture so close to their play areas. And those who do know often don't care, counting on the odds to protect them.

Statistically, you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning or caught in an avalanche than of being attacked or killed by a shark. Of course, that's little consolation to those who have been maimed or eaten by one. In numbers that vary from decade to decade, sharks swim our shore waters on all coasts-from Alaska down through the aptly named Red Triangle (the area between San Francisco and Monterey) to Mexico; from Maine to Key West; and along the Gulf of Mexico. Though many shark populations are in decline, the occasional attacks that renegades make on humans don't garner sharks much sympathy.

Everyone Is Fair Game
The victims of the most fearsome shark attacks are usually swimmers or surfers, but people in boats aren't immune; there are numerous stories about near-miss attacks on sportfishermen. Consider the time off Panama's Coiba Island when Dr. Ray McAllister, a friend of his and a guide were fishing for snappers from a 20-foot center-console. Around them, 10 to 20 sharks constantly circled and fed. The sharks were all 10 feet long or longer, but they were small fry compared to the great white that showed up. As it swam parallel to their boat, the trio observed that it was slightly longer than the boat. The white moved on, or so they thought. Then, during a lunch break, the boat's bow suddenly heaved up and shook. McAllister lost his footing and slid aft before being caught by his buddy, who was clinging to the console. In horror they saw the huge jaws of the white shark engulfing most of both twin 55-hp outboards mounted at the stern.

[pagebreak] Meanwhile, the fishing guide had stopped his own slide over the transom by slamming his palm against the shark's nose and pushing off from it. Though the lower units were still in the white's maw, the guide whirled around, leapt to the console and cranked the motors. Both fired, and a cloud of blood, cartilage and teeth showered the men.

The boat surged forward, then stopped, with one of its engines dead and the other sputtering. The fishermen looked into the water astern and saw the shark slowly descending in the water, quivering as it sank. The damaged motors got them home.

Never Lost a Customer
Operating out of Key West, Fla., Captain Ralph Delph is an expert on fly- and light-tackle sharking, as attested by the number of anglers who have set fishing records while in his company. The big boats in his guide operation have suffered hundreds of shark attacks. "I've never lost an angler," says Delph, "but most newcomers say they feel more like survivors than participants."

Delph had gone fishing in his 16-foot flats skiff with permit in mind the day a bull shark came aboard. A number of large bulls were in the area and neither the captain nor his client, Chuck Broadski, wanted to risk losing a hooked permit to them. Broadski suggested they target the sharks insad. Preferring to fish for sharks from a larger boat with plenty of space to maneuver, Delph wasn't enthusiastic about the idea but agreed.

After roping a barracuda off the bow for chum and using a chunk of it for bait on an 8-pound- test spinning outfit, Chuck soon hooked a bull shark estimated at 250 pounds. Line screamed from the reel and Delph cranked the motor to follow before the spool was emptied.

Sharks display ritualized threat behavior when they are antagonized or feel cornered (as they might if they're caught between a reef and open water). Some will arch their backs and lower their pectoral fins. Others will begin a series of body twists and rolls or writhing movements that intensify into figure eights followed by a sudden circling back on the perceived enemy.

Ralph Delph describes such gyrations as "attack posture," because it signals that something bad is about to happen if you don't back off and leave the shark alone. Sometimes an angler can handle the worst the shark has in store. Sometimes he can't. The bull the two men were fighting had finished its lateral sweeps and then suddenly shot behind the boat, chasing it. Delph pushed the throttle forward but the motor had been trimmed up in the 3-foot-deep water. The prop sucked air, cavitating.

[pagebreak] As the boat powered forward, the skipper began trimming the motor down, but before it could grab water the shark's head broke through the churned, bubbling surface. The fish's momentum sent it over the low-slung transom and onto the deck, jaws clattering and aiming for Delph's rear end. The shark "swam" forward atop the flats boat's aft platform and had just about reached the captain when he jammed the throttle to the wall. White water blew behind the prop and the shark started sliding back, its jaws still popping. Finally, the bull wound up back in the water and Broadski continued the fight. Several times more the shark charged the boat, but Delph dodged it successfully. Toward the end of the struggle, at boatside, it bit a hunk of gel coat out of the skiff's flank well above the waterline. Back at the dock, Delph discovered that the bull also had punctured a trim tab cylinder and broken the trolling motor bracket.

Echoes of Captain Quint
The catharsis unleashed by the novel and subsequent movie Jaws was built upon an already growing shark fever that had been stoked for some years by "Montauk Mundus." Captain Frank Mundus, the proprietor of Monster Fishing, is generally considered the model for the character of the shark hunter Quint in the book and film. Mundus's recollections of his experiences with great whites rivals the fiction of Jaws. The story of his first giant, a 4,500-pound monster, is recounted in Russell Drumm's book In the Slick of the Cricket (Pushcart Press, 1997), named for the captain's boat. On June 6, 1964, Mundus's party had already killed two porbeagle sharks and had hooked a third. Mundus fired the motor to chase, but it faltered.

Upon his inspection, Mundus found that the engine's saltwater pump was disabled. He decided to wait to fix it until the day's fishing had ended. Topside, he saw that his mate was ladling out chum. Suddenly, the crewman stopped mid-scoop. "I knew what he seen," Mundus told Drumm. "I ran over to the side, and when I did, I seen this big white shark come right up, and he was lookin' on board."

[pagebreak] The shark began circling the boat. Mundus needed time to grab his rod and reel, so he yelled for somebody to throw some mackerel in the water. The crew was so rattled that everyone threw fish. "So now it's rainin' mackerel," Mundus later told Drumm. The captain hooked a mackerel on his line, and the shark sucked it in. Then he had another problem. He couldn't follow the shark without burning out the engine. He had to fix the pump.

He told the mate to let the shark have free spool, then hurried back to the bilge, working to change the pump. The shark spit out the bait and came around again-and again Mundus came topside to deal with it. "I was standing there like Ahab with the stick in my hand," he told Drumm. Finally he got a shot and jammed the harpoon in with all his weight. The shark dove, dragging 400 feet of line and a barrel with it. They chased the shark, putting more harpoons into it. Four harpoons were in it when Mundus readied a fifth. Drumm's book recounts Mundus's words to his crew:

"Hang onto everything!" he shouted. "Your neighbor's leg, anything you want... We're not gonna let him go."

He was as good as his word. Five hours later the shark was subdued, tailroped and towed to Montauk. The frenzy began.

Sharks on the Decline
Shark fever peaks and ebbs. Stories such as the October 2003 mauling and heroic comeback of young surfer Bethany Hamilton, or the bizarre episode last fall of the 1,700-pound great white that lost its way in the shallows off Cape Cod, Mass., make headlines that elicit a visceral reaction. Ironically, though shark attacks are increasing, regulations on both commercial and recreational shark fishing are growing more stringent. For example, anglers can no longer target great whites, though many other species are fair game. The fact is that the numbers of these apex marine predators are down drastically, thanks mainly to commercial fishing, which reached a peak in the '80s. Sharks are not prolific breeders, and it will take years for populations to rebuild. Frank Mundus is probably not happy about that. ilge, working to change the pump. The shark spit out the bait and came around again-and again Mundus came topside to deal with it. "I was standing there like Ahab with the stick in my hand," he told Drumm. Finally he got a shot and jammed the harpoon in with all his weight. The shark dove, dragging 400 feet of line and a barrel with it. They chased the shark, putting more harpoons into it. Four harpoons were in it when Mundus readied a fifth. Drumm's book recounts Mundus's words to his crew:

"Hang onto everything!" he shouted. "Your neighbor's leg, anything you want... We're not gonna let him go."

He was as good as his word. Five hours later the shark was subdued, tailroped and towed to Montauk. The frenzy began.

Sharks on the Decline
Shark fever peaks and ebbs. Stories such as the October 2003 mauling and heroic comeback of young surfer Bethany Hamilton, or the bizarre episode last fall of the 1,700-pound great white that lost its way in the shallows off Cape Cod, Mass., make headlines that elicit a visceral reaction. Ironically, though shark attacks are increasing, regulations on both commercial and recreational shark fishing are growing more stringent. For example, anglers can no longer target great whites, though many other species are fair game. The fact is that the numbers of these apex marine predators are down drastically, thanks mainly to commercial fishing, which reached a peak in the '80s. Sharks are not prolific breeders, and it will take years for populations to rebuild. Frank Mundus is probably not happy about that.