The Monster Shark Tournament

At 3:30 a.m. on the first morning of the Martha's Vineyard Monster Shark Tournament Captain Frank Papp, his crew and I booked it out of Oak Bluffs harbor, hoping to beat the rest of the other 119 boats out. The two-day shark tournament is the biggest in the country and every second counts. The night before Frank planned out our route for the day, and the boat had been rigged days in advance.
The crew I fished with was made up of five hardcore saltwater anglers from New England. They've been fishing the Martha's Vineyard shark tournament together for more than 10 years, but they've never won it. Could this be the year? From Left to right: Brian Ritchie, Mark Consiglio, Rick Davenport, Frank Papp and Kevin Egan.
A quick note on Captain Frank Papp: he's the nicest guy, unless you happen to be a shark. He has an uncanny ability of finding fish and he has no problem reeling in big sharks without a harness. Frank likes to fish breaks in temperature where baitfish school up. "Everyone wants to fish structure, what a lot of people don't realize is that temperature is structure," Frank says.
Frank steered us 35 miles south of Martha's Vineyard to where the water dipped from 70 degrees to 64 degrees. We were after makos, porbeagles and thresher sharks. Whichever crew caught the biggest of these three species in the two days would take home more than $100,000 in prize money and a new fishing boat.
Sharks are about as mean a fish you can find, so we used heavy-duty gear: 200-pound test with thick wire leaders.
Large saltwater j-hooks.
We used frozen blue fish and canned tuna for chum. Some of the crew actually ate this canned tuna to see how it tasted (they said it was salty). If you want to catch a shark, I guess you have to eat like a shark.
For bait the crew diced up bluefish salmon and squid. The bait was attached to long wire leaders that were brought down by weights. They used balloons to mark the bait suspended at depths of 25 feet, 50 feet, 75 feet and 100 feet.
After setting our chum slick and drifting along the breakline for about an hour, we had our first shark. Frank grabbed the rod and reeled like crazy and set the hook.
It was a blue shark. Blue sharks, or bluedogs as shark fishermen call them, do not qualify for points in the tournament. So, all blue sharks are released.
But releasing a blue shark is easier said than done. Once they get to the boat they can thrash around violently, snap at your fingers, twist themselves in the line, or they can just roll over and surrender. With sharks, you just never know.
Blue sharks use to qualify for points in the tournament. Since they aren't great table fair, all of the meat from the tournament was donated to food pantries in New York. But the Humane Society of the United States, which has been trying to shut down the tournament for years, got wind of the set up and found a legal loophole: technically the fish were being illegally transported across state lines. Since then, the tournament can no longer donate the shark meat and has stopped scoring blue sharks.
Pretty soon there were blue sharks everywhere. They circled the boat and even tried to bite the chum bucket.
"If people knew how many sharks we actually catch in one day, they would probably never go in the water," says crewmember Brian Ritchie.
The crew took turns reeling in the blue sharks, which ranged from about 100 to about 200 pounds.
A school of blue sharks in a feeding can quickly turn an organized boat in to a vessel of chaos. And everything in the cockpit of a sharking boat is sharp, slippery and moves really fast.
The sharks even went after the balloons.
After awhile, the crew let me take a turn at battling a blue shark. "Put the rod in your harness and reel as fast as you can," was the instruction I got.
I did, and a few minutes later a 150-pound shark rose up to the surface.
Later in the morning Brian hooked into a really big shark. The fish ripped out drag, eating up two-thirds of the spool. Eventually, we backed the big boy down. Could this be the tournament-winning thresher? But once the shark got close to the boat, it went on another reel-burning run. As Brian started working him back up, the shark somehow cut the line. Everyone was heartbroken. Brian, who fishes saltwater just about every weekend, said he thought it was the biggest fish he's ever fought. We never saw what species of shark it was, and we'll never know for sure.
That afternoon, we finally hooked a mako.
Makos are the prize species of the tournament. They can grow to 1,000 pounds and are known for putting up epic fights, often times flying 20 feet out of the water after being hooked.
But this mako only weighed about 150 pounds and wasn't big enough to keep. By the time fishing was officially over we had caught more than 17 sharks, but no keepers. We headed back to the harbor happy, but empty-handed.
Back at the harbor, the boat next to us brought back a 178-pound mako.
Joe Sirois of Cape Cod landed the fish after a 30-minute fight.
The shark tournament draws a big crowd to Martha's Vineyard every year, with hundreds of people lining up to see the weigh in.
People pack the harbor at Oak Bluffs and wait for the fishing boats to return.
The weekend is also a boon to the local economy, as bars and restaurants take part in the fun. Economically, it's the most important weekend for the island all year.
For all of the excitement, relatively few sharks are actually killed in the tournament. On the first day, only 16 sharks were taken, and on the second day only four were taken.
And tournament director Steven James likes it that way. James purposely sets the tournament size limits stricter than the state size limits. He is a strong advocate for sharks and knows the science behind shark conservation. "I control the amount of sharks taken by setting the size limits," James says. Anglers are penalized if they bring in sharks that are too small.
But shark populations in New England are stable James says. And while it's true that shark populations have greatly declined (in some areas as much as 80 percent) this is mostly due to commercial fishing. This year there was only one protester who was promptly escorted out.
But shark populations in New England are stable James says. And while it's true that shark populations have greatly declined (in some areas as much as 80 percent) this is mostly due to commercial fishing. This year there was only one protester who was promptly escorted out.
One of the big struggles in shark conservation is taking accurate population samples since sharks can cover so much water. To help keep tabs on local shark numbers James has every boat in the tournament keep track of how many sharks it catches and how much they approximately weigh.
Since the tournament has been going on for years, this data provides an informal long-term study on shark numbers.
The sharks that are kept are analyzed by scientists from state agencies and graduate students at the University of Massachusetts.
The scientists study shark diets and shark parasites. The sharks that are kept are also butchered right at the harbor and the meat is spread among friends and crew members. Mako and thresher sharks actually make great table fare.
A 269-pound thresher shark caught in the tournament.
Threshers have incredibly long tails that they use to stun their prey. But threshers have been known to use their tails to take out careless anglers as well. A slap from a big thresher tail can knock a man out and even break bones. Here a tournament volunteer shows off a big thresher tail to the crowd.
This catch eventually won the tournament. It weighed in at 413 pounds.
Ed Boarg (left) caught the monster thresher off of his boat the Tuna Tangler Too. He battled the fish for 50 minutes be for his crew was able to gaff it and bring it into the boat. The crew I fished with caught more blue sharks the second day, with no keepers. But you can bet they'll be back to fish the tournament again next year.