The Dawn of Sharkin'

There was a time when the only good shark was a dead shark. Thankfully, those times have changed. Here's a look back at the early days of the sport and the emergence of the conservation ethic.

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| | Photos: Al Ristori| | View the Photo Gallery|

No fish possesses the star power of sharks-if you see an awestruck crowd at the marina, you can bet that it's a shark that has everyone's attention. Few aspects of fishing have changed more than sharking. Within just a few decades, shark fishing has evolved from a man-against-man-eater fight to the death to a true sport in which the vast majority of sharks are released. And, thankfully, I've had the opportunity to watch and participate in the transformation.

Much of the early sporting interest in sharks was in Florida where those fish were more readily available inshore, and even right from piers, jetties and the beach. At the time, the only good shark was a dead shark, and those who specialized in catching them generally killed their quarry even if they really weren't much of a threat to man-but more so because sharks didn't hesitate to tear apart hooked gamefish such as tarpon, tuna and billfish.

In the Northeast, Captain Frank Mundus was quick to notice and capitalize on the drawing power of sharks. Although he grew up on the Jersey Shore, Mundus moved to Montauk on the eastern end of Long Island to build his "monster fishing" business. Mundus was a colorful character, with an Aussie hat, ringed ear, harpoon-dart belt buckle and toenails painted port and starboard. He regularly called his customers idiots and his flair for the dramatic was what the young sport required at the time.

Chum and Get It
There wasn't much sophistication to sharking in the beginning. Water temperature and structure weren't considered. Come June, it was time to run offshore to 100 feet or so and set up a chum slick for a long drift that was almost never interrupted for a move to another area. We hadn't yet figured out that a can of frozen ground chum could just be tied over the side in a net to create a slick, so the chum was left out to defrost and then mixed in a larger container with water before being dispersed with a ladle. Even when we were busy fighting sharks, someone had to be responsible for maintaining the slick.

Frozen mackerel or bunker was the usual bait, though the bottom was lively in those days, and we usually were able to catch some whiting (silver hake) or ling (red hake) for live baits by lowering strips of squid to the bottom during the drift.

Before the days of specialized gear, we fought sharks standing up with long trolling rods that put leverage in the fish's favor. The boat was rarely ever moved and other anglers would continue fishing while a shark was being fought. If a hooked shark couldn't be kept in the stern, the angler would have to tiptoe along the rail outside the cabin to the bow. And it was rarely a problem to catch a few. Makos were the desired species and the only one kept for food, but those sharkers also dragged in the blues, sandbars (browns), duskies and tigers to be weighed and then towed back out for dumping. In the case of sharks, most thought they were doing mankind a favor by killing them.

Wake Up Call
The big change in attitude started at the Sandy Hook Marine Laboratory in New Jersey when researcher Jack Casey and his associates created one of the first shark-tagging programs. Ironically, Casey's shark tagging wasn't started with sportfishing in mind but rather in response to two shark attacks along the Jersey Shore in 1960. Menhaden-seining factory ships operating close to the beach were being blamed for attracting sharks.

It's hard to believe now, but just 30 years ago there was very little biological information available about sharks-and almost nothing was known of their abundance and migratory patterns. Thus, it was surprising when Casey's nearshore longline sets yielded more than 300 sharks of many species including such "man-eaters" as great whites, tigers and makos.

In order avoid panic among tourists, Casey asked outdoor writers not to publicize his catch of ten young great whites on a 1/2-mile, 32-hook longline set a quarter-mile off a bathing beach in False Hook Channel. Ironically, as necropsy studies later revealed, those whites were being attracted not by bunker seiners at all but by sportfishing boats dumping filleted bluefish carcasses. Casey also caught juvenile whites within a mile or so of beaches at Rockaway and Coney Island, New York, but again kept that information quiet as it appeared the New York Bight might be a pupping ground for whites and adult females were a much greater threat than their offspring.

The information about shark abundance that was made public drew the attention of anglers who were becoming aware of the potential for catching big fish in nearby waters. In my writings for Salt Water Sportsman and other publications, I dubbed sharks the Poor Man's Big Gamefish.

It wasn't even necessary to have a big offshore boat in order to catch sharks. Although the pros painted a grim picture of the dangers involved in using small boats for sharks, my Mako 21 center console used to expand my striped bass horizons on Cape Cod was soon pressed into service sharking off Block Island without difficulty. When I started chartering a few years later out of Montauk, a move up to a Mako 25 proved more than adequate.

The highlight of the early days was the 405-pound mako I caught after a long fight on bluefish tackle (Mitchell 604 conventional reel with 30-pound mono) at the Butterfish Hole. At the time, that mako was the largest Carl Darenberg, Sr., had weighed in at Montauk Marine Basin in years and set a New York state record. It was the Monster Man Mundus himself who then blew my state record out of the water when he put James Melanson onto a 1,080-pound mako from the Cricket II with 50-pound line.

By now, shark tournaments were catching on along the south shore of Long Island, and they provided the opportunity for Casey and dedicated graduate students to inspect hundreds of sharks at little expense. There was no call for conservation at first, as Casey was delighted to have sharks landed in order to measure them, determine sex ratios and obtain biological samples. That soon changed due in part to so-called "total-weight" tournaments. One such tournament hosted by the Bay Shore Tuna Club saw so many small blue sharks caught that boats had to wait overnight to weigh in. After that fiasco, tournaments generally set minimum weights and sensibilities among sportsmen slowly began to change.

And Then Came Jaws
By the time peter benchley's jaws hit book stores and Steven Spielberg's big-screen adaptation made its debut, Mundus's Monster Fishing business and shark fishing popularity in general were well established. Also becoming better established, thanks in large part to Casey, was a sport-fishing ethic among shark fishermen. If interest in tagging rather than killing hadn't developed before the book and movie, the resultant damage to the shark resource might have been catastrophic. Casey felt that the publicity actually helped because the public became much more interested in sharks.

Despite perceptions, it's generally accepted that Jaws didn't result in greater mortality of most shark species. However, no great white was safe from the harpooner's iron and towing one into port would be sure to attract TV crews and result in a mass of publicity. Mundus may have been the greatest beneficiary of all. While fishing alongside a dead whale, Mundus fooled a great white into taking a string of fish on August 4, 1986. Captain Donnie Braddick, who had arrived at the whale earlier, jumped aboard the Cricket II and fought what turned out to be a 3,427-pound white-the largest fish ever caught on rod and reel. The IGFA eventually did not recognize the catch since the whale was basically being used as chum. When I took photos of the great fish lying in a bed of ice at Montauk Marine Basin the next morning, Mundus told me that the shark was the capper to his career.

Sharking since the days of Mundus's great white and Jaws certainly isn't what it was thanks largely to illegal commercial-fishing practices, but it's still pretty good. Sharks have survived a lot over the ages, and with management measures in place there's no reason they won't be carrying out their function in the seas and also providing anglers with sport forever.