Dave Micus, Plum Island Sound

July 26th, 2004

THE FISHING TRIP
Day One: The Great Shark Hunt
By Dave Micus

Hemingway once compared elephant hunting with a small caliber firearm to burning the taste buds off of your tongue when, after a hard night's drinking, you mistakenly gulp the lye product Eau de Javel instead of bottled water. Such extremes, was Papa's point, will leave you unable to savor anything less heady. I am hoping he is mistaken, as I've recently fried my taste buds fishing for sharks in Vineyard Sound with Josko Catipovic.

Josko is an MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Ph.D. who works as a scientist for the U.S. Navy. His "job" actually involves fishing for tuna and sharks. He's a marlin and tuna-tagging disciple of the famous Frank Carey, with whom he tagged blue marlin off of Kona and giant squid off the Azores and he is often required to spend significant time in Andros, the bone fishing capital of the world. He goes there during the winter, of course. Josko was once awarded a grant to fish for tuna in Hawaii, and it says much of the man that we like him in spite of all of this.

Maco The lye in this case was Makos, fierce ocean predators that average 6 to 12 feet in length, weigh between 300 and 1600 lbs and can swim up to 60 miles per hour. The world record Mako weighed in at 1,115, the only bigger sharks caught being the Great White (2,664), the Tiger (1,780), and the Greenland (1,708). But though these sharks might be bigger, I doubt they put up the fight that the Mako does. When hooked, the Mako doesn't know whether to fight you in the water or in the air, so they do both, bursting from the water like a S.A.M. missile launched from a Trident class nuclear submarine.

Before I go on I should explain just how I came to be in the blue water fishing for sharks with someone I had just met that very morning. Josko and I haunt the same fly-fishing bulletin boards, and he was kind enough to invite Jed Proujansky another on-line fly guy, and me on a fly-fishing for tuna trip. I readily accepted, excited about the prospect of taking tuna on the fly and also happy to be arranging a rendezvous via the web without giving my credit card number to a girl named Lola. We were to meet Monday night to fish the next day. As an afterthought, Josko mentioned that he needed to catch a blue shark for a research project he was involved in, and invited me along if I could be there early Monday morning. "LetmethinkaboutitI'llbethere," I responded.

We launched from Woods Hole about 10 am. Along with Josko and myself, there was a student from the Boston University Marine Program, as catching sharks is a three-person job. We arrived at the hunting grounds after motoring 40 miles off shore in Josko's 26-foot open cockpit fishing boat, but calling this a fishing boat is to call a Duesenberg a car. This is a machine made for fishing the open ocean; 385 Volvo inboard that purred at 34 knots, navigational systems that let us pin point a shoal in the middle of the ocean, and fish finding sonar that showed a herring as plain as a 6 foot blue shark. I'm not at liberty to divulge exactly where we fished, not because I'm sworn to secrecy but because, from 15 miles offshore onward, the ocean is quite featureless and I hadn't the faintest idea where we were. I'm sure we were still in the Atlantic, though. Josko knows a thousand square miles of Vineyard Sound like a pond in his back yard, and after a 90-minute ride he was satisfied that we were where we needed to be.

You fish for sharks much like they fished for Jaws. Josko lowered a bucket of ground herring over the side to create a scent trail, and began throwing large chunks of tuna guts overboard. He then rigged the rods, stout, 5'6" ft. sticks with huge Penn International big game reels loaded with 60 lb test, wire leaders nearly as thick as your little finger, and 10/0 hooks. We weren't, after all, fishing for brook trout. And then you wait.

It didn't take long for the first shark to appear. We were all lulled into a trance by the gentle ocean swells, when one of the reels started to click, slowly at first, then a bit faster, then buzzing like a small electric motor. Sean, the B.U. student, was first up, and he strapped on the fighting harness, took the rod, and began fighting the shark. This was, incredibly, only the second time Sean had been fishing, his previous trip occurring the week before when Josko took him out and put him onto a school of 36 inch plus striped bass. Now he was fast onto a shark that, when it began leaping off of the stern, revealed itself as a six-foot Mako, and I can't help but think that poor Sean's taste buds have been singed for life. These fish aren't easy to land, and after a noble struggle the Mako broke the 200 lb piano wire leader and was off. My heart was pounding out a salsa tune in my chest; I can't imagine how Sean must have felt. Josko calmly replaced the hook and bait, and we again sat back and waited.

But not for long.

A fin appeared behind one of the baits, and I swear I could hear the Jaws music emanating from some unseen speaker. I know Josko heard it too, though he denies it. The shark slashed at the bait and took off, the reel once again buzzing like a carpenter's drill. This time it was my turn. I put on the harness and took the rod and felt the biggest fish I had ever felt in my life doing everything it could to end our relationship. After a 20-minute struggle that almost snapped my forearm, I brought a six-foot blue shark to the boat. And now the drill began.

Once the shark is at the boat the rod man has to do his best to keep it there. The leader man puts on gloves and grabs the leader, pulling the shark up hand over hand but being extra careful not to let the line wind around any part of his body. If it does and the shark, in a last burst of flight or fight energy, plummets to the bottom, the leader man has no choice but to follow, and there's been more than one incident of the leader man disappearing forever in the ocean's depths when a hooked shark frantically dives for its life. The gaffer gaffs the shark in the gills and swings it on board. Unfortunately, or fortunately, my shark straightened the hook and so lived to fight another day.

In only a matter of minutes there was another shark on. Sean grabbed the rod and began doing battle, while Josko called for me to reel in the other line so that it would not get tangled with the shark. As I was reeling in it happened, the unexpected that always keeps fishing from ever being even remotely boring, whether fishing for blue gills or marlin. I nearly had the bait in when something snatched it and began a long run perpendicular to the boat.

Sean was still fighting his fish; Josko yelled for me to just play the fish until he could help. I didn't have the harness on and, with no leverage, could feel the raw power of a brute. I worked to the front of the boat when, thirty feet off of the bow, a huge, beautiful Mako shot out of the water a good 15 feet into the air. It reentered the water and, from the corner of my eye, I spotted another shark, just as big, rocketing from the water on the other side of the boat. "Josko!" I yelled, "There's two of them jumping!!!"

"It's the same shark," he yelled back. "They're that fast."

The shark looked to me to be at least 16 feet long. Josko says it was closer to eight so we'll split the difference and say 12. He ran, then charged the boat, ran again, then charged the boat. At least three times I thought I'd lost him when Josko told me to reel like hell and, sure enough, he was still on the line, charging the boat. Josko and Sean, in the meantime, had landed Sean's shark, a six-foot blue that they slid into the live well for the trip back to Woods Hole. I continued fighting the Mako.

After what seemed like two hours but was probably 20 minutes, the line went slack. He was gone and I knew it. I reeled in, but without that usual dejection from losing a big fish. Maybe because I at least got to see him when he jumped. Or maybe, having seen him, I didn't want him in the boat. No matter. Josko took the end of the line and showed me what happened; the Mako had straightened out the swivel to which the leader was attached. "That swivel is rated at 600 lbs," he said, meaning it would take at least 600 pounds of pressure to bend the metal.

The ride back to Woods Hole was invigorating, the brisk air a welcome contrast to the heat generated by the brawl and still trapped beneath my gortex shell. Soon I cooled down, the weakness in my knees dissipated, and all that was left was a vivid memory that seemed as if it was just a wonderful hallucination. We'd drop the blue shark off at the lab, then it was on to Josko's to hook up with Jed and eat a splendid meal of fresh tuna (Josko had boated six the day before). A wonderful day matured into an even better night of good food, good drink, and great company.

Best of all, tomorrow we'd go fishing again. ~ Dave

About Dave:

Dave Micus lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He is an avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer and instructor. He writes a fly fishing column for the Port City Planet newspaper of Newburyport, MA (home of Plum Island and Joppa Flats) and teaches a fly fishing course at Boston University.


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