Shark! It always amazes me how that one little word freaks out so many people. So many times when I am out fishing with folks and it's 95 degrees, I suggest a quick dip, but oh no, their answer is always the same: "There is no way I am swimming in this place because there might be sharks." Usually my answer is pretty simple. "Have it your way," I say as I jump overboard and start to paddle around. It's heaven on a hot day.
Sure there are sharks and, especially during this part of the summer, lots of them. But if given the choice between a fat juicy leg and a 6-inch fish, sharks will take the fish every single time. In all my years here only once have I ever had a scary encounter with a shark, and that was simply because I was young and dumb.
I think I was around 10 years old when it happened off the beach on Hilton Head Island. I didn't have a boat, so I spent a lot of my free time fishing in lagoons and surf fishing. On that particular day it was low tide, the ocean was like a sheet of glass, and it was so hot the trees were chasing the dogs. I had used my cast net to catch some live shrimp and, like an idiot, I used a piece of small rope and tied the bait bucket to one of the belt loops on my shorts so I wouldn't have to come in to shore every time I wanted a bait. Bad move. While I was concentrating on fishing, a shark around 6- to 8-feet long chomped down on my bait bucket and dragged me through the water. At first I didn't know what was happening, but when I saw that fin and commotion, I dropped my rod and struggled to untie the rope. Luckily, the belt loop ripped first and the shark took off with my bucket. Needless to say, after that I never again took extra bait with me when I surf fished. Lesson learned.
Personally, I find sharks fascinating. I'll bet that between May and October I handle hundreds of sharks. If you ever get a good look at my hands, they look like they belong to a 100-year-old man thanks to sharks. Usually when I am trying to take the hook out of a shark's mouth, I grab it behind the head, lay it on the gunwale of the boat and sit on it so it isn't squirming so much. And because their skin is like 60-grit sandpaper, the backs of my upper legs look like I sat on a belt sander. Inshore you see mainly bonnethead sharks, black tip sharks, sand sharks and spinner sharks. Bonnethead sharks, which many people mistake for a hammerhead shark because of the shape of its head, rarely get over 3 feet long. But black tips and spinners reach weights of more than 100 pounds, and when hooked go absolutely nuts doing cartwheels and flips. Of all our local sharks, they are the most fun to catch.
Now for the big boys. The largest shark I have ever seen around here was a few years back in early spring. I was around 30 miles out doing some bottom-fishing when this fin popped up not 20 feet from the boat. I was in a 25-foot boat, and that shark was easily 4 feet longer than the boat. Much to the dismay of two anglers I had onboard, I eased over next to the shark. Its fin stood taller than the side of the boat. It was a basking shark, and to this day I have never encountered another one. Looking very much like a great white, basking sharks are actually plankton eaters with a massive mouth that opens like a cavern and filters out all the tiny plankton. Seeing one was awesome.
In Port Royal Sound and on our offshore artificial reefs, I regularly see some true monsters. Just this year at the Tire Reef and Betsy Ross Reef there were some seriously giant hammerhead sharks, bull sharks and tiger sharks. They come pretty much every year, and one hammerhead I've seen was at least 12-14 feet long while one of four resident tiger sharks had to be more than 500 pounds. How do I know? On numerous occasions, they have come right up to the boat and devour precious live baits meant for cobia and king mackerel. Talk about up close and personal -- it just doesn't get any closer. But even though these monsters can be a real nuisance, their size and sheer power almost makes sacrificing a bait or two worth it. One guy I was with insisted on trying to beat a big tiger we had hooked. He fought that fish for three hours, and I chased for more than four miles before it snapped the line and was gone. I really think it was toying with us the entire time.
So there you go, sharks are here, but then again, they were here long before we were. They deserve our respect, and they have no interest whatsoever in eating folks from Ohio or New Jersey, especially when they are slathered with suntan lotion. Maybe Michigan, though.
God does not subtract from the allotted span of a man's life the hours spent in fishing. Columnist Collins Doughtie, a graphic designer by trade and fishing guide by choice, sure hopes that's true.