The other fishermen used to laugh at Chip Michalove when he’d venture out to sea — for 12 straight winters — off of Hilton Head Island on a quest to catch the apex predator of the Atlantic.
“It was like Chip was on a great white shark goose chase,” veteran Hilton Head charter captain Fuzzy Davis puts it bluntly. Davis is known as one of the founding fathers of Lowcountry fishing here, with more than three decades of fishing experience. “We all thought he was nuts.”
“Here comes Chip again,” they’d say as his 26-foot Glacier Bay catamaran would return to the Hilton Head marina, unsuccessful, again.
Michalove, the perky charter captain of Outcast Sport Fishing with bright blonde hair, had moved to Hilton Head from Kentucky in 1989 and had wanted to catch a great white since he was in high school. He got the bug when he saw dead sea turtles wash up on shore with large bite marks.
“I knew the bite marks were too big to come from a tiger shark, so I knew they were out there,” Michalove said. It became his obsession and life goal.
There was no proof that Atlantic great whites even came near Hilton Head Island. Rumors of sightings swirled, but they were just whispers of the sea.
Michalove followed every lead, picking up clues every time a great white was photographed in the region. He took notes on bait, equipment, water depth, temperature, location — every detail he could gather.
Once, after reading about a commercial fisherman who accidentally caught a great white, he hunted down his number and cold-called him.
“He told me I wasn’t looking for a needle in a haystack, I’m looking for a needle in a field of haystacks,” Michalove said.
The other guys wanted nothing to do with catching great whites.
“He’d ask us to come with him in case he’d caught one, and we’d all kind of laugh and be like, ‘Fishin’ in the winter? For a great white? Here? Are you kidding? Good luck, man, but I don’t want to do that,’” Davis laughed.
Why brave winter winds during a season when no one really fishes, searching for a shark few had successfully hooked on rod-and-reel?
“It got to the point where I had to lie about what I was doing when I was looking because they’d laugh so much,” Michalove said.
But Michalove persisted.
“Each day I thought would be the day we would see one, and when you’re out there for eight hours chumming and you don’t even see a dogfish, it’s demoralizing,” he said.
That why he was alone when he saw the first one.
“I couldn’t drag anyone out there to chum all day with me anymore,” he said.
Michalove laughs thinking about Jan. 29, 2014, a night that changed everything. He hooked a glorious great white just a few miles offshore at sunset, all by himself. He couldn’t believe he was face to face with the target of his obsession. He also had little knowledge about what to actually do after hooking a 1,000-pound beast.
“I was so scared when I first saw it, I blacked out a little bit,” he said. “Half my brain was saying, ‘Cut the anchor and get out of here. It’s too big.’ The other half of my brain said, ‘You’ve been waiting for this for 10 years, and we’re not going anywhere.’”
So he “fought the fish,” as he puts it, for a beautiful, but fleeting, speck of time. The shark escaped the hook before the 40-year-old captain could reel it close to his boat and justify his obsession to the world.
He called The Island Packet as soon as he got home that night, bursting with excitement. He told a reporter he had hooked a great white and was ready for his front-page story. Come back with proof, a photograph, he was told.
“Three days later, with two friends, on Super Bowl Sunday, I hooked another,” he said.
After 12 years and hundreds of failed attempts, he had a great white shark on the line long enough to bring it to his boat and photograph it for the world, before it broke free.
“I was angry about the loss, but it was at that moment I realized we figured it out,” he said. “It’s like something clicked, and I got it. I started catching them consistently.”
That’s also when the other fishermen realized he was on to something big, Davis said.
Great white shark fame
“Chip took a fish that wasn’t even listed on DNR’s website as being a fish that was caught in S.C. and he found out they were here,” Davis said. “When you take a fish that no one knew was here and then develop your business around it — that doesn’t ever happen. And it’s really incredible.”
Michalove is turning heads among charter captains around the world. They’re following his boat, watching his moves. They are looking for the secrets.
“They’re actually listening to me now with all this great white shark attention, but I’d like to do some good with that,” Michalove said.
But he said he would rather quit fishing tomorrow than share his secrets on catching great whites.
“I’m worried that I started this thing that I’ll regret later,” he said. “I’m scared the wrong people will catch on and really hurt this species.”
Michalove is so worried about the wrong people learning his techniques that he has gone to great lengths to throw them off the scent. He’s been known to use a decoy boat to prevent anglers from following him to his secret spots. He doesn’t take just anyone who will pay on a charter to see a great white. Only a few of his most trusted friends have witnessed the magic first hand.
Michalove is also worried about the effects catching great whites has on the animals themselves.
He has let go of several he’s hooked before reeling them in for a photo, with the animals’ stress levels in mind. He never lifts great whites out of the water.
“The process and method I’m using is putting such minimal stress on the animals,” Michalove said. “I go above and beyond to make sure these sharks swim away as healthy as possible. I need them out there making babies and being comfortable in the area so I can study them more.”
As a fisherman, he sees sharks as an essential predator in the ocean that helps provide more fish for tomorrow, especially the big ones.
But it wasn’t always like that.
How it all started with “Jaws”
The charter captain who these days describes each of the great whites he catches with words like “sweetheart” wasn’t always the careful conservationist. Michalove used to kill sharks for sport. He said he now wishes he could change that.
Fuzzy Davis calls Chip Michalove the “Frank Mundus of the Southeast.”
Mundus was the cold-faced, obsessive-compulsive fisherman who was the first person to catch a great white on rod-and-reel in the Atlantic. He inspired Quint’s character in “Jaws.” In the 1975 movie, Quint fearlessly hunted down the man-eating fish in a film that vilified sharks in the eyes of Americans for decades.
Mundus also happens to be Michalove’s idol. His life as a fisherman in the Northeast mirrors Michalove’s story in many ways. Mundus was the maverick of shark fishing, the man Michalove always dreamed of being.
Men across the nation saw Quint’s chase for the monstrous sea villain to be heroic and inspiring and, suddenly, every person fishing wanted to go after a shark, Davis said.
“When ‘Jaws’ came out, it caused this absolute frenzy,” Davis said. “Charter clients wanted to shark fish instead of go after this other stuff that was popular before.”
“My generation started really promoting shark fishing and catching sharks, and it started to be a big deal on Hilton Head,” Davis said.
The older fishermen thought of sharks as way too much trouble for not enough reward, since shark meat is mostly no good, he said.
“Most the older guys wanted nothing to do with sharks,” he said. “It was beneath them.”
Davis started his charter business just a few years after “Jaws” came out, and the clients started booking trips to catch a shark.
One of those clients happened to be the Michalove family. Five-year-old Chip climbed aboard Fuzzy Davis’ small Outrage boat named “Jenny” and his life changed forever.
Michalove calls his shark obsession “the bug” and said it all started on “Jenny.”
At first, Chip was terrified, hysterically crying as Fuzzy reeled in a 100-pound blacktip twice the little boy’s size. He touched the shark’s gray, smooth skin while it was still alive. They killed it, in the way most people squash a bug. Without question.
“I still remember the smell of the shark and sunblock,” he said. “I was scared to death and crying. But afterward I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I went back to Kentucky and put signs up all over the lake with my phone number saying “guide for hire.”
He moved to Hilton Head Island in 1989 and fished every chance he could.
Ten years later, he took a risk, bought a boat and started his charter business. A few years in, he started fishing in tournaments, realizing it was an easy way to promote his business and make some money on the side.
“I was in it for the wrong things,” he said. “ I was seeing dollar signs and my picture in the paper,” he said. “I definitely wasn’t thinking about the sharks.”
Killing sharks for the wrong reasons
Like Mundus and many other professional anglers on the East Coast, Michalove spent many years killing sharks for sport and state records to help promote his business.
It’s taken Michalove, who now works with scientists to help study and preserve shark species, a few years to speak about his shark-hunting days publicly.
“I’m sick to my stomach seeing pictures from the Edisto Shark Tournament this year. Those are huge female tigers they’re killing, in the prime of their reproductive stage,” Michalove said. “When one of those females is killed, it takes out the population of large sharks off our coast.”
NOAA and state officials are currently investigating that tournament for allowing the killing of protected species. Michalove voiced his concerns on social media, where he can often be found tweeting at fisherman in defense of sharks.
He takes this issue to heart. He’s been in those same shoes as the fishermen standing proudly next to a 10-foot bloody shark dangling from a rope. It all makes his stomach turn, he said.
“I fished in those tournaments for years and usually took first or second, and I took a couple state records killing sharks,” he said.
“It’s crazy to think about, but I would fish at this tournament, and you were like Dale Earnhardt if you won that thing,” Chip recalls. “I’m not proud of it now, but I used to post pictures of these huge sharks I killed for tournaments and state records on my Facebook page and everyone would just say how awesome it was.”
Doing something like that now would generate so many threats he’d have to delete his Facebook account, he said.
“The perception of sharks has changed so much, it’s crazy,” he said.
Michalove gets hate mail on Facebook even when he’s tagging strictly for science.
“I remember days when people thought of killing sharks like killing an ant,” Michalove said. “Man, that’s changed.”
Michalove doesn’t remember the exact day when his mindset shifted to the guy who gets emotional just looking at a picture of a dead shark killed at a tournament.
But he credits the change to scientists who taught him about the importance of sharks in the ocean.
“At some point I realized that I can’t kill the species I rely on,” he said. “Sharks are the lions of the ecosystem, and killing them means killing a lot of species below them that I also rely on.”
He started working with scientists at South Carolina Department of Natural Resources to tag tiger sharks in the Port Royal Sound a few years ago and started realizing he could do something to help protect the ocean.
“You become more aware to how important these fish are to our waters,” he said. “And you realize that the same sharks are coming back here, year after year. Thirty percent of the tiger sharks I’ve caught twice. They’re our locals. We can’t kill them.”
This opened up new doors for Michalove, which eventually led him to work with leading shark scientists at Atlantic White Shark Conservancy in Chatham, Mass.
“What Chip is doing is remarkable,” biologist Greg Skomal at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy said. “It adds a lot to our data and helps us answer big questions we have about great whites.”
Michalove’s path from shark hunter to conservationist was carved by Mundus, his hero, who campaigned for shark fishermen to catch and release their prey and promoted the circle hook for catching sharks, which hooks the animals by the jaw instead of the gut, helping to ensure the shark endures less pain.
According to NOAA, this is a trend taking off among anglers across the United States. NOAA reports nearly 96 percent of sharks caught for recreation are now released. Anglers like Michalove are trading in their trophies to team up with scientists to help preserve and discover the ocean.
“Most of the best fishermen out there aren’t killing (sharks) anymore, they’re working with scientists,” Michalove said. “And if they do (kill sharks), they don’t get respect. You can’t respect someone who has no respect for the ocean and how it works.”
Fewer and fewer of the 70 recreational shark tournaments registered with the federal government allow killing of the catches.
“I wish these kill tournaments (in South Carolina) would wise up and realize it’s not 1950 anymore. It’s not OK killing sharks anymore, knowing what we know,” Michalove said.
How tagging helps sharks
Michalove has tagged eight great whites he’s caught with satellite or acoustic tags, which feeds scientists data as the shark moves through the Atlantic. His goal is to continue helping scientists by tagging more sharks each winter.
“The coolest thing about great whites is there is so much to be discovered,” Michalove said. “And we’re just getting started.”
Davis said Michalove’s “great white shark goose chase” has helped put Hilton Head on the map and made it known for something besides a beach town with good golf.
“Hilton Head is becoming this shark capital of the East Coast, and Chip has a lot to do with developing that,” Davis said. “Every charter client I have asks ‘What’s the biggest shark caught here?’ They are so curious about what’s in our water. Now, because of Chip, we know. He doesn’t get enough credit.”