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Tales From The Edge: A Long Shark Tail



Stearns Leadin

    Back in June 2004, my regular fishing buddy Danny Foy invited me sharking on his boat, the Katie-Jo, along with "Smitty," his close friend Danny Smith, whom he's known since childhood. The day of the trip I was actually scheduled to take delivery of my only new boat to date. Since it was rare to have Smitty's humorous wit and fishing experience on board, I decided the delivery would have to wait. I knew if I blew off this trip I'd miss something special.
    I was right.
    We started our trip on a nice 1-foot ocean, with light tailwinds. After running southeast 35 miles looking for blue water, we had to settle for clean water in an area known as the Rock Piles. There we jumpstarted our slick by dragging a couple cans of chum downwind at idle while we pulled out the sticks. We lined in the standard three-rod set up, each with a fresh bluefish fillet hung from a float at staggered depths of 30, 60 and 90 feet. With the lines set out and hanging perfectly in the slick, we start the waiting game. After three hours and only a few cannibalistic bluefish, the 60-foot bait takes off like a shot. Surely a shark.
    Smitty grabs the rod, lowers the tip, pushes the drag to strike, waits for the line to come taut and then stabs the fish hard twice. After the textbook hook set, the rod doubles over and 80-pound mono starts tearing off the reel. As Danny and I clear the other two lines, the float briefly reappears more than a hundred yards away, and well past that, something, possibly a whip tail, just barely breaks the surface.
    Neither will be seen again for more than an hour.
    Danny quickly throws a simple (read: small cheap crap) fighting belt around Smitty and fires up the boat. It soon becomes obvious this is not our usual blue dog or small mako because this fish just hunkers down deep and steadily heads farther out to sea. Danny occasionally tries turn, raise or tire the fish by turning Katie-Jo upwind. Each time, however, this only puts an incredible amount of pressure on Smitty and dumps all the line he had just struggled to put on. Almost an hour of fighting the fish and the boat with a cheap fighting belt took its toll on Smitty's back and he was done. All this time and we're still no closer to our mystery fish.
    It was now my time to don “the belt.” It was strapped on me the same way Smitty had it on, and my soft back didn’t last two minutes. Buckling over in pain I remembered something I seen on a fishing TV show about using your legs to beat sharks. I slid the belt's gimbal lower, on top of my thighs, and locked straight my left arm to the foregrip. This works similar to a stand-up harness. The rod would dip a little when I stood and raise when I squatted. Every time I dipped the rod a little, I'd take a couple of inches of line. Sometimes the battle seesawed over the same few inches so long that the line dried and under pressure squeaked loudly on the ring guides, validating my preference for rollers on 80s and up.
    Luckily for me, Danny gave up trying to turn the fish with the boat and just kept it perfectly port side. Now in a comfortable position I just kept short-stroking the fish, adding extra pressure by pressing the line against the foregrip with my left thumb to put line on the reel. Finally after being tied to this thing for some 20 minutes I was able to yell, “I got color!”
    Then in a low, very serious tone I said, “Holy shit, we need a bigger boat.” Danny heard that at the wheel and (by his own account), knowing I'm not easily rattled, the hair stood up on his neck.
    We were tied to a big thresher in a little 21-foot Parker pilothouse, and the wind was picking up.
    With any type of fishing the final moments are important, but anyone who sharks knows getting the fish boat side is only half the battle at best. This is where anything that can go wrong, will, and experience separates the men from the boys. You'll see where we fell in a minute. With the swivel near the tip, Smitty grabs the 6-foot flying gaff and ties off the end to the port-side stern cleat. With the boat idling forward to keep the fish along side, Danny jumps off the wheel, grabs the leader and pulls the fish into gaff range. I ease the drag and back out of the way. Smitty sinks the gaff perfectly, completely through the thick of the back, right behind the dorsal. He then muscles the back half of the fish from the water, eliminating its swimming power. Danny quickly pops the boat in neutral, all going like a well-oiled machine.
    Until Danny tries to sink a second flier in the fish's head and the gaff head malfunctions and releases prematurely without penetrating, of course.
    After quickly resetting the gaff, the second head shot malfunctions the same way, but this time the big fish goes absolutely nuts. The wildly flailing tail nearly if not actually hitting Smitty makes the gaff rope pop out of his hands and he falls backwards hard on the deck. Danny takes a quick knee to check on Smitty's condition. Still holding the rod I run to the gunwale and watch the fish slowly sink straight down head first. As soon as its entire tail was submerged, it made two quick sweeps with it, bringing 30 feet of half-inch flying gaff rope so tight it twanged like a guitar string. I expected the gaff to tear out of the fish and to be back on the reel again.

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