Caught Ovgard: Shark Week
BOCA RATON, Fla. — Television's longest-running annual summer event turned 33 last week after completing another successful run. The Discovery Channel's Shark Week started three years before I was born and is still going strong. It is still well behind Coca-Cola, McDonald's and cigarettes in longevity but adds another point to the argument that humans love things that can kill them.
Our collective mythos of sharks is rooted in our own animal nature, that trace of wildness in all of us. Maybe this is why I love shark fishing so much. Nothing else I catch can kill me if I slip up. Little else can overpower me with a swipe of its tail and leave me breathless and aching.
When I mentioned my fascination with sharks to my friend Dom Porcelli, he made note of it.
He and his wife, Tracy, were gracious hosts and allowed me to stay with them as I continued my #SpeciesQuest.
Dom has caught nearly 1,000 species of fish, placing him in the top five all time. As such, I gleaned everything I could from him as I tallied some 28 new species on his boat. After a few productive days chasing tuna and tilefish, snapper and scad, grouper and grunts, mahi and more, we set our sights on sharks, the coldly magnetic kings of the sea.
The "Shark Bait," Dom's boat, was up to the task. It earned the name when a reef shark came over the gunwale and took a bite out of Dom's foot. Serious reconstructive surgery later, he still bears a grisly scar and a healthy respect for the top of the food chain.
Dom stocked up on bait, and we left in the predawn dark on Sunday (the last day of Shark Week) with one goal: to catch my biggest fish ever.
We anchored up near a reef, put out a chum bag, sent half a barracuda to the briny depths and waited. Soon, the shark rod started to bounce and then sing the most beautiful tune I'd ever heard.
I grabbed the rod out of the holder and battled the beast in. I avoid conventional reels like the plague, it showed, but eventually, we got it boatside.
We would later identify the 7-footer as a sandbar shark. Using the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) shark size calculator, put it at 155 pounds. My biggest fish!
If we'd stopped there, I would've been stoked, but we still had bait, so …
I caught a few live ballyhoo, a popular baitfish, and we threw one out live on a lighter rod. It also hooked a small shark that broke me off after about 10 minutes when it dove under the boat.
I hit pause on the self-loathing when the big shark rod started bouncing again.
Dom assumed nurse shark based on the lack of run, and having caught more nurses than any other shark, I agreed. It was absurdly heavy, and lifting it up 70 feet of water was exhausting even with the less-than-stellar fight.
When we saw it, and it clearly wasn't a nurse shark, we expected it to take off on a blistering run at any moment. But it didn't. I got it in more quickly than the first one, but as we got it boatside, the scale of the nearly 10-footer was staggering. It was also much, much thicker.
"This fish is pretty green, so be careful," Dom said as we staged for pictures. I snapped a few middling ones before the fish got irritated and swept it's massive tail out of my hand and dove. With a powerful stroke, its tail slapped into Dom's shoulder with a wet smack that would've broken his nose if delivered just a bit higher.
We wrestled the beast back in, unhooked it and caught our breaths.
My largest fish was now a (very conservatively) 9-foot lemon shark that weighed 328 pounds, according to NOAA. Probably more like 350 or 375 given how thick the pregnant female was.
My spirit was willing, but my body was only marginally able. I'd pulled my left forearm, my right hand was swollen and aching, my back screamed in pain and I felt as though I'd just sprinted several miles in double gravity.
So naturally, this is when we hooked up again.
The third and final shark of the day was a reef shark, the same species that had sampled Dom's foot years before. But it was just a 6-footer, and we got it boatside relatively quickly on the heavy gear.
At Dom's instruction, I loosened the drag and placed the rod in the holder so we could handle and release the fish. I only loosened the drag three or four clicks, though. Something told me to loosen it more, but I didn't. With the lemon, the rod was facing the same way as the fish when in the holder. This reef was facing the opposite way. I brushed the thought away.
We got some fantastic pictures and tried to unhook it. At this, the reef shark dove with shocking speed. Dom had been holding the steel leader in his gloves and let go. I was holding the one-pound sliding sinker in one hand to protect our teeth and the 250-pound mono leader in the other. I was not wearing gloves. And like an idiot, I didn't let go immediately.
I moved to grab the rod but before I could react, the mono dug into my palm and left me with a friction burn. I flinched instead of going for the rod, which was being pulled backward. In a horrifying moment, it snapped.
It was my fault.
We both cursed but Dom was much more gracious than I would've been. I felt sick, but we were able to re-land and release the fish, though our shark fishing was over.
This one was almost exactly 6-foot and weighed 80 pounds via NOAA.
We finished up the day chasing a smaller quarry before limping back to the dock. Even with the broken rod, bruised shoulder and aching muscles, it was a great day. Those are the risks of shark fishing, and better a broken rod than a bitten foot, right?
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