He seeks shark in the sea off O.C.

July 31, 1992|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

Ocean City -- The locals call Mark Sampson shark hunter.

But Mr. Sampson, a sometimes lecturer and demonstrator of shark and offshore fishing techniques, calls himself a shark fisherman. Nothing more.

Rods and reels are his tools -- not guns. He may use a 30-pound tuna head for bait -- but not animal blood.

His 40-foot boat is named Fish Finder, a misnomer given the fact that he has built a reputation specializing in fishing for sharks -- makos, duskies, hammerheads and tigers -- miles off the Atlantic coast.

"He is Mr. Shark in Ocean City," says Chuck Motsko, a director of the annual White Marlin Open, a popular fishing tournament. "He's the best there is. He's the dominant man here."

Indeed, fishermen from Baltimore, Washington and Pittsburgh who compete in an annual shark tournament here book Mr. Sampson's boat a year in advance.

"They know he's going to win," Mr. Motsko says. "He's very well respected."

Mr. Sampson has gained respect not only for his shark fishing techniques but also for his conservation efforts.

"I am very much concerned about the shark itself as a resource," says the 34-year-old Ocean City resident.

Mr. Sampson limits the number of sharks fishermen aboard the Fish Finder may keep; usually just one or two large sharks. The others are tagged and returned to the sea.

"One of the most unusal things about Mark . . . is that he very, very seldom brings [sharks] in," says Dick Arnold, a long-time fisherman from Bowie.

Mr. Arnold says Mr. Sampson often tries to talk fishermen aboard his boat into letting sharks go.

Mr. Sampson participates in three separate gamefish tagging programs. He also is a member of an advisory committee to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is drawing up plans to manage sharks.

Mr. Sampson says federal proposals include quotas on the number of sharks caught by commercial fishermen and a ban on finning, a practice in which fins are torn from sharks, dead or alive. The shark is then tossed back to sea. Shark fins are a delicacy in the Orient.

"It's needed," Mr. Sampson says of the plan. "There wasn't much interest in sharks when I started. But I've seen their numbers decline in recent years."

The decline has resulted from both commercial and sports fishing. All shark species have been affected, he says. Mako, sandbar and duskies have been particularly hard hit.

"People are catching thousands, if not millions, of sharks," he says.

To teach shark fishing and conservation, Mr. Sampson helped found the Ocean City Sharkers Club several years ago. He is the club president.

"He's very knowledgeable," says Mr. Arnold, a club member. "Most anything I've learned, I've learned from Mark."

"The major difference between fishing for fish or sharks is that with sharks you have to be always ready to hook into something very large. You have heavy tackle lines," Mr. Sampson says.

To attract sharks, ground fish parts are dropped off a boat, he says.

Sharks, he says, can be found anywhere, including beach swimming areas. Swimmers shouldn't be alarmed, he says. It's rare for a swimmer to be bitten.

He has researched and studied sharks and their habits and knows where to look for them. In the search for a blacktip shark, for instance, he would travel 5 to 10 miles out and look for them at the edges of sandbars, where they feed on trout and other game fish. Blacktips can weigh from 10 pounds to over 200 pounds, he says.

Typically, Mr. Sampson pulls out of Bahia Marina off 22nd Street about 7 a.m. and travels 5 to 60 miles offshore.

His fascination with sharks began when he hooked his first one as a kid while fishing from a 19-foot boat.

"The appeal is the simple fact there are so many different species and sizes of sharks," he says. "It doesn't get boring. On any given day you can be out there and any minute some set of jaws could show up behind your boat."

That may be a bit Jaws-esque, but Mr. Sampson has looked squarely into the eyes of sharks on more than one occasion.

Off the Florida coast, he swam near sharks, snapping underwater pictures and capturing their movements on film with an underwater video recorder.

"There was a 9-foot hammerhead," he recalls. "It didn't look aggressive. The opportunity just presented itself. It was something I always wanted to do."

Call him nuts but he has dived below boats to untangle other fishermen's lines -- lines with sharks hooked at the other end.

"People think I'm crazy," he says.

His adventurism comes naturally. His father was a big game hunter. On their honeymoon, his parents went tiger hunting in India.

Mr. Sampson, a native of Alexandria, Va., also is a hunter. He has bow hunted for wild boar in South Carolina.

Shark fishing, though, is his love.

"There's nothing like it," he says. "You always want to hook a bigger one. And you're never going to get the biggest. Never."

There are some 15 species of sharks lurking miles off Ocean City. Sharks, he says, can weigh from 5 pounds to 4,000 pounds -- if one happens to catch a great white.

While he's never caught a big white -- only four have been brought to shore from off Maryland's coast -- he has caught a few big ones, such as the 970-pound tiger shark he hooked about 26 miles off the coast three years ago.

Shark fishing, Mr. Sampson says, is not dangerous. He has been bitten but he blames the scars on his hands on his own carelessness.

"Before I met him, I expected to see someone out of 'Jaws,' a crusty old salt with an arm missing," says Mr. Motsko. "When I met him, there was no blood. Just a young, good-looking guy."

( One intrigued by sharks.

Gone fishing

What: Fish Finder Adventures

Where: 119 B Jamestown Road, Ocean City

Call: (410) 723-1522

Boat: Docked at Bahia Marina, 22nd Street, bayside, Ocean City

Call: (410) 289-7438

Prices: $325 for half-day shark fishing to $1,000 for an overnight trip up to a party of six. Prices are lower for tuna and other types of fishing.

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