Anglers at O.C. Sharkers tournament more concerned about baits than bites


June 26, 1994|By PETER BAKER

OCEAN CITY -- Talk of sharks, while picking up a chocolate shake from a Dumsers stand, might cause a few eyebrows to be raised by anxious parents within earshot along the boardwalk.

But that same conversation, held in the cabana bar at the Ocean City Fishing Center this past week, might evoke wide grins and strings of stories about makos, tigers, blues, hammerheads and even great whites taken from nearby waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

This resort city, more famous among anglers for its white marlin and tuna fishing, sports a small, intense recreational fishery for sharks. And though the sharks pose virtually no danger to the crowds of swimmers along the beaches here, spring through fall, their numbers make for a long, challenging season.

"One of the nice things about it is the diversity of sharks we have out here," Capt. Mark Sampson said from the cabin of his 40-foot charter boat last week, as he completed preparations for the start of the O.C. Sharkers Tournament here this weekend.

"Being centrally located on the East Coast, we have some of the southern sharks that they don't see too much up north, and some northern sharks that they don't see too much down south."

In the early season, from mid-May to mid-July, the blue and mako sharks move into area waters before heading north. In the middle of the summer, great whites, tigers, hammerheads, black tips, duskys and sandbar or brown sharks move north from southern waters.

Warming water temperatures and food -- bluefish, mackerel, whiting, tuna, for example -- bring the sharks in, and in the early season, they congregate along the 20-fathom line offshore, where bait and predator play deadly hide-and-seek among the wrecks and bottom structure.

"[The season] really does last from mid-May right into October," said Sampson, whose 40-foot Fish Finder is Ocean City's premier sharker. "Most people think of the month of June and the first two weeks of July as the prime season.

"But, to me, that is the easy season. That is when the sharks are easy to find, because they congregate along the 20-fathom line and are feeding on the bluefish, which are from the 20-fathom line in."

As the season progresses, however, sharks spread out from the beaches right out to the canyons, said Sampson.

"So it is a little bit harder to get on them later in the season," said Sampson, 36, who has been sharking for 25 years and has run his own charter boat for the past eight. "They are there, and maybe it takes a little more experience in the late season to catch sharks."

Sampson's clients hold six of 15 state shark records. Seven of the records are held by anglers from the Baltimore area, and 12 of the records are held by people from Maryland.

Going about shark fishing, Sampson said, is something anyone with suitable tackle and a suitable boat can do. It is similar to

chumming for Chesapeake Bay bluefish, but on a larger scale.

Where one might use a medium spinning rod in a bay chum line, anglers in the Sharkers tournament were using 50- and 80-pound class tackle.

But the common denominator is the use of chum to attract the fish.

"The reputation of sharks sort of spooks people or makes them think they are getting involved with more than they can chew," Sampson said. "But the average shark that people encounter is nothing that people who know the basic fishing techniques and basic sharking techniques can't overcome."

There will be fish hooked and lost; lines will break; big, strong sharks will sometimes simply outlast the fishermen.

"When we started shark fishing, we definitely lost some fish and did some things wrong -- things that are even too crazy to mention," Sampson said. "But back then we were just a bunch of kids experimenting."

In 25 years, Sampson has developed tactics and techniques to meet virtually every fishing situation, whether pursuing sand tigers at Winter Quarter Shoals or the Bassgrounds or makos in )) late July out toward the canyons.

There are enough variables that anyone interested in sharking should spend the dough to hire a charter or spend the time to read what has become a sizable collection of literature and to study the nautical charts.

Sampson carries an encyclopedia of shark knowledge in his head, and once he decides where sharks are likely to be at a given stage of the season, boat positioning becomes key.

"We will either anchor or drift. Either way, we are going to be chumming," Sampson said. "We try to drift over structure, as many hills and valleys as possible. A favorite tactic of mine is to set up right on an edge or a drop-off or maybe near a wreck.

"Let your chum drift across [the structure], figuring that the sharks are already there or that in their daily travel routes they are going to be passing by."

On a windless day, Sampson often will anchor.

"If you're not going to cover a lot of ground [while drifting], you might as well go to an area where you think the sharks are anyway," Sampson said. "Even if there is not a wind, there is usually a current.

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