Man Vs. Shark

An annual tournament gives anglers a chance to conquer the fish - and the fear - that has chilled many a beachgoer's imagination


If a chum slick can be pretty, this one is, a silver smear like leftover moonlight on the waves. The reality, of course, is somewhat less romantic: The shimmering is a film of fish oil leaking from a milk crate of stinking mackerel parts that the first mate just tossed overboard. For nearby sharks, the effect is like the waft of cheap perfume in a sports bar, an olfactory come-hither.

But above the waterline, there is only the sight of the slick unfurling, which - particularly when observed through a Dramamine haze - is so lovely that it's almost possible to forget that something murderous might be tracing the scent, with a big, raggedy grin.

It's the first morning of the Ocean City Shark Tournament. Since 6 a.m., when the charter boat MoJo hop-skipped past the sea buoy into open waters, the mate, Jon Yost, has been carving up mackerel fillets and filing huge fish hooks until they're sharp enough to scratch his fingernail. Now, the 61-foot boat is about four miles off the Delaware coast, the captain has cut the engine, and four long fishing poles are dropped into the depths.

In the old days, the crew might have detonated fireworks or banged cooking pots to excite the sharks' super-sensitive skin receptors with sounds that mimic a distressed fish.

But "today we have XM radio," Yost says, as someone switches on some thumping Led Zeppelin.

"You wouldn't believe how many bite for Pink Floyd," says Capt. Joe O'Boyle.

The truth is that the music is as much for the crew as their quarry. As most everyone else fishing in last weekend's three-day tournament knows, shark fishing involves hours of boredom followed by a brief confrontation with terror. It's not like Jaws, where the fish provides its own theme music, and frequently rears up with scraps of human flesh in its teeth. Nor is it like tuna fishing, where fish are charmed from the water with various strategies and tackles. No, to catch a shark the crew motors out to where the skipper thinks the depth and temperature are right, makes like a wounded whale, and drifts.

Today, they're hoping for a thresher, a thick-bodied shark with a long, thin tail that it uses like a bullwhip, stunning fish and, sometimes, fishermen. A big one could bring more than $20,000 in prize money.

As the bait is set, Ron Care, a tool business owner from Severna Park who is one of three men who've paid to tag along today, straps on the fighting belt, which will hold the rod when a monster strikes. Then everyone peers at the water, where suddenly every peak and shadow becomes a fin.

And nothing happens for a long, long time.

The lure of danger

Where the Ocean City boardwalk ends, near the inlet that leads to the deep sea, there is a mammoth shark in a glass case. Its gaping mouth curves up into something like a smile, as if it were caught in mid-guffaw. Still, a less-friendly message resonates: Given the opportunity, this sucker would swallow you.

Sunburned tourists peer into its cave of a throat and experience a thrill of fear that beats the ride on the seaside roller coaster. They read the sign that says, in 1983, there was no scale in the city big enough to weigh the 1,210-pound fish, so it had to be trucked to a nearby poultry farm. They look from the shark to the sea and then down to the round of fried dough in their hands, wondering for a moment if they're being fatted for the kill.

Then someone says, "Hey, can we fit Felicia's head in there?" Everyone laughs, and the moment is over. They saunter on.

The boardwalk shark - the largest fish caught in Maryland waters, ever - was hooked during the third annual shark tournament. More than 20 years later, the contest remains an important, if peculiar, part of the resort town's seasonal opening ceremonies, both for the fishermen who come from all over the mid-Atlantic and for the spectators who flock to the dock at the end of the day, where the biggest sharks are strung up by their tails and weighed. The spectacle is a bracing reminder of what the summer waters have to offer.

Mark Sampson has been running the show since it began 26 years ago, when there were just a handful of boats, and sharks were considered a garbage fish that no respectable angler would pursue on purpose.

But Sampson - a charter boat captain with a naturalist's air - was an early admirer of the fish, their sleek lines and evolutionary staying power. He grew up catching little sand sharks in the bay, and as a young man discovered he could snare far bigger ones with his little boat, because sharks - though most swim miles out - venture much closer to shore than most big game fish. A tournament with prizes for the heaviest sharks, he thought, would help generate interest in the emerging sport.

When Sampson came home on the first day of the first tournament with a 627-pound tiger shark slung across his 19-foot boat, he broke a state record and made headlines across Maryland. The competition took off; the Jaws sequels, which were still being filmed, were like chum in the water.

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