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Shark Bites Black tips save the day in the Gulf

By Bobby Cleveland

bcleveland@clarionledger.com

BILOXI – Sharks have the reputation of a ravenous, relentless appetite.

Good thing, too, because on a day when nothing else seemed hungry in the Gulf of Mexico, some huge black tip sharks crashed our party.

Zzz.

Zzzzzz.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!

“Fish on! Fish on!” hollered Capt. Robert Earl McDaniel, better known as Capt. Earl.

He grabbed the pole as line was being stripped off the big Penn reel and handed it down to photographer Brian Broom.

“Put the brake on, let the line go tight and straight and then slam him,” Capt. Earl said. “Slam him hard!”

Capt. Earl was excited because the fish was acting just like a cobia (a.k.a. lemonfish), our targeted species. We were anchored atop the Isle of Capri, an old island now submerged between Horn and Ship Islands.

It is one of Capt. Earl’s favorite places to chum for big cobia during their April and May spawning period.

Broom set the hook, the rod bowed and the reel screamed.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!

Then, sadly, the line went slack. The fish was gone.

Broom reeled in the line and Capt. Earl recognized the problem immediately.

“Shark!” he said, holding up the cleanly cut line. “Bit right through it.”

Just then, two more reels started singing.

Broom grabbed one and I got the other. We set the hooks and got the same results.

“School of sharks,” Capt. Earl said. “Must be big.”

Now, understand, to a charter captain who makes a living off chasing cobia and other game fish, sharks are a nuisance.

But, to a guy who has never challenged a shark, like Broom, the thought of battling “jaws” is enticing.

“I’ve always wanted to catch me a big ol’ shark,” Broom said.

Capt. Earl grinned that “I can make that happen” grin, and started rebuilding the bit-through lines.

“Never ceases to amaze me, the fascination my charter clients have with sharks,” he said. “I can take them out, catch $1,000 worth of snapper, cobia and amberjacks, and get more of a reaction from a shark .”

So Capt. Earl was prepared. He went to some 200-pound monofilament leader.

Just minutes after tossing out fresh live baits on the beefed-up lines, we got a bite.

Having battled many big sharks over the years, including three hours against a 290-pound hammerhead about 25 years ago, I decided to let Broom have his “fun.”

Capt. Earl gave him the pole, Broom threw the brake and when the line got tight, he set the hook.

“Oh my word!” said Broom, who was almost pulled out the back of the rocking boat. “That fish has some kind of power.”

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!

Line was stripping off the reel very fast, and Broom was just grinning. He would soon realize the agony involved in retrieving every inch of that line.

For the first 20 minutes, Broom basically held on and let the fish play itself, taking a little line between the beast’s power surges.

Capt. Earl was hopeful.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear that was a brown fish,” he said, referring to the cobia. “He’s acting just line a big cobia. See how he’s just hanging around out there.

“Now, if he starts to circle the boat, I might think it is a cobia.”

The fish must have been listening, because right then, it started a power surge toward the front of the boat.

“Go! Go! Go!” Capt. Earl shouted.

“Huh? What? Where?” said Broom.

“To the front of the boat, hurry, before he gets around the anchor rope,” Capt. Earl said.

This is where fishing became work – and a bit treacherous.

Going up front required negotiating a very narrow walkway around the gunwale that had no handrail.

Broom would have to traverse that while holding on to a pole that was attached to a very irate fish, walking on a deck made slippery by sea spray on a boat that was rocking and rolling in the high seas.

Broom was excited enough to make the trip, until he took the first step up onto the walkway.

There he froze.

The fish was still running forward and about to start circling.

“Go! Go! Go!,” said Capt. Earl.

Broom just stood there, one hand on the rod and the other on the last piece of handrail remaining before committing to the full trip.

I walked over to the window between the cockpit and the gunwale and asked Broom if he needed help.

What he said can’t be printed, but, essentially, the message was yes.

I grabbed the pole and walked it to the front of the cockpit, going from opening to opening.

That left Broom free to keep both hands on the edges of the window.

It worked, and just in time. When Broom grabbed the rod back, the fish was just going under the anchor rope. With Capt. Earl’s help, Broom was able to get the rod under the rope, too.

Of course, the fish kept circling and we had to repeat the rod handoff down the opposite of the boat …

… and then two more full round trips.

It was in the middle of the second lap that we got the first clear glimpse of the fish through a wave. The tall dorsal fin was easy to spot.

“Shark,” said Capt. Earl.

“$#!%!” I added, still envisioning grilled cobia steaks.

“All right,” shouted Broom.

There were still a few minutes left in that battle when I noticed something moving around the balloon on the long line behind the boat.

Zzzz.

Zzzz.

I reached over, grabbed the rod and turned off the clicker.

By then, line was stripping off the reel in a blur.

I threw the brake on, let the line get tight and then set the hook three times very hard.

A huge shark sort of half-lunged, half-rolled on the surface 200 yards behind the boat. It was another shark, this one about double the size of the one Broom had just gotten to the side of the Whipasnapa.

A few more minutes would be needed for Capt. Earl to gaff the shark, so I just stood there and let the second fish do as it pleased.

As soon as the first shark was subdued and Broom set the pole down and headed for the camera bag, I did the prudent thing and stuck the second rod in the photographer’s hands.

“You liked that so much, here’s you another one,” I said. “Enjoy!”

As I photographed the 6 1/2-foot shark that Capt. Earl held on a gaff (we released it alive and unharmed), Broom started what would be an hour battle with the bigger black tip.

Four full trips around the boat were required this time, but by then we had the technique down pat.

When the battle ended and the big shark, at least 7 1/2 feet in length, was alongside Capt. Earl made no move to the gaff.

“Biggest black tip I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Got to be 140, 150 or even 160 pounds.

“Believe I’ll let nature take it’s course.”

We stood there watching the shark chomp until it finally bit clean through the 200-pound mono.

“Worth a $2 hook,” Capt. Earl said.

Broom fell back into a chair and looked whipped.

“Shall we get you another,” I asked.

What he said can’t be printed, but, essentially, the message was no.