As told by Darren Volker
For one angler, a typical day shark fishing turned into a toothy, bloody, hand-to-hand fight to the death in the blink of an eye.
This was years ago, June, 1997 I guess, and me, my best friend Phil, my dad, and a few other buddies were fishing in a shark tournament out of Leonardo’s Marina near Sandy Hook in Jersey. We were all brand-new shark fishermen at the time, so, you know, there’s a lot of excitement when you start out doing that. There’s the fins in the water and the sharks are so close, there’s a lot of mystery to it. I call it the Jaws effect. So y’know we’re all excited as we head out, and we’re like, getting chased by this little gale that’s coming off the land. And we’re watching it on radar get closer and closer and then—Bam! it’s right on us, heavy winds, rain dumping down, the whole thing. And we’re in this little 25-foot Contender center console, so of course that adds to the excitement.
But eventually, thankfully, the storm dies down, and we make our way out to the wrecks about 25 miles off, and start building our slick. We catch a couple blue sharks, you know, we’re having fun, all the baits are out. And then all of the sudden I’m hooked into a mako, which of course is what you want. It was probably a hundred pounds, smallish, but still a mako. A super-athletic, mean fish. I got it close to the boat, and handed the pole off to Phil to finish the job, and I went to the bow to get the harpoon. And right after I do that, the thing just explodes across the transom fast as it could go, and it tailwalks for a little bit and then it jumps—I mean it jumps high—it goes right over my head and bashes into the T-top, and then it falls right into the bow at my feet. And this thing, when I say it’s going absolutely nuts it’s an understatement. It’s thrashing, flipping all over, biting anything it can get its mouth on. Ropes, cleats, cushions, you name it. Oh, and to make it worse, one of the guys, trying to get away from the shark, kicked over a bucket of bunker oil, so now the deck is as slick as an ice-skating rink too.
I can admit it now, I was scared! There’s five of us in the boat, and it’s a 25-footer, and let me tell you something, that boat got real small, real quick. And we couldn’t even shoot the shark because it’s inside the boat. Bad situation. My buddies, I think they were even more scared than me, because even though they were farther away in the back of the boat, they had some perspective on just exactly what was happening. Me, I was just reacting. I had the harpoon in my hands and I jabbed out at the thing just to like, get it away from me, and luckily the harpoon stuck through the shark’s gill plate and straight out the other side. I had it pinned in the corner between the gunwale and the deck. And what could I do? The shark’s going berserk, and it’s just me and him, so I did the only thing I could think of, I just leaned in on that harpoon with all of my weight. I’m telling you the thing was quarter-inch-thick stainless steel and it bent like a banana. Finally the mako latched onto a cleat on the gunwale and sort of steadied itself, and Phil was able to creep up and get a gaff in the tail. And we gaffed that thing all over and sort of laced it up in rope like it was in a spider web. And everybody onboard was sorta like “Well, you know what? We got our shark, let’s go in.” Man, we were done at that point.
So we go in and weigh it and it’s a little fish—legal, but little—so we didn’t win the tournament or anything but I think we got a pretty good story out of the day.
Looking back on it, there’s a couple takeaways. One, now when we get a mako on we always get the boat running. That day we just let the boat plop around in the water as we were fighting the shark, and that makes you a target. So now we keep the boat running until the fish is tired. You never want to try to land a green mako.
And two, I just think about how lucky we were. If that’s a 200-pound fish, I can’t hold it down with the harpoon, no way. And then what happens? And if it was a 300-pounder … Man, I don’t even want to think about that.
Darren Volker is a fisherman from Whippany, New Jersey, who charters his 35-foot Bertram Mary Lou Crew. He knows a lot more about catching sharks now than he did the day the shark caught him—he fishes in tournaments and charters for them regularly. Volker says he still feels bad about having to kill a 100-pound mako and in a normal situation he would have let a fish that size go. But hey, can you blame him?