My Incredible Shark Story
There are some fishing memories made every day, and then there are events on the water that stay branded in your head for a lifetime, this happens to be one of them.
In September of 2000, I received a phone call one afternoon from an acquaintance that works at a local hotel in Hilton Head. She inquired about the weather and asked the usual fishing questions, in which I went into detail of how intense it's been with the recent catches of Tarpon and huge sharks. She explained that she had a favorite guest staying with her and that he was celebrating his 85th birthday the following day. She also informed me that the previous fishing trips he had experienced in other parts of the country each turned disappointing, and that he's never caught anything outside of his Arkansas pond. After a little reassurance, the Arkansas native booked the charter for 2pm the following day for just himself.
The next day was perfect. Lower 80's, not a cloud in the sky and the water was as calm as a sheet of glass. As I was waiting for his arrival, I was curious about his mobility, so I kept debating on whether I should downsize the tackle and target smaller species, something that he could handle. The alternative would be to go big and help him through it. Considering it was his birthday and the man hadn't had any luck in his previous ventures, I figured, "Let's make this a memorable event and go for a home run."
The first sight I remember, he was walking down the ramp as slowly as one could walk. It almost looked as if he was counting the boards going down to the boat. He was a short-spoken man, just a soft handshake and a polite request to catch a fish—a fish he could tell his grandchildren about. After a little maneuvering and using the cooler as a stepstool, he made it safely onto the deck. The older gentleman barely spoke after our initial handshake, just a couple of short stories about the proud bass he caught in his local pond. We were on our way to a fishing area where I've had quite a lot of success. There was only one other boat in sight that was fishing in our general area that afternoon, and we both agreed to keep each other informed on any happenings or great catches.
With my sole customer patiently waiting, I set up my usual 4 rods and told him about the species we might come across. Considering how quiet he was, the 10 minutes that we had been waiting seemed like an hour. A call on the radio then came in from the boat just a mile north with reports of tarpon everywhere. I waited a few more minutes, and the captain adamantly stressed the need for me to quickly head to the location. Unable to give my original destination a legitimate chance, I headed north. As I pulled in, I initially didn't see any fish, but I did see that the other boat was busy chasing a tarpon.
Without a word from my customer, I quickly set up my 4 rods and took a step back. Within 30 seconds of having the baits out, the largest was hit! The rod bent all the way down, and then, mysteriously went all the way back up, as if we had missed the strike. Out of curiosity, I slowly grabbed the rod and eased upward. I noticed tension, but it was odd. It wasn't a fish; I didn't feel a struggle. It was like we had snagged a tire or large rock. My customer was safely sitting in a chair, the same one he'd been in since we left, so I gave him the rod and instructed him to find out what strange object hung on the line. As he reeled, the tension on the rod remained the same, very weak. The 12 ft wire leader was now in sight, so I knew that this mystery rock would soon be visible. What I witnessed next absolutely blew my mind. It was the largest tiger shark I had ever seen! I yelled with excitement as the shark slowly became more visible. My customer couldn't speak, so I had to ask him in excitement, "Do you see that?"
He quietly, in a low voice, said, "YES."
This tiger shark was so massive that he didn't even know he was hooked. He had eaten the largest of the bait, and swam toward the boat purely out of curiosity.
The shark then surfaced for a few seconds, and just before he swam back down I told the old man to hang on as tightly as he could. I jerked the leader as hard as my back would allow, which put this Jaws-like shark in a panic. He slammed into the side of the boat so hard that it knocked me to the ground. I heard a definite crack when he hit, but the old man held onto the rod like it was a lifeline. The line was pouring out of the reel and I grabbed the radio to notify others that the boat was cracked and taking on water. With one hand on the radio, I leaned over the side to check the damage. The hull wasn't cracked, but the rivets were all broken out of the side. Since there was no water leak, I didn't see any danger in continuing.
The old man never said a word. He showed no fear or concern at all.
With the reel screaming incessantly, we were in the process of losing all the line. Running to the front to pull in the anchor is a common occurrence while fighting large fish, but this one was moving with no hesitation, so instead I fired up the motor, retrieved the anchor, and began the chase. Chasing this shark was tiring. We couldn't slow it down. During the first hour, the old man wore down a few times, and I would take the rod to give him breaks.
Two hours went by and the shark swam where it wanted. I still couldn't see any hesitation in its fight. My customer progressed to taking longer breaks, which made me concerned about his health. I recommended cutting the line soon because this fight could last into the night. The older gentleman didn't show a lot of emotion, barely any, but he made it clear that we weren't giving up. Another hour passed and nothing had changed. The shark continued to swim strong without showing one sign of weakness, but we were wearing down. We continued to trade the rod off every 15 minutes, but even that wasn't enough.
On the 4th hour we were exhausted; the battle was becoming impossible. I started talking about cutting the line again and he wouldn't even acknowledge the words.
Half way through the 4th hour, the line started to rise, as if the shark was surfacing, but we weren't moving or slowing this fish. It almost seemed like the monster was coming to the surface out of curiosity. I exclaimed to get his camera, that this might be the last time we see it. The shark came up to the surface, about 50ft away. I tightened the drag, so it took both of us to hang on to the rod, which made it impossible for either of us to take any pictures. As the shark slowly swam back down, my worn out customer yelled, "Cut the line!"
I ran for the pliers and cut it loose. We didn't get any video or pictures, and there are no other witnesses. Just me, the old man, and one heck of a story.
As we walked up the dock after the most amazing battle I had ever witnessed, he said a few things that I'll never forget. He extended his hand, which I noticed was covered in blisters, looked me in the eye, and said, "You've given me a day I'll never forget. I don't know how to thank you. I don't know if my family or grandkids will ever believe me, but I'll tell this story till the day I die."
That evening, I went to a restaurant to eat at the bar and ran into a couple of captains that had fished that afternoon. They seemed pretty excited about the tarpon they had caught that day. Trying to seem excited for them, they asked what I had caught. I hesitated. I knew if I told the truth, they wouldn't believe me. I spoke of a large tiger, one of the larger ones I had caught that season. I think I did the wise thing. If one of the captains had come to me and said he fought a 15ft Tiger shark weighing over 1700 pounds, I wouldn't have believed him either. The catch of a lifetime!
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