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Jun 4 , 2016

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Tackling the Toothies

by Frank Ross
Tackling the Toothies

Ten miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, the tallest condos look like small blue fingertips clinging to the edge of the world. Any further out and the horizon would be devoid of shape or form in every direction. But below the hazy horizon it’s a different story.

 

On a recent day in the blue depths below the bobbing white hull of the charter fisherman “Midnite Son,” plenty of forms moved about. How to get one of the largest and deadliest onto a hook was our concern of the moment.

 

Somewhere down there a 1,000 pound-plus duskie, tiger or hammerhead lurked, looking for an easy meal. Captain Brian Martel, 36, and Sarasota’s premier shark fisherman, was betting they would start with hors d’oeuvres of one pound chunks of bonita he had set out on two reels large enough to be truck winches. The lines were buoyed just off the bottom with blue and red party balloons. Any second one might disappear below the water, or it could take hours of waiting. Biting, Martel warned, is left strictly up to the shark.

 

Fishing for “toothies,” as Martel calls them, is a waiting game. He advises us to sleep while we could. When the strike came, the ensuing battle of sheer muscle and brute force against leverage and a 10-0 Penn reel could last for yours.

 

In the warm morning sun, a nap sounded like good advice. The mild seas maternally rocked the deck. Martel took the bow of his boat and settled down with the morning paper.

 

According to Martel, shark feed mainly by smell. The bonita he uses for bait are bloody fish that lay down a scent trail as the boat drifts with the currents and wind. A shark on a feeding foray merely has to swim over the trail and “bird-dog” it up to the waiting #12 size hook and 15 feet of braided steel leader.

 

Shark fishing is not a sport to take lightly. Proper equipment must be used, with an ample amount of caution. A shark’s skin is so rough that a swipe of the tail will snap a taut 130-pound nylon braid line like cotton twine. So Martel uses a steel leader of at least 15 feet. Sharks have been known to roll and twist a leader around their bodies, effectively shortening it until the nylon line comes into contact with their sandpaper-like skin.

 

In far less time than it took to have a decent nap, the drifting bait chunks paid off. In  our light sleep, the line paying out over the clicking reel blasted like a fire alarm. We leaped to our feet and watched the outboard balloon heading for Mexico. As I wound in the second line to avoid having two on at once, Martel readied for the fight to come.

 

“Come on, baby, keep taking it,” Martel coaxed. The shark picked up speed.

 

We watched, tense with excitement. Would the shark swallow the bait? Would the hook be set deeply? Would the line hold?

 

“Well, I think it’s time,” Martel murmured. And with that he yanked back so violently on his rod it seemed the trophy jaws would be pulled from the fish’s head. But this painful introduction only served to set the tone for the battle. The shark took off like a bullet out of a barrel.

 

Sitting in a fighting chair with both hands locked tightly and feet braced against the gunwale of the boat, Martel held on with all his strength while the unseen monster below demonstrated the power of his anger.

 

Through the strain of clenched teeth, he speculated that the fish was a scrapper, but most likely not the heavyweight we were looking for.

 

Martel yelled encouragement to his opponent as line continued to sing out of the big reel like string off a kite spool. In shark-fishing, patience and pumping are the keys to success. Line goes out in a blur, comes back begrudgingly, a few inches at a time.

 

In 15 minutes it was apparent that the fish was a gallant fighter but lacked the brute force that can extend for hours. Soon the opponent had a face as we spotted it 30 feet down, pacing cat-like against the ever-shortening line. In a flash of a hand, Martel brought the bang-stick, a twelve-gauge shotgun shell on a long pole, down on the head of a 6-foot female brown shark. In a frenzy of splashing and twisting, she made one final plunge back down into the depths, but the effort was futile. In short order she was tied off the stern by the tail and both baits were back in the water. The brown shark continued to fight against her bindings, if only with involuntary muscle spasms.

 

Hours after a shark is tied up alongside and even hauled to the dock, its teeth will snap and its tail will attempt to swim. A shark’s teeth are safe only when they’re mounted on a wall or hung around the neck on a chain.

 

Within the next three hours we had two more browns tied alongside and were fighting a 7-foot hammerhead. This was not to be a record-setting day, but there was plenty of action.

 

Sharks have become a very popular fish among anglers looking for a heavyweight-class bout. Big tuna and marlin are popular mainstays on the east coast down to the Keys, but even these standards of excellence are becoming rare compared to years gone by. On the west coast, the warm Gulf waters are the third-ranked shark waters in the world behind the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the waters of South Africa.

 

Our sub-tropical waters are so ideal for sharks that the famous Mote Marine Lab chose Sarasota to be close to the constant supply of sharks they need for their cancer research.

 

Martel often supplies Mote and marine attractions in St. Petersburg and Orlando with live sharks. He also helped land the 12-foot, 6-inch shark used in the opening scenes of the movie Jaws.

 

Although there are sharks in the Gulf year round, knowing where they are and when they will bite is an art Martel had acquired through years of studying their habits.

 

“It is work finding them,” Martel says. “You’ve got to think where they are now, how deep, what’s the temperature, when will they be feeding.”

 

In the spring and summer when tarpon are around the passes and shoreline, sharks hunt close to land. In late summer when the Gulf heats up like a warm bathtub they move further offshore to the more constant temperatures of the Gulfstream currents. In winter they move again to the warmth of shallow water until the coldest months, when they again move out to deep water.

 

Finding fish has been a lifelong pursuit for Martel. His father fished commercially in the Chesapeake Bay before he moved his family down to Siesta Key in 1950. At 13, young Brian made his spending money by guiding fishermen to snook for $3 an hour. That was before there were age and license requirements to charter guide boats, and when there were barely enough kids on Siesta Key to fill a school bus.

 

“In those days you would never consider swimming in Big Pass or New Pass,” he recalls. They were 25 feet deep then, with a six knot current rushing through. Big sharks would work the channels and Martel would work them.

 

Those were the days when he and his father would go shrimping in the passes and the shrimp would be so thick on an outgoing tide that it was impossible to see the water for their swimming bodies.

 

Now the spoil-banked channels are not so deep, and the shrimp are not so thick, but the sharks and Martel are holding their own.

 

He has held every record in the Sarasota-Venice Shark Club at various times and presently owns three. From his very first experience with a shark, he says, he has been hooked as tightly on the sport as his quarry.

It was a battle reminiscent of Hemingway’s epic sea talk. With a light grouper rig for the teenage boy fought a shark for two hours from his 16-foot rowboat. After Martel worked the fish to the surface, his fishing companion called out from the stern of the craft that the tail extended beyond the transom, with the head at the bow. At the very end, the light rig proved inadequate. That one got away, but not many have since.

 

Today high-priced protein has caused new interest in the meat of sharks because they are all muscle, no fat, and light to the taste, despite their foreboding appearance. Martel regularly ships fresh shark meat by air to northern markets. For the first time in millions of evolutionary years, nature’s perfect feeding machine is becoming a significant link in the food chain instead of its abrupt end.

 

Not everyone that catches one wants to eat a shark. Some go for the thrill of the catch, some for the desire to master death itself. And some, like Martel, are drawn by the lure of the deep and a taut line hooked to suspense. 

 

Author's note: This article was published in the Sarasota Magazine in the early '80s.