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The Leaping Sharks

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



" Toward the sea turning my troubled eye I saw the fish (if fish I may it cleepe) That makes the sea before his face to flyer"

— SPENSER.

IT requires more than ordinary temerity with an audience of anglers, to admit, even by inference, the shark to the select and honorable company of game fishes. I do not propose to commit this possible solecism, but merely to describe the play and action under restraint, of several sharks which I have caught, and others which I have seen caught, and leave the question, game or vermin ? to the reader.

It has so happened that I have passed many seasons, winter and summer, in what might be termed shark countries," that is, localities where the shark was always a factor to be considered. If a tarpon was played long enough to permit its blood to tint the water and reach away, a shark, like a hound, would follow it up and rise from the sea, shaking the fish in one's very face. I have had them on the extreme outer Florida reef, about my boat by the dozen, chasing the large barracuda that I had been playing, snatching it from the line, leaving me the head, perhaps, as a reminder that they were not altogether graceless. So plentiful were they, that I often fished for them single-handed, or with a companion, in a small boat ; under such conditions a ten or twelve foot shark has the advantage, and on the Florida reef I frequently cut away, rather than be towed out to sea by some unseen monster.

Shark-fishing is a legitimate sport if the participator will approach the game fairly, and some of the most exciting days of my life have been passed on the Florida Keys or at the mouth of the St. Johns River in the shad season, where, alone, I endeavored to master large sharks and I can commend the exercise to the man of sedentary pursuits.

There are two sharks which, in their play when hooked, are remarkable imitations of certain game fishes which deserve the attention of anglers. One of these is very common at Aransas Pass, Texas, and I have taken a similar shark from the beach of Loggerhead Key on the extreme outer reef. In the summer of 1902 I was fishing for tarpon at Aransas, and one day after making several catches I had my boatman row me to the vicinity of some fellow-anglers, hoping to photo-graph a tarpon in mid-air, — a feat that has been accomplished by Dr. Howe of Mexico, who at Tampico, the centre of the winter tarpon-fishing, succeeded in inventing a gun camera which accomplishes this work. While watching the leaps of the fishes, and snapping a kodak at them, generally taking the sky, the sun, and nothing else, I observed a fine leap accompanied by a most energetic thrashing in the air. The fish left the water bodily, and when three feet above the surface seemed to lash itself into a perfect curve before it descended, hardly touching the water before it went into the air again. I assumed it to be a very gamy tarpon, perhaps what was known here as "Yucatan Bill," a wily, long, slender tarpon, a " Yucatan bounder " that was supposed to return to this locality every summer for the purpose of amusing itself with certain innocent anglers. The "bounder " had broken lines and rods, shattered chairs, broken oars, towed boats down into the breakers opposite the jetty, and literally played havoc with the fishing fraternity, and as yet was uncaught.

I had been regaled with descriptions of this fish by the veracious wags of Tarpon Inn, who pictured him with scales as large as a dinner plate, a mouth full of big hooks, and wire which hung like a beard, and naturally thought it not improbable that my companion was being initiated by "Yucatan Bill "; hence I watched the play with much attention. Never did tarpon leap with more force or with greater zest than did this fish. Up into the air it went, whirling about, now landing on its head, now coming down broadside on, making a wave of foam, then stopping to rush to one side and encircle the boat ; always fighting, bearing off with a force that kept the stiff rod of the angler bent and the reel screaming. For twenty minutes at least I watched the play, and then, to my amazement, saw the successful angler cut away the game, and later heard his shout that it was a " leaping shark."

I had been keeping out of the way that I might not interfere with the play of the game, hence had not recognized the outline of the fish. The habitues of Aransas considered this shark essentially game. It was included among the " game fishes" caught by the members of the Tarpon Club, and certainly deserves the honor and the appellation if one can throw off the inherent dislike to sharks which holds with nearly all anglers. A similar leaping shark was not uncommon at Garden Key. I have had them leap out of the water, the entire body except the tail being clear, the subsequent rushes challenging admiration. In a word, the shark was gamy and a hard fighter ; but when it came up snapping and biting at oars and gaff, and its disagreeable half-musky odor pervaded the air, only a shark after all, one's enthusiasm paled. At Catalina Harbor, on the island of that name, at its very head where the water is not over three or four feet in depth, is the breeding-ground of a small and attractive tiger shark, known to science as Galeorhinus. In July and August they are found here in such numbers that the water within a few feet of the shore appears to be fairly bristling with large dorsal fins. It chanced that I strolled up the beach one dad with a light rod and hired an old fisherman to take my heavy bait out into the bay that do might hurl back the banter of a companion doubted my ability to land one of the sharks with my light rod and number twelve line. In a short time I had a strike, and upon hooking the game, up into the air it went, clear of the water, a mauve-colored creature beautifully striped and gracefully formed, to fall with a crash and dash up the beach at a speed that rapidly exhausted my line and forced me to run along the sands some distance before I succeeded in turning and stopping the shark, which had reached fairly deep water, and was making a most creditable fight, bearing off heavily, darting from side to side, and now and then rising into the air and shaking itself bravely. Had it not been a shark, the miserable scavenger of the sea, the cousin of the tarpon killer, it might have been considered a very gamy fish, as for fifteen minutes it defied my efforts to bring it to gaff, coming in then reluctantly, being gaffed in an extremely gallant manner by a fair angler of the party. This shark measured nearly five feet in length, and weighed sixty pounds. The leaping habit is common to the species, at least in this locality.

The sharks which have been taken in various localities with the rod and very light lines often surprise the layman by their size, girth, and fighting qualities. Along the mouth of the St. Johns and from the beaches of the Florida Keys I have enjoyed many a bout with these doughty ruffians of the deep. I once hooked a large tiger shark, picking it out from a school which I had baited ' around the boat, and as it started off towing the boat, numbers of these ugly creatures followed me, some on one side of the bow, some on the other, and others just below and not five feet from the surface—a menacing contingent. Out of scores of sharks of different kinds which I have taken in the Atlantic, the Mexican Gulf, and the Pacific I would award the palm for hard fighting and strength in proportion to its size to the hammer-head, two of which I once saw off Capes Charles and Henry in the mouth of the Chesapeake, which were not less than fifteen feet in length. I have hooked them in the Pacific and played them with the rod, but have never landed a large one in this way. Other anglers have played them longer and seemed on the very verge of victory, but so far as I am aware no one has conquered a large hammerhead with a rod. To illustrate the courage and pugnacity and thorough fighting qualities of this shark, which is a foeman well deserving the attention of him who delights in hard and closely contested hand-to-hand struggles, I, may describe a certain catch made by me off Catalina Island. I was fishing for whitefish with a light rod when something took the bait and cleverly cut the wire leader; the next moment the enormous fin of a shark appeared along-side the small boat and began to circle around it, so near that I could have touched it. My companion was demoralized, and demanded to be landed upon the rocks hard by. This accomplished, I returned and the shark took three baited hooks as fast as I could renew the bait and cast them ; when I hooked it, it merely turned its head, cutting the hook or wire. It was apparently between nine and ten feet in length, and I could plainly see the extraordinary hammerlike head with the eyes upon the ends, hypnotic and ugly. Near me was a boat in which were two Germans fishing, and as they landed a fish they hung it upon a string overboard. This now attracted the shark. I called to them and they jerked the string of fish into the boat, not a moment too soon to save it. The disappointed and hungry fish darted about the boat, striking it with its big dorsal fin, so terrifying the men, who doubtless had never before seen a shark, that they lay down in the bottom of the boat; presently I saw the barrel of a rifle, and one of the men began pumping bullets at the big creature, some of which must have taken effect, as it swam off, but still on the surface, its dorsal fin looking like a miniature lateen sail.

I determined, if possible, to catch the shark, and followed it into the bay of Avalon, and while I hurried inshore to get a shark line it dashed into a fleet of small boats and endeavored to steal the fish. When I again reached my boat, which was a two-hundred-pound, flat-bottomed skiff, I found that the hammerhead was still swimming about, defying the entire floating community. The boats were following it, men shooting at it with revolvers, or striking at it with oars and boat-hooks ; but I could not see that it paid any attention to these attacks except now to continue around the shore and so out of the bay on the opposite side. I had secured a long cod line with a jewfish hook, which I had baited with a ten-pound fish, coiling the line astern. A fresh companion rowed me directly out of the bay in order, if possible, to intercept the animal, and in ten minutes we were in its path. - As it came on, I swung the bait at it. There was a swirl of waters, the line tautened, and allowing a few seconds to pass, and as many feet of line to glide over, I jerked the hook into the shark. With all my care I was hauled to my knees, losing the line which rose from the carefully laid coil like a living thing. We were in water two hundred feet deep, and before I realized it the line was exhausted, and no flat-bottomed, broad-sterned skiff ever came so near being literally dragged bodily under water as did this. My boatman was utterly demoralized, and more than once I pressed the open knife which I had ready, upon the line, as the boat sank to the danger line.

All this time the boat was moving directly out into the channel, carrying a big wave beneath her, the shark having sounded like a whale, the line being so stiff and taut that I could not move it. My companion now shipped the oars and held them, trying to row ; but this had no effect, and the shark towed us a mile at the top of its speed before I made any impression on the line, and then it became evident that we should have to cut line or gain on the fish ; so I. manned the line and hauled, leading the line forward between my feet, my companion coiling it as I hauled, the boat being so light and unstable that but one could work. It was most difficult and laborious work, — I will not call it sport, —though in its excitement and danger there was enjoyment of a certain kind, and time and again the lusty shark tore the line from my hands and threatened to sink us ; but after half an hour I had it in hand. When it lunged I lay back and held on with my knife between my teeth, and presently found that I could hold it ; hence the strength of the shark was on the wane, whereupon I played it with renewed courage, hauling it as rapidly as possible, holding hard when it rushed ; in this way I soon brought the shark so near the surface that in glancing over the stern I could see it circling below. Looking back at the distant bay I saw that we were followed by a number of boats, yet we were still being towed at such a pace that the men had to pull at full speed to catch up to us, and by the time the first boat came up and threw us a line I had the shark within ten feet and saw that I could hold it ; but it was evident that two skiffs were not a match for this doughty game, and it was not until five boats were in line, and ten oars pulling against it, that the victorious flotilla began to move inshore. The shark's head was now partly out of water, and I was holding it by the hammerlike projections while it writhed and lunged. In this manner this hard-fighting, gamy shark was towed in, its courtiers, the black remoras, clinging to it even when twenty men seized the line and drew the struggling animal upon the sands, a type of the utterly fearless brute of the sea—an animal that defied scores of men, swimming among their boats, paying no attention to bullet or club, sailing about with complete indifference, only going down before superior numbers.



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