By Carey McWilliams ~
Sharks, the sickle-finned stars of so many of my childhood nightmares, have always been on my list of things to conquer. Every chance I got to go off-shore fishing, I dreamt of landing one of these predators of the deep. For some reason, they’ve always fascinated me. They always eluded me, too.
I was getting serious this time though. With the help of Safari Club International’s Alabama chapter, I was headed down in Florida to fish with two people I’d never met before, Bo and Deidre, and going down there for one single purpose, to battle a shark!
And so, maneuvering around one massive storm front that would eventually spawn an F5 tornado in Tuscaloosa, my plane brought me closer to the launching point of another adventure, a tiny gulf coast harbor somewhere in south Florida. After arriving late, I was racing the clock to not lose my reservation with a lodge somewhere at the end of a long day’s travel from North Dakota. Who knew if my room would still be available since the hotel doors reportedly closed at midnight for late check-ins like me. I wondered if the marina itself would still be open. Either way, I wasn’t going to miss my fishing charter the next day, even if it meant sleeping on the shore. Hadn’t I done such things before? I’m sure I had. But with some luck, I once again slipped in under the wire to be able to sleep in a real bed.
The next thing I knew, someone was banging on my door which brought me out of one dark state into another. It was my guide Bo Johnson. Bo was an ex-alligator wrestler and his first mate, Deidre Bridger, was a former model. This was going to be an interesting trip for sure. They run an outfit called Tenacity Guide Service in southwest Florida near the Keys, and on our way to the docks, my guide said we were going to try for tarpon first.
‘Tarpon?’ I’d come he to fish for sharks, not tarpon.
Tarpon was a fish I had heard about, but never knew that much about. I couldn’t understand my fishing guide’s near shock when I told him to target shark exclusively. “Have you ever caught tarpon before,” he asked, as we stood on the pier. To this question I had to answer, “No,” but I’d come a long way for shark, not some mystery fish. And so, after a bit of convincing, I relented, thinking I’d just try it to pacify the guy. Figured I‘d catch this little tarpon thing and get it over with so we could get to some real action. Boy was I in for a surprise.
I’d never noticed before how different the coastal salt marsh smells before the sun rises. I’d missed it. When we got to the marina, Bo and Deidre helped me onto their boat and in no time we were on our way to deeper water. When I first felt the sun on my face, we were trolling various inlets for a fish the captain said was a much sportier fish to catch, the silver king. I’d never caught one before so that was fine with me. I was really just happy to be out there.
We idled along smoothly as I turned to face the wind and take in as much as my senses could handle, the sun, the bay breeze, the motor churning up water behind me, the gulls clamoring overhead. I could even hear the muffled conversion between Bo and Deidre as Bo chopped up some previously caught mullet for chum. I could smell it too, wafting around the boat. When we finally idled down and stopped the boat, I heard three lines go out. The fighting belt Bo fixed around my waist felt a little tight and rode high on my hips. That’s when I really started to get excited. I knew something was about to happen. Just what, I didn’t know. He said it would help me hold the rod if I hooked a big fish. ‘Well how big of a fish were we talking here?’ I wondered.
The first I knew of the tarpon was when one of the reels in the back of the boat began to screech. The first mate and captain both came over to me, excited, with a rod in their hands. I was a little confused, being handed the vibrating rod. I didn’t know what to do with it. I awkwardly fit the butt end into the plastic cup holder affixed to the belt at my waist, hanging on tight as the seconds ticked by. Through the rod, I could actually feel the circle leader as something very large swam off with the bait. “Wait! Give him time to eat it,” ordered Bo. “Wait… wait… Now hit him!”
I jerked back and the fight was on! It felt as if I had hung the bottom, which is what I thought at first until the rod bounced back and yanked me violently down toward the water. I held on for dear life as this monster of a fish started peeling line off my reel. “You got a good one there,” Bo chimed. “Keep pressure on him.” With instruction, I dipped the hook towards the athletic fish, taking in the slack. I dipped and reeled, dipped and reeled, feeling the line suddenly go limp as the Deidre made a “Choo Choo” sound to something in her camera lens. She later told me that tarpon always make big jumps which make for some spectacular pics. It also makes them ideal for sport fishing, but they’re not very good for the dinner table. Once, twice, three times this happened, and each time the rod nearly slapped me in the forehead. Finally captain Bo came over to me and grabbed the line. I couldn’t wait to see what was on the other end of this fight.
What usually followed the savage side-to-side thrashing of the line, he said, was putting your hands on your first big silver. When I heard my guide bent himself over the side of the boat, I knew he must’ve been close. We had him!
Looking way out of place with the coat, cap and pants I needed to shield my Irish skin from the sun’s powerful rays, Bo stood in the shallows holding up my 7-foot long tarpon for a quick photo. After that, I leaned over for a guided tour of its massive scaly body with my fingers before we let him go, but not before one last pic with the first mate and I. I’m sure her string-like bikini was far more interesting to look at than what I had on. I’m guessing.
The sounds and feel of trying to land a tarpon was something I’ll never forget. Every time he gave me a jump I could feel it through the line. It was a lot louder experience than I ever imagined. That big fish taught me to keep an open mind when it comes to trying out new adventures in the outdoors, and to trust your guide.
As the main engine revved up to head for another fishing spot along the coast, we headed out of the mangrove swamps for a try at my personal focus of the trip, a shark. Finally.
I got to my feet and stumbled numbly forward to my seat. All the time spent fighting that little tarpon had taken a lot out of me. I needed a break.
After parking myself on a boat seat for half an hour, I let my mind wander as I listened to the familiar sounds of fishing lines getting prepped to go out. My guides were talking in low tones as I thought about what might be lurking below… And it wasn’t long before Bo was calling me to stand up and come to the rail. Standing on the deck, back against the ice chest, my guide handed me one of the baited lines and I settled the rod butt into my belt. The line bounced lazily with the chop, waves agitated by the onshore winds. It cooled the humid 90 degree temps into something comfortable to fish in. My wind breaker rustled in the breeze as Deidre knelt at my feet cutting up more bait.
Slowly, almost gently, I felt the line move away from me. I waited, tightening my grip as the mouth of whatever it was took the bait. A brief, but sharp, side-to-side motion of the line alerted all my senses. Instinctively, I leaned back hard against the fish to set the hook.
The reel screamed with a solid hit as line stripped off as if I’d forgotten to flip the bail. I could feel the big fish shaking his head at the end of his first run, telegraphing his fury up the line and into my hands. It felt like a shark to me. A big one!
As the shark tried over and over again to cut through the wire leader caught in its jaws, I leaned and hauled, leaned and hauled, reeling in the slack whenever I could get a little. The taut line sang in the wind like a bent guitar string. With each release of tension between me and the fish, I cranked, and cranked. It felt like forever before the line started making those sudden jerks here and there that told me he was getting close. As he got within range of the boat, he started circling. They always do that for some reason I was told. I guess to try to get hung up so they can cut themselves free. I had to move quickly to keep my line out of the propeller. One snap and he’d be gone.
Suddenly, Bo ordered me to stop reeling. I felt him grab the leader from beside me and the line went limp to the sound of a thud and the ensuing slapping around of a fresh shark in the boat. That’s when the wrestling match began between the former alligator wrestler and pissed off black tip shark. “Get over here,” said the captain, his voice sounding from somewhere far below my sweat stinging eyes, “You’re gonna hold this shark. I don’t care about safety!” Such fun words always send me on a rollercoaster ride of thrills. As I knelt on the deck beside my guide, he handed me what felt like a heavy living tube of summer sausage. The shark’s skin felt smooth to the touch, but it roughened and was almost sand-papery when the shark’s body fought to get free. Bo and I hung on as best we could and I put my first trophy shark in a headlock for the photo.
“Looks like it’s still kicking your butt,” said the first mate, giggling as she prepared to record the event. And she was right. The fish’s swinging tail struck me in the back of the head and I dropped my end on the captain’s foot. He said he didn’t care about safety, right? There’s one for the album I thought, but no harm was done and we released that big boy back to the deep unharmed.
Before sundown that day, we landed a total of seven sharks. Black tips, lemons, a few nurse sharks and several bulls hit the lines, but most of them got away unscathed. I got my fill of shark fishing that’s for sure. We also boated many stingrays as an added bonus. My heightened sense of touch united with the rod and line to provide a tactile window into what happens beneath the emerald green waters of the gulf whenever fish meets bait. I was having a ball!
With the day done, poles and gear were put away as I listened to the blowing of sea manatees, whose lumpish forms bobbed along in the current. But then came an offer I could not possibly refuse—an invite to drive the boat back to the dock. I was lead by hand to the helm where I was given a brief introduction to the controls. And so raising the trolling motor and lowering the main propeller, I hit the throttle and captained the boat down 20+ miles of coastline back to port. Shouts of left and right brought me around larger vessels with crews having no clue that a blind guy was driving past them. Once back at the dock, I unloaded the bucket of remaining mullet to a flock of pelicans, who gathered like a pack of hungry dogs, awaiting each of my throws, catching each fish with a flurry of grateful chatter.
All too fast, it seemed, my adventure was over and I was on my way back north, my plane rocking gently back and forth as it carried me toward the upper Midwest and back to fish of much smaller size and demeanor. I thought about my most recent outing in the salt air and knew that I’d be returning someday for another one, maybe next time for an alligator. I wondered what those felt like? But, I’ll always remember my first big shark and that hot April afternoon in the gulf.
Carey McWilliams, born July 5, 1973 in Fargo, North Dakota , is an author and predator hunter. After becoming blind at age ten due to a late-onset birth defect, he became a figure in the national gun debate when he passed all written and shooting exams in his home state to become the first totally blind person in the USA to be authorized to carry a loaded weapon in public for self defense. Mr. McWilliams has devoted his life to promoting greater access to the outdoors for the disabled through his website www.careymcwilliams.com.