On the Hook: Heart-stopping shark encounter

Bill Walsh
Stock photo of a great white shark.

There probably is no other single word in language that depicts potential momentous danger better than shark. Every reported encounter with this supreme predator strikes such terror it draws most every news outlet to record every excruciating facet and spew it with sheer abandon and pernicious detail.

More:On the Hook: A remembered fishing mission

For most of us that fish these sub-tropical waters, we have had an encounter with one of these saltwater denizens that runs all the way from a mere sighting to a long remembered “event.” The latter occasions are recalled in infinite detail measuring up with minutia parallel to one of life’s “events.”

So how, did we land on this subject for the week’s article? My oldest daughter was the culprit. On a three day visit from Chicago she viewed the evenings “coming attractions” on the Internet and there, front and center, was “Jaws.”

“Oh, Dad, never got to see that growing up. Let’s do it tonight.”

So, there we were a couple of hours later watching “Jaws” terrorize the Village of Amity and waiting with bated breath for this shark to finally show.

When it did, and Captain Quint lost his struggle, the daughter went ballistic, “Oh, what a movie ... I was riveted all the way through.”

And you know what? So were millions of other folks. It wasn’t “Gone With The Wind” but it was one of the most well remembered movies ever made. We all know why, right? Plain and simple it was the Shark!

So that triggered a re-tell of this personal heart-stopping shark encounter some years back.

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

It’s the mid 70s and I’m corporate pawn except on weekends and infrequent fishing excursions. Now, Chicago is a wonderful city, except for the weather. Snow and excruciating cold become life’s negative factor from October until Memorial Day. If you fish, you watch the Saturday morning fishing shows showing the highlights of record South Florida catches ad nauseam and then go to the tackle store and buy fishing equipment you’ll never use.

So, after a while you run out of patience as you scraped the ice off your windshield for the two hundredth time. Mid 70s, my brother and I put a plan together to make fishing trip to the Keys in mid-March.

Simply, we would trailer my 18’ Grady White behind a Jeep Wagoneer and make our way south through the hills of Tennessee et al to arrive at a rental house in Key Largo early week.

That’s about all we thought about in the run up to departure date. So here we are couple days away from departure and my brother’s wife calls with halting news that “the bro” has the flu and forbidden by the doctor to make the trip.

So, emboldened by the adventure, I gassed up the Jeep and off I went on schedule. Weather through the mountains of Tennessee and Georgia was moderate and made great time with long days and short nights.

Upon arrival in Key Largo, it was a disappointment that the weather had turned to take on one of those infamous frontal systems that carried 20 to 30 knots of wicked northeasterly winds. It presented a struggle to get the boat off the trailer and docked behind this small house on a waterway adjacent to the Keys Flats.

But being that “up close and personal” to the fishing grounds was of no benefit when I couldn’t get the boat off the lift with such horrendous winds.

Thus my “vacation” days were spent chatting with the locals who kept telling how great the fishing was here next to the 10-15’ Keys Flats just 100 yards away nearshore. I absorbed all the info I could; that would be my target as soon as the wind abated a tad. Would have to give the possible sailfish action a pass; unfortunate. But something here would be better than nothing.

Finally, with but two days left before I had to make the trek back to Chicago, the winds abated a bit and swung west, and I finally had a shot at some Keys fishing action.

Up early the next morning, I was first at the local marina fishing store where a couple blocks of chum and a small cooler of live bait were loaded aboard. As dawn broke, I was in Seventh Heaven making my way south just 100 yards offshore in the cleanest water I had ever seen.

Some good Loran signals helped me find a nice 15’ hole in the shallow reef structure where yellowtail snapper where plainly visible. I anchored up and began soaking one of the chum blocks while working some weighted jigs just off the bottom for nice size yellowtail.

That action was good; almost too good, for here I was a day before heading north and other than a couple filets for dinner that evening, trying to keep fresh fish in good shape for the three day trip would be a stretch, began a heartbreaking release program.

But I decided to go upscale. The 18’ Grady White was equipped with downriggers for salmon fishing Lake Michigan. A downrigger is a piece of reel equipment intended to lower a weighted ball to a selected depth and then run a bait clipped to the ball.

My rig however would have a chum bag attached to attract sharks (dumb). I set the rig and used another rod with a fresh slab of bait with hopes for a cobia or small king mackerel.

It was warm and toasty out of the wind and I was almost asleep when the wire cable on the downrigger began to shake crazy enough to rock the boat. The clean water gave me a shot to see what was going on under the boat.

It was a shark. A big shark. He had inhaled the chum bag and couldn’t get it loose. At first, he shook his head and then he started making powerful runs in all directions and the boat was lurching in all directions.

Knew I was in trouble and thought about a “Mayday” but how would I explain what was happening.

Then the shark makes a high speed run directly astern and when he hit the end of the wire it didn’t; it wrenched the base plate and a foot and a half out of the gunnel with downrigger attached right out of the boat.

The boat stayed watertight but for the ensuing half hour that mongo shark swam back and forth trying to either dislodge the equipment or get even with me. What If the forward anchor dislodged or line parted.

Me still here, tells you that the equipment came loose and lost in the reef and the anchor held.

After that everything was a piece of cake; at rest stops for fuel on the way home folks would see the big hunk out of the corner of the boat and ask how? Fibbed about a road accident. Never mentioned the shark and never fished for one again.

Got home. Recovered brother asked, “how did it go?”

“Terrific, you should have been there” Amen.

More:On the Hook: ‘You just can’t outrun them’

Capt. Bill Walsh owns a charter fishing business and holds a U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments to dawnpatrolmarco@cs.com.