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MAN VS. SHARK

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If a chum slick can be pretty, this one is, a silver smear like leftover moonlight on the waves. The reality, of course, is somewhat less romantic: The shimmering is a film of fish oil leaking from a milk crate of stinking mackerel parts that the first mate just tossed overboard. For nearby sharks, the effect is like the waft of cheap perfume in a sports bar, an olfactory come-hither.

But above the waterline, there is only the sight of the slick unfurling, which - particularly when observed through a Dramamine haze - is so lovely that it's almost possible to forget that something murderous might be tracing the scent, with a big, raggedy grin.

It's the first morning of the Ocean City Shark Tournament. Since 6 a.m., when the charter boat MoJo hop-skipped past the sea buoy into open waters, the mate, Jon Yost, has been carving up mackerel fillets and filing huge fish hooks until they're sharp enough to scratch his fingernail. Now, the 61-foot boat is about four miles off the Delaware coast, the captain has cut the engine, and four long fishing poles are dropped into the depths.

In the old days, the crew might have detonated fireworks or banged cooking pots to excite the sharks' super-sensitive skin receptors with sounds that mimic a distressed fish.

But "today we have XM radio," Yost says, as someone switches on some thumping Led Zeppelin.

"You wouldn't believe how many bite for Pink Floyd," says Capt. Joe O'Boyle.

The truth is that the music is as much for the crew as their quarry. As most everyone else fishing in last weekend's three-day tournament knows, shark fishing involves hours of boredom followed by a brief confrontation with terror. It's not like Jaws, where the fish provides its own theme music, and frequently rears up with scraps of human flesh in its teeth. Nor is it like tuna fishing, where fish are charmed from the water with various strategies and tackles. No, to catch a shark the crew motors out to where the skipper thinks the depth and temperature are right, makes like a wounded whale, and drifts.

Today, they're hoping for a thresher, a thick-bodied shark with a long, thin tail that it uses like a bullwhip, stunning fish and, sometimes, fishermen. A big one could bring more than $20,000 in prize money.

As the bait is set, Ron Care, a tool business owner from Severna Park who is one of three men who've paid to tag along today, straps on the fighting belt, which will hold the rod when a monster strikes. Then everyone peers at the water, where suddenly every peak and shadow becomes a fin.

And nothing happens for a long, long time.

The lure of danger

Where the Ocean City boardwalk ends, near the inlet that leads to the deep sea, there is a mammoth shark in a glass case. Its gaping mouth curves up into something like a smile, as if it were caught in mid-guffaw. Still, a less-friendly message resonates: Given the opportunity, this sucker would swallow you.

Sunburned tourists peer into its cave of a throat and experience a thrill of fear that beats the ride on the seaside roller coaster. They read the sign that says, in 1983, there was no scale in the city big enough to weigh the 1,210-pound fish, so it had to be trucked to a nearby poultry farm. They look from the shark to the sea and then down to the round of fried dough in their hands, wondering for a moment if they're being fatted for the kill.

Then someone says, "Hey, can we fit Felicia's head in there?" Everyone laughs, and the moment is over. They saunter on.

The boardwalk shark - the largest fish caught in Maryland waters, ever - was hooked during the third annual shark tournament. More than 20 years later, the contest remains an important, if peculiar, part of the resort town's seasonal opening ceremonies, both for the fishermen who come from all over the mid-Atlantic and for the spectators who flock to the dock at the end of the day, where the biggest sharks are strung up by their tails and weighed. The spectacle is a bracing reminder of what the summer waters have to offer.

Mark Sampson has been running the show since it began 26 years ago, when there were just a handful of boats, and sharks were considered a garbage fish that no respectable angler would pursue on purpose.

But Sampson - a charter boat captain with a naturalist's air - was an early admirer of the fish, their sleek lines and evolutionary staying power. He grew up catching little sand sharks in the bay, and as a young man discovered he could snare far bigger ones with his little boat, because sharks - though most swim miles out - venture much closer to shore than most big game fish. A tournament with prizes for the heaviest sharks, he thought, would help generate interest in the emerging sport.

When Sampson came home on the first day of the first tournament with a 627-pound tiger shark slung across his 19-foot boat, he broke a state record and made headlines across Maryland. The competition took off; the Jaws sequels, which were still being filmed, were like chum in the water.

The tournament keeps growing - 79 boats this year, the most ever - even though the size of the fish being caught has diminished over time, and the rules have changed. Tiger sharks are off-limits now, because they've been over-fished; Sampson doubts if there are many giants left. The rare great whites, too, are barred, although fishermen claim to see them in deep waters, and one said he recently watched a big fellow gulp a 150-pound tuna "like it was a gumdrop." The contest now focuses on smaller, more abundant varieties: threshers, makos, blues, sandbars and duskies.

Fishermen say they're not sure why, given the monotony of shark fishing and its dangers, they love the sport so much. Perhaps it's the opportunity to stare terror in its round, inky eye.

"I don't know how to describe it, but when you catch a shark they have a look of disdain for you," said Nick Psaroudakis, the mate on a boat from Annapolis. "You can see in their eye that they want a piece of you."

For others, the shark hunt inspires a sense of the ocean's wildness that's not always palpable when fishing for flounder.

"There's an eeriness to it, because you never know with a shark," said Bill Preston, a carpenter from Wilmington, Del. "Sometimes they'll swim to the boat and you'll feed them the bait. And sometimes a mako will go into the air for you," jumping high enough to chomp a seagull.

The spectators who come down to the Ocean City Fishing Center every year also seem to crave that combination of fear and wonder. After fishing hours have ended, the boats file in, and the catch - one shark per boat - is dragged on the dock. Sampson emcees on a microphone, describing the fish as they are measured and weighed before a crowd of hundreds.

"This is how I start my summer," said Lori Martin, a teacher from Elkridge who comes every year. "It's the fact that you're in the ocean swimming and they're in the ocean swimming, and it just sort of freaks me out."

"I think they're the most amazing things in nature," said Danielle Curcio of Hamilton, N.J., who has watched the contest since she and her husband bought an Ocean City condo several years ago.

Andrew Curcio looked glum.

"Now she won't go in past her ankles."

The wait is over

Eight hours have passed aboard the MoJo. Led Zeppelin is swapped for Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon, yet none, apparently, can match the racket of a floundering mackerel. The men chug sodas and make guy chit-chat, debating the best way to stalk a snow goose or whether peanut butter and hot dogs taste good together. The sun is hot. Care, fighting belt still buckled, briefly retreats to the cabin to take a nap. Spirits sag - 3:30 p.m., when tournament fishing stops for the day, is just an hour and a half away.

Suddenly, Rod 4 twitches - then bends grotesquely.

"Four-four-four-four!" everyone screams.

Care takes the pole and, crouching, reels in the line as though a steak dinner were on the other end, instead of a fish of unknown proportions. At this point, no one's even certain if it's a shark.

Then a bullwhip tail cracks the surface.

"Thresh--ER!" the captain cries from the wheel above.

It takes a little longer for those below to make out the shape, but there it is, slinking past the side of the boat, a long, low shadow.

"About 150," the captain yells, meaning pounds. That's probably not big enough to win a prize, but plenty big to save face at the dock. "He's killing size. Let's kill him, boys."

So they do. After about 15 minutes, Care has the fish thrashing in the water behind the boat; the other crew members spear it with huge hooked poles and the captain lassos the tail. There's a second to get a good look at the thresher in the water - up close, its skin is a subtle rainbow color, like motor oil in a parking lot puddle.

Then, using the tail rope, they haul the shark into the boat; it takes up practically the whole stern. It is much, much larger than the captain estimated - perhaps 12 feet or 13 feet long and more than 300 pounds. It is also thoroughly alive, jerking its bleeding head until the white-painted sides of the boat are patterned with gore. The jaws snap; the tail lashes the air, and the wrestling match begins.

The first mate jumps on its back as if mounting a bucking bronco; two guys from Delaware stand on its massive tail. At some point, someone ties the tail to a deck chair. The fish's thrashing lessens, and the crew rolls it into a kind of body bag.

The fight is won. Even so, sharks take a long time to die. Makos can live for hours; fishermen say that when they are butchered on the dock, the meat still shivers.

Threshers don't last as long. An hour after the rod bent, the bullwhip is limp on the deck, and the rainbow-streaked skin has dried to the color of patio slate.

A changing tide

The scene at the dock is usually a gruesome one. The carcasses seem to grimace as a winch lifts them, tail first, into the air; sometimes, the contents of their stomachs fall out - during one tournament, a tiger shark regurgitated an entire sea turtle.

Once a shark has been weighed, and the anglers pose for a picture, their arms around each other and the fish, a tiny woman with a huge knife comes to carve the body into steaks. Children sitting in the front rows by the scales either cover their eyes and hold their noses or beg for shark eyeballs, which are distributed in baggies. The boat captains eye each other behind dark sunglasses, their gazes blank and black as the sharks'.

The MoJo's thresher weighs 331 pounds, winning third place in the open division, and $8,714 in prize money. The biggest fish was a 408-pound thresher caught the second day.

"Wooo, imagine if you saw that swimming next to you," someone says at it hits the scales.

"A whopper," Sampson says into the microphone. "A beautiful fish."

Lately, it saddens him to see a shark like this. In his view, people have little to fear from them - after all, there hasn't been a shark attack on Ocean City beaches in recent memory. Also, the meat of the monsters is often too tough to grill. Though the fish are often donated for soup at local homeless shelters, sometimes he feels almost guilty killing them.

"A lot of times I think, 'I wish we could let this one go,'" he said.

Though the tournament will continue, Sampson has begun changing his own shark fishing business to a catch-and-release format, with a focus on education, taking time to show curious tourists the protective membrane that slides across the fishes' eyes, to discuss their migration patterns and reproductive systems. He's convinced that most people just want a good look at a shark, and that the fish, if no one's keen on eating them, don't have to be killed.

"I take people out and we don't bring home a single shark, and they still think it's the greatest thing in the world," he said.

He remembers the long-ago wonder of catching the foot-long sand sharks in the bay.

"It was a shark you could hold in your hand," he said. He always let them go.

abigail.tucker@baltsun.com

To see more photos of the Ocean City Shark Tournament, go to baltimoresun.com/shark.

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