After reeling in one fish after another — redfish, sea trout and catfish — Richard Stanczyk quietly announces that it’s time to go after “something bigger.”
We’re a one-hour boat ride from Islamorada, Fla., drifting somewhere in the Florida Bay, and it’s difficult to imagine that our 16-foot vessel can accommodate anything much larger than the gamefish we’re catching and releasing.
Stanczyk, a veteran fishing guide, slices a live ladyfish in half, hooks it, and casts the line in a wide arc alongside a sandbar. He chops the rest of the baitfish into smaller pieces and tosses the bloody remains overboard.
“Time to catch a shark,” he says.
Did he just say what I think he said? Shark, as in, “Jaws”? As in, the underwater killing machines that attacked helpless swimmers this summer? As in, “If you see that fin in the water, swim for your life!” Charlie, who flew in from Boston the previous day and is still getting used to the idea of wearing a short-sleeved shirt during the winter, almost drops his fishing pole.
“You’re kidding, right?”
But Stanczyk, a man of few words, gives us a knowingly smile, like a parent about to send a kid on his first roller-coaster ride. “Hold on to this,” he orders, handing me the rod with shark bait. “If you feel a bite, I’ll show you what to do.”
A minute goes by. Two minutes. Ten. We see nothing except the blue-green waters of the bay, stirred by a warm wind blowing in from the Everglades. In the distance, terns and pelicans hide among the mangroves growing along a nameless key, making occasional fluttering sounds. Otherwise it’s perfectly calm.
Suddenly there’s a tug on my line. It doesn’t feel the same as the other ones — not jerky, but deliberate and powerful. The filament spools out effortlessly.
“OK — now!” Stanczyk yells, motioning me to stop the line. I set the hook and begin reeling. The rod immediately bends to a 90-degree angle and whatever is on the end of the line just keeps going. Stanczyk pulls the anchor and turns the boat around, following the fish into deeper water. The rod buries itself in my thigh.
This is probably as good a time as any to mention that shark fishing is perfectly legal (Florida is trying to ban shark feeding, not fishing) and for the most part, safe. The recent set of shark-attack books and frenzy of news reports did little to dispel the popular myth that these creatures are underwater terrorists that kill for the fun of it. In fact, even the most antagonistic shark species are normally shy and avoid human contact.
As I fight with the force on the other end of my line, I try to remind myself that the shark doesn’t want to hurt me.
“Try not to fall in the water,” Stanczyk warns. Charlie is standing on the far end of the boat, mesmerized by the spectacle. My line is spooling out again. So, too, is my composure.
Shark fishing is at its best in the Keys from March until May, and although it’s something that few professional guides specialize in, the recent fascination with sharks has led to more inquiries from visitors. One of the latest angling trends, I’m told, is to use a fly rod to catch a shark — preferably a bull shark, which is considered one of the most difficult and dangerous achievements here in the back country.
Did I mention the species of shark that gained national prominence for biting an eight-year-old’s arm off near Pensacola, Fla., recently? That was a bull shark, widely believed to be the most aggressive kind in the world. Makes a Great White seem like a pussycat. I figured we’d be just fine as long as it wasn’t a bull.
“It’s a bull shark,” Stanczyk declares. He looks a little nervous. I’m terrified and Charlie, still on the end of the boat, remains speechless. A bull shark! So this is how my writing career is going to end, with my arm being digested by a hungry leviathan? The fish, all five feet of it, is up against the boat now, having given up its struggle –or maybe just resting –and none of us does anything for a few seconds that seem like hours.
Then Stanczyk grabs the line, bringing a knife as close to the shark as possible, and cuts the filament. The bull shark vanishes under the boat, my rod suddenly feels weightless, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
Stanczyk turns to Charlie and says, “You wanna try it?”
Charlie nods enthusiastically.