By Kenneth L. Kieser
May 3, 2011
Captain Chris Frohlich’s 24-foot runabout skipped through light waves toward shallows of the Gulf of Mexico. Nearby boats ran back and forth, waiting for a school of tarpon to sound and take a hooked crab. Tarpon are worthy fish that are fun to catch, but we were waiting for something bigger and much more vicious.
I was on a fact finding trip for story material. I spent the first two days fishing for smaller sharks on light tackle with Captain Ralph Allen, producing several 20 to 40 pound blacktip and bull sharks on light tackle and 20 pound test line. We started at Charlotte Harbor strait where the toothy critters were plentiful.
We used the chumming method and caught many sharks that would have made excellent fillets. I was amazed at the strength of these smaller sharks and could only imagine how their grandparents fought. The remarkably talented fishermen put us on many fish. Bigger sharks left us with broken hooks.
I wanted the experience of smaller sharks on light tackle and a fight with something much bigger—perhaps in the 100 or 200 pound range. A tube of BenGay for sore muscles would have been included on the trip had I realized what was about to happen.
I joined Frohlich on the third day to go after bigger sharks. We stopped to set out chum slicks several hundred yards from the armada of at least 100 fishing boats chasing tarpon on Boca Grande Pass. We knew bigger sharks patrolled this area. Huge hammerhead sharks follow schools, occasionally viciously attacking tarpon. We anchored off in about 12 feet of water where only God knew what was under our boat.
Months before the world record hammerhead had been taken from this same area. The monster shark weighed 1,280 pounds and took Bucky Dennis six hours to land. The big fish pulled him several miles out to sea during the struggle. Dennis and other veteran fishermen in the area claimed that there were bigger hammerheads swimming around the area. So it was little surprise that a behemoth estimated at over 1,400 pounds was eating tarpon off Boca Grande Pass.
Frohlich had watched a hooked tarpon bitten in half by a hammerhead while the huge predator pushed the hapless fish against his boat the previous week. He watched with sick fascination while the incredible shark shook its head back and forth while chewing the 100-pound tarpon in half with alarming ease. The fishermen in another boat watched helplessly as his prize was devoured. He finally reeled in little more than a head.
Fishermen in this area call the giant fish “Hitler,” though many experienced fisherman believe that there is more than one giant hammerhead following the huge tarpon schools in this weight group, perhaps a big school of world record “Hitlers.”
I was assured that conditions were excellent for shark fishing. The incoming tide was slow, perfect conditions for gradually moving our chum slick into the pass where numerous sharks were constantly searching for dinner. A call came in over the radio that another huge hammerhead had just chomped on a hooked tarpon two hundred yards to our right in the middle of Boca Grande Pass. I wondered if it was the same “Hitler” that Frohlich had watched the week before. Falling overboard here was definitely a bad idea.
Frohlich worked quickly baiting hooks and preparing tackle after slipping two frozen chum bags behind our boat to release a nasty combination of fish entrails and blood filament into the Gulf. He added to this flow of scum by scraping the bloody skeleton areas into the current after slicing off chunks of bonita for bait. The chunks were hooked on number 7 stainless steel Big-J hooks fastened to a 250 pound wire leader and a one ounce egg weight. The reel held 500 yards of 50 pound test monofilament line. Bites on our bait started almost immediately as sharks quickly moved into the area.
“Sharks will come from miles away to a strong chum line,” Frohlich said. “You would be surprised what is under that surface right now.”
Soon we settled in and started swapping stories between bites. Schools of smaller fish occasionally nibbled at our bait, sometimes taking the entire chunk.
“Smaller fish nibble and you’ll quickly know the difference when a big shark takes the bait,” the patient guide said. ‘The trick is to wait and watch.”
Shortly before 3 p.m. the reel’s clicker started going off, meaning a shark had found one of our chunks of bonita. Frohlich set the hook in something very large and watched a frightening wake of at least 12 feet swim close beside our 24-foot runabout and in no apparent hurry, like a bully walking through a school cafeteria. I could barely see the exceptionally large shark’s shadow slowly passing by, an intriguing and at the same time frightening sight.
I can only compare that wake across the surface to scenes from the “Jaws” movie. The fish headed toward shallow water and kept going. The hook eventually broke in half and we were not completely sorry. I could not imagine the power required for easily breaking a number 7 stainless steel hook, but I had just witnessed it and suddenly felt very weak.
“Might have been Hitler,” Frohlich said, not joking.
I gulped at the thought of fighting a monster like that and at the same time wanted to. Only a select few had landed such a monster—a mammoth feat and a once in a lifetime accomplishment. I wondered how Dennis had felt after landing the huge hammerhead—no doubt tired, sore and elated beyond imagination.
We had hits and misses until 4:30 p.m. when “TICK, TICK, TICK” from the reel’s clicker reached our ears. Something was slowly moving our piece of cut bait. I set the hook hard twice and the Okuma reel made a buzzing sound faster than a rattlesnake’s rattles. At least three hundred yards of line shot off the reel in a blur while I could only hang on. The surge was comparable to hooking onto a 1957 Chevy at a stop light and trying to reel while the driver burned rubber. I had never felt such power.
“There is no turning this fish, just hang on and reel when the chance comes,” Frohlich said. “You have a big fish there, we just don’t know how big yet. Take your time and take what he gives you.”
I continued to reel and pump the heavy rod when possible, but it was almost never possible. I glanced at the reel and found the metal spool visible. Suddenly the fear of losing all line became reality. Then for whatever reason, the shark’s fin and tail surfaced. The great fish turned and started running toward the boat.
I reeled with all possible speed to regain line, attempting the impossible task of keeping up with the returning shark. Soon he was 50 yards from the 24-foot Yellow Fin Bay boat, the top of his fin and tail still out of the water. I had the feeling that he felt little danger—like a bull moose moving through woods. The sting in his jaw was just a minor inconvenience. The intimidating fish did not show any sense of urgency, just a steady stroll across the flats while leading me around the boat, desperately reeling or hanging on to the doubled cue-stick-thick rod.
“Good grief, what have I hooked?” I gasped while the shark made another powerful lunge under the boat.
“Don’t know, but it sure is big, at least 8 feet long,” Frohlich answered. “Just keep reeling when possible and fight him, pump that rod when you can and gain line.”
Time clicked by, a half hour, an hour, longer, my throat became almost raw and Frohlich kindly gave me a drink of Gatorade. I occasionally sat when possible. The shark was circling our boat, sometimes slowly and sometimes very quickly.
I followed around the boat, trying to reel and pump the rod when possible. Things got dicey when he passed under the anchor rope. I handed the rod under the rope to Frohlich who immediately handed it back. Another hour passed, 45 minutes more, over two hours, I was wet with sweat.
Suddenly the shark seemed to give up and came in close to the boat. Frohlich and I looked down at the beast that made small circles not more than a foot under the surface. I stood on the deck and controlled the line as well as possible. It never occurred to me that a lunge by the shark and an unexpected swell hitting the boat would have propelled me on top of this monster who likely would have enjoyed a big bite—of me. I was too excited while fighting a creature that was bigger than me and I was winning, or so I thought.
Suddenly he turned sideways and seemed to flash me a toothy grin that only a big shark can flash. He turned seaward and took off with renewed energy.
By then we decided the fish was a big bull shark, the most aggressive and meanest. I followed as he took me around the boat the 20th time at least. The remarkable fish swam behind the 275 horsepower Mercury outboard motor as I dipped the rod once again to avoid entanglement.
The shark made a right turn and once again headed out to sea. His next power surge took at least 450 yards of line in seconds. I glanced down and felt sick at the sight of 50 yards of line that still remained on my spool. The end of this fight would be very soon if the shark continued swimming out to sea. I could not turn or hold him.
Then instead of continuing on, he turned and came back in to make more passes around the boat. I started reeling quickly as possible. By now my wrists and most muscles were burning from sheer exhaustion—a harsh reminder that I possessed a 54-year-old body. This would have been easier 20 or 30 years ago, I thought.
His circles became smaller and more deliberate, showing that he was finally tiring. He made several more turns and finally gave up after just under three hours to be quickly released after obtaining his size information. The 8 ½ foot, 402-pound bull shark wasted little time in getting out of there and I was happy to see him go. I did not want to hurt that magnificent creature and more importantly, I did not want him to enjoy a bite of me.
My back and shoulder muscles were sore for a week after this fight. Yet, I was elated after sharing time with this fabulous fighter that will always be a part of me. I dreamed that night about the shark’s blazing-quick surges and incredible power. I slept soundly!
ABOUT THE AREA
Charlotte harbor, Boca Grande and Captiva Island are beautiful destinations with white sand beaches where plenty of colorful sea shells are washed in by heavy waves. I watched sea turtles, a school of sting rays, porpoises and manatees swimming in the shallow waters.
Fishing possibilities are endless throughout this remarkable area where Jimmy Buffet wrote “Cheeseburgers in Paradise,” not far from where I fought my shark. There are many restaurants on miles of beach where seafood and other cuisine may be enjoyed. All varieties of retail shops are available throughout the area. A trip to this locale can be as expensive or as budgeted as you choose.
You too can enjoy a fight with a powerful shark in the beautiful Boca Grande, Charlotte Harbor areas by contacting Captain Chris Frohlich at: (941) 628-0341 or check his website at: www.beyondbordersoutfitters.com. Contact Capt. Ralph Allen at King Fishing Fleet at: (941) 639-2628 and check their website at: www.kingfisherfleet.com.
Contact the Charlotte Harbor & the Gulf Islands Visitor’s Bureau at (941) 743-1900 or check their website at: www.CharlotteHarborTravel.com
About the author: Kenneth L. Kieser is a veteran outdoor writer of 35 years. His first novel, “Ride the Trail of Death,” a western, has made several best seller lists around the country. His second, “Black Moon’s Revenge,” is available at most top bookstores and online sellers.
Above: The author’s shark fought with the power of a freight train. Few creatures on earth have more power or stamina! At top: Author Kenneth Kieser braces for the shark.