Gone Fishin' : Shark tourney fishermen get seal of approval
Often, the best fishing stories told on Martha's Vineyard are about the one that got away. The main characters in my first tale are a very lucky young gray seal, a very big blue shark, and four fishermen who went fishing south of the Vineyard.
The story begins with the 23rd annual Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament held July 24 and 25. The event regularly attracts big game fishermen and the attention of the very powerful Humane Society of the United States.
The Humane Society has regularly attacked the fishermen as bloodthirsty participants in a barbaric spectacle that deserves to be ended. But the Society might just have to change its tune, at least about one crew.
On the first day of tournament competition, most of the 130 registered captains decided to stay put because of strong winds and rough seas, which made fishing hazardous. One crew that did not ended up in the ocean, where a passing crew rescued them (July 30, "Shark fishermen rescue four from flooded boat off South Shore").
Captain Jack Pantano of the "Stormy Weather," a 38-foot Pacemaker, and his crewmembers, Phil Grant, Kurt Maxon, and Brian Hart, wisely stayed in port on Friday. On Saturday the big game fishermen set out looking for a big shark.
Steve Fox, a friend of the crew sent me an email on Monday about their trip. "Shark tournaments often attract negative attention from various animal rights activists," Steve wrote. "Fortunately, that did not happen this year. The fact is that the Monster Shark Tournament is a sportsmen's event that brings money and good times to Oak Bluffs each year. Sharks are caught and the vast majority are released alive, with only those edible fish that qualify being brought back to the scales and then eaten. This year an extraordinary thing happened that may help people understand the quality of the people involved in this event."
No place for a seal
The Stormy Weather traveled to a shark fishing spot approximately 50 miles south of the Vineyard known as "the dump." It is not a good place for a little seal to be wandering around all alone.
"The day started off very active, sharks were everywhere and the crew caught and released more than 17 fish, including two mako's each of which could have counted, or at least would have provided a significant amount of delicious table fare," Steve wrote.
Unlike surfers who do not intend to attract sharks when they unwittingly dress in black wetsuits, shark fishermen do their best to attract sharks. They accomplish this by ladling out a mixture of ground fish and blood known as chum into the water. This has two effects. It attracts sharks from miles away and makes anyone new to shark fishing vomit, thereby adding to the chum slick.
I gave Captain Jack Pantano a call at his home in Quincy. He said sharks were everywhere around the boat and it was nearing the official 3 pm stop time when they saw a very big blue shark chasing a very small seal pup. The seal was very quick and smart and used the boat to its advantage, darting under and around the boat in his efforts to stay ahead of a pursuing blue shark.
"He came by the boat - we had blue sharks all around obviously because we had chum in the water - he dodged a few and then found his way up to our swim platform," Jack said. "He was just completely tuckered out."
Perhaps some readers are familiar with the Discovery Channel's series on great white sharks, "Air Jaws," that features dramatic photography of great whites rocketing up from the depths to attack seals on the surface of the water. On Sunday evening, I watched an episode in which a team of shark researchers towed a black rubber seal dummy behind their boat. In minutes a great white turned the dummy into rubberburger.
Doing the right thing
So what did these guys do? Make the little guy walk the plank? Rig him up with an "air jaws" tuxedo? No. These big, mean shark fishermen gave the seal a piece of mackerel to eat and hoped he would hang on for the ride.
"We didn't know what he'd do when we started the engine up," Jack said. "I figured he'd jump off."
I pointed out that that was probably not a good option considering that he was the main course on the menu. Jack agreed. "I would not have wanted to hang around there either," he said.
They put the throttle down and headed back to the Vineyard. The little guy stayed put on the swim platform of the 38-foot sportfisherman without a care in the world until the Stormy Weather passed Nomans Land. With Gay Head in sight, the rested seal looked at the land and dove into the water.
Back at the dock in Oak Bluffs the men spoke to a marine biologist taking shark samples and told him the story (and showed the biologist photos as proof of a story that also had me skeptical at first). Steve said the biologist explained that a seal cannot swim all day and that the fisherman most likely saved its life.
The crew speculated that the storm the preceding day likely pushed the seal out to sea. That is the only explanation they could come up with to explain how it got so far out to sea.
I checked in with Gordon T. Waring, a research fisheries biologist in the protected species branch at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Woods Hole.
Mr. Waring emailed me from the research vessel Henry Bigelow out at sea. He said the young animals will roam widely and that includes far offshore in southern New England. And he added, "Yes, I concur that the seal was lucky to find a refuge from the sharks."
The Stormy Weather crew won the tournament tag-and-release award. For Jack, participating in his sixth tournament, the best reward was not the fish he caught but the seal he saved. "It was the highlight of the day," Jack said.
From lucky to plucky
There is no shortage of good fishing stories on Martha's Vineyard. Sometimes stories come over the editorial transom so to speak, other times I literally bump into a story.
The cold June weather delayed a number of natural events. On the downside, deer tick nymphs emerged in July not June. On the plus side, juvenile herring began to drop down out of Menemsha Pond about a month later than normal attracting an unexpected daytime bonanza of bass and bluefish right on Lobsterville Beach.
Normally I would not expect to find bass on the beach in July unless it was late at night or the water was thick with krill. But here it was the last week in July and the fishing was great.
On Friday I ignored the line of ominous yellow and red spots I saw moving across The Times website's regional weather radar screen and made a determined effort to get to the beach early. When I arrived it was a wild scene. Fish were blitzing along the beach under a screaming whirlwind of diving terns that were picking off herring driven to the surface by fish below as men, women and kids ran madly up and down the beach rods in hand.
I was about to cast a fly to a swirling pod of fish when a woman carrying a fishing rod asked me if I had a pair of pliers. I thought she needed to get a plug out of a fish until she held up her hand.
The back treble hook of a Rebel swimming plug had completely penetrated her index finger. She held her bloody hand up, the point and barb protruding from her finger, and asked me if I could cut the hook off because she wanted to get back to fishing.
I looked at her with a mixture of disbelief and admiration. I said I had a pair of heavier pliers in the car but that my needlenose pliers might work.
I took her hand and tried to steady the plug as I gripped the hook just below the barb with the wire cutter portion of the pliers. I steadied my own nerves by remembering the deer I had cleaned. I squeezed hard expecting her to buckle at the knees. Click! The hook point snapped off.
The woman calmly gripped the hook and backed it out of her finger. I looked away.
"I need to know your name," I said.
I have shared the story of my encounter with Phoebe Sheldon, a resident of Northampton and longtime Aquinnah seasonal resident, with several fishermen. Most have said they would have collapsed if that had happened to them.
I mean if they had had to cut the hook off. They all agreed they would have required general anesthesia if it had been their digit with a hook through it.
Phoebe, a mother and craftsman, did go back to fishing. But her finger started to throb, and she decided it was time for ice and aspirin.
I called to check in on her Monday night. She said the wound was fine and her brother-in-law, who had once had his own encounter with a bass and a set of hooks, thought it was hilarious.
Phoebe said she was reaching for the bass to unhook it when the fish flopped and she ended up with the plug. She said it felt like she had hit her hand with a hammer.
"Thank you for being my rescuer," she said. I was reluctant to accept her thanks. I was simply looking for a good story.
"I always carry wire cutters with me now," Phoebe said.
Speaking of Lobsterville
Why do boat fishermen sometimes act like such inconsiderate boneheads? That is not a rhetorical question.
On Saturday schools of bass roamed along Lobsterville Beach. Much of the time the fish were a couple of hundred yards off the beach.
Boats followed the schools, and anglers aboard frantically cast at breaking fish. But every so often a school of fish would come close to shore within easy reach of the folks on the beach.
Instead of letting the fish alone so the shore-bound fishermen would have a good crack, a number of the boats motored up on the fish well within the casting range of the fishermen on shore. It was plain inconsiderate and annoying.