We’re gonna need a bigger rod


Sharks and Martha’s Vineyard go together like Stephen Spielberg and movies. With the 50th anniversary of “Jaws” less than a year away, many shark fans are thinking about a mechanical shark, and what festivities they’d like to attend. 

For Island fishermen, real sharks are better than anything on the screen. 

I have lots of friends who love fishing for brown sharks. For years, I’d turn down invitations to go shark fishing. I wasn’t thrilled about catching something bigger than me with teeth that could slice off my hand. I had avoided watching “Jaws” until summer 2022 at the Circuit Arts Drive-In, and even then my friend Crispin Haskins told me when to close my eyes and cover my ears. 

Donald Scarpone, president of the Martha’s Vineyard Surfcasters, finally convinced me to try shark fishing. And let’s just say, I had a blast. I finally “got it.” There’s the tug and adrenaline rush of feeling a big striper or bluefish on the line. And then there’s the tug when a 200-plus-pound shark hits your line and goes for a run. Now that’s an adrenaline rush!

In “Jaws,” Chief Brody tells Quint, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” If you’re going shark fishing, you’re gonna need a bigger rod, as well as special leaders, heavy line, weights, delicious bait, sand spikes, and a bit of strength and patience. 

After my first shark-fishing adventure, Donald helped me purchase shark gear at the M.V. Surfcasters annual tackle sale. “You need a heavier rod, and a bigger reel with a bait runner. Your rod has to be able to handle 10 ounces,” said Donald. 

Why 10 ounces? You’re going to need a weight to hold your bait on the bottom. Depending on the current, “I use 6- to 8-ounce weights,” said Donald.

I love catching bluefish and using fresh bait for sharks, feeding them exactly what they’re eating in the moment. I caught a lot of mackerel earlier this year when they were in Edgartown Harbor, so I have those frozen in case I don’t catch a blue.

“I’ve used bunker, eels, mackerel, and bluefish. I always have frozen bluefish for backup,” said Donald, adding, “Be sure to tell people to cut the bluefish into steaks, not filets.” 

If you’re using bunker and mackerel, depending on the size of your fish, you’ll use it whole or cut it in half. For eels and squid, use the whole thing.

Shark fishing requires some serious line, and leaders and either size 9 or 10 circle hooks. “I use a 5-foot leader with about 18 inches of wire to 230 pounds of mono,” said Donald, explaining, “Your line rubs against the body of the shark, which is like sandpaper. A lighter leader would fray, and you’d have to replace it all the time.”

Donald taught me to use 65- to 100-pound braid on my bait runner reel. And he made me a fabulous metal sand spike. You can buy a metal or plastic sand spike; just be sure to have a good 2 to 3 feet buried securely in the sand.

We usually start sharking about an hour before low tide, and then continue to fish the rising tide as long as the weight holds bottom.

To start, put a 6-ounce weight on your line and cast. See if the weight holds bottom. If it does, reel in, bait your hook, and cast out as far as you can. Personal note: Most of the guys can cast farther than me. I still managed to win the shark tournament. Just get the bait out as far as you can, put your rod in the sand spike, and wait. Donald taught me to check my bait every 15 minutes. 

When the magic happens, and the shark hits and your rod bends over, lift your rod out of the spike and let that shark run. “Let it run for 30 or 40 seconds. The hook will set itself,” said Donald. 

Shark fishing can be tiring, so fish smart. “Don’t reel in when a shark is running. When a fish runs, let it run. When it stops, begin to reel it back. Let your reel and your drag do the work for you,” said Donald. 

When you get the shark to the beach, leave it close to the water for an easy release. I always have one of the guys helping me with the release. Always! It’s easiest when I keep the line tight and one of the guys uses a hook puller to easily remove the hook. If you don’t have a hook puller, you can use bolt cutters to cut the hook in half so it falls out. 

Sharks are hardy, so we can take a quick picture and then release the shark by the tail back into the water. 

If you need shark-fishing gear, stop into an Island tackle shop. You can also ask at the shops about shore charters. My recommendation for any first-timers: Go with an experienced person. 

Personally, I don’t go shark fishing without Donald or one of the guys from the Surfcasters Association. I don’t want to handle a shark solo. Plus, you never know what you’re going to catch. Just ask Julie Tummino. 

Last fall during the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, Julie landed what has to be one of the biggest sharks reeled onto Vineyard shores.

“We weren’t even fishing for sharks,” said Julie, who was bottom-fishing with her husband Sal. “I don’t like to bottom-fish, but I was trying to get a bluefish. I needed one for our team.”

When her rod bent over, Julie knew it wasn’t a bluefish. “I thought it was a ray. It didn’t feel like a shark,” said Julie, who first started shark fishing as a child under the tutelage of Foster Silva. “I was going to cut my line, then Sal said, ‘It’s got stripes; you’re getting it in.’”

Julie spent a good 45 minutes reeling the shark in. “It ran four times. I had to sit for a second, but I wasn’t letting anybody touch my rod. It was tough, but I didn’t give up. Sal and Ron [Domurat] were cheering me on, saying, ‘You can do it!’”

When she got the shark to the beach, everyone nearby was staring at a 9-foot sand tiger shark, a species that hadn’t been caught on-Island for more than a decade. “I was pretty psyched,” said Julie.

“It was a monster,” said Ron of Julie’s shark. 

Pictures of Julie’s amazing catch were posted on social media, and Julie received an email from Greg Skomal, well-known marine biologist and director of the Massachusetts Shark Research Program.

“Greg asked me a lot of questions about the shark. He said they were once abundant, and commercially fished in the early 1900s, then they were gone. It was very interesting,” said Julie, who added that Greg told her that her shark probably weighed about 440 pounds.

The chance of any of us catching a shark as big as Julie’s is slim, but try we must. We can’t, or shouldn’t, go shark fishing without knowing the regulations. Shark fishing requires a standard saltwater fishing license. When fishing with bait, we must use a circle hook. We must release a brown shark. The full list of permitted and prohibited sharks can be found on DMF’s recreational fishing limit web page, bit.ly/MA_RecreationalSaltwaterRegs.

Sharks are amazing, and super-fun to catch. Sharks are also dangerous, and they will bite. Use extreme caution when shark fishing. 

I hope to see you on the beach fishing, or swimming. Can you hear the “Jaws” music now?