Fishing Column: When it wasn’t safe to go in the water

I admit it. This time every year, I tune in for the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week slate of programming. As long as man has been near water, these incredible specimens have inspired awe and fear in us as if they were gods. In fact, some cultures did consider them to be deities while others hunted them for medicinal and libidinal applications.

Yes, sharks have held a mystical spell over us from the beginning, one that has evolved with cultural trends to culminate in a week-long  potpourri of fascinating footage and stories. Sadly though, there were a number of shows premised on stupid, schlocky stunts in an unabashed appeal to an ever-growing segment of our population — people with short attention spans and little appreciation for all but the violent aspects of these creatures.

My fascination with sharks began with “Jaws.” Never heard of it? That’s the movie with Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw set in a Massachusetts seaside resort held hostage by a giant great white shark. It was the movie that “made you afraid to go in the water” and was based on a Peter Benchley novel of the same name.

It also gave people like charter Captain Frank Mundus of Montauk and his ilk license and public consent to kill sharks indiscriminately.

Mundus profited from this “sport” fishing as a captain who targeted “killer white sharks,” in his own words. I would venture to bet not one of the whites Captain Mundus killed ever so much as sniffed a human.

But we all were caught up in the hype, including my dad and his fishing buddies, who had the boat and the thrill-seeking mentality to chase sharks in the waters off Montauk. But there were a few differences between them and Mundus: they had to pay for their fuel by selling their catch and they didn’t really know what they were doing. Arthur Antenucci of the old Nostrand Parkway Antenucci clan had a big enough boat, the wooden Thundergull, 40-something feet of old loud tub that eerily resembled Quint’s Orca from the movie.

Between him, Harry Cass of Candlelite Inn fame, Julius Braunschweig of the Hilo Shore Braunschweigs and my dad, Alan, they pieced enough equipment together to launch an assault on the unwitting sharks.

I still have most of that stuff in my basement: 10/0 and 14/0 Penn Senators (just like Quint’s reel), stout custom rods with nicknames like “Fatboy,” a flying gaff that could kill an elephant, leather belly gimbals and shoulder harnesses with brass buckles and an old harpoon with darts. Perched on the Thundergull’s foredeck were several red pickle barrels waiting to be attached to a harpoon line. I can’t remember if the boat had a pulpit but I’m leaning toward no because, if it had, someone surely would have fallen from it and likely been run over and killed.

Against my mother’s will, I was essentially smuggled out of the house early one morning and brought aboard for a three-day adventure I would never forget. I doubt my mother slept a wink the entire time I was away. We stopped in Montauk for chum, fuel and refreshments unsuitable for consumption by a 10-year-old. Dead sharks lay on the dock at Darenberg’s Marina, blue sharks mostly. They likely ended up in a dumpster. They weren’t even good for fertilizer let alone human consumption. I would learn later that there were tricks to absorbing the heavy concentrations of ammonia from blue shark meat to make it edible. I’m not convinced the “sporties” who’d caught those fish were willing to put in the effort.

Which leads me back to the Thundergull and its crew. As I said, without saleable catch, no one was getting their money back for the fuel, food and beer and future trips would require more outlays and so were jeopardized. Once in a while, a mako shark was hoisted with Thundergull’s gin pole but usually the catch consisted of blue sharks. A quick aside: after catching and gutting their first tiger shark, all on deck quickly realized the leader was to be cut as soon as the hooked species was identified as such. That conclusion was reached after everyone was done puking over the side.

Blue sharks, however, could pass for edible, especially with their heads and tails cut off. Back then in the late ‘70s, many chefs and restaurant owners didn’t know mako from mud pie. And even if they did, their patrons didn’t. Yes, back then when everyone had shark fever and restaurants were scrambling to put shark on their menus, a person could off-load a dozen headless and tailless blue sharks to be steaked out and served as tonight’s special — fresh Montauk mako. And the take would be enough to cover fuel and beer for the next trip.

A BETTER BET

But if you’re fishing locally, like, say, off your neighbor’s dock, you’d do better to toss a snapper hook with a shiner then a meat hook with your wife’s holiday roast (remember that scene from the film?). The little blue streakers are here and hungry. Porgies and sea bass are biting in Island waters, too, and the occasional weakfish can be found at some of the traditional late spring spots.

Big boy bluefish are just about everywhere and are making it hard to find the stripers at the eastern spots. Your best chance for good, consistent fishing is east of Gardiners into Block Island Sound where the water is deeper, cleaner and cooler.

In all seriousness, the hysteria that fueled the “kill all sharks” mentality soon wore off for most reasonable people. Except for that first season, we always released blue sharks and other shark species except mako and thresher (one of the best eating fish I’ve ever had).

Today many shark species are threatened due to myriad causes including nets, pollution, climate change and over-fishing (specifically, fining for shark fin soup). Without concerted efforts to address and correct these problems, four hundred million years of a species’ existence could end on our watch.

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