Next week marks the 25th anniversary of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, one of the year’s most anticipated television events here at the OTW office. I was lucky enough to celebrate these apex predators a week earlier on Martha’s Vineyard for one of the island’s biggest events of the year – the Boston Big Game Fishing Club Monster Shark Tournament.
For three days, the island comes down with a case of shark fever, and crowds flood the down-island town of Oak Bluffs, as well as its harbor and beaches. Swimmers, however, may be a bit leary after seeing 300-plus pound sharks caught in local waters.
The 1975 blockbuster, Jaws, was filmed on the Vineyard, making sharks a big part of the island’s identity, which helps attract fisherman and tourists alike. Jaws featured a certain shark in particular – the great white – and that’s what led me to the tournament this year. I was contacted by Richard Betts, a New England fisherman who had an extremely close encounter with a 16-foot great white while fishing in Massachusetts waters and was able to tag the fish. Richard has tried to get me out with him to do some fishing and photography for a while.
When I asked him if he was fishing in the Vineyard’s shark tournament this year, he said no, but recommended that I get in contact with Crimson Tide Charters.
I got in contact with the captains, Fred “Seaworm” Lavitman and Chris “Hoop” Joyal, and they were happy to have me out on their boat, Akula (which is the Russian word for shark), a 35-foot Duffy. I met up with the team the night before the tournament began. On board would be Eric, Donald, Adam, Joe and myself as the crew.
The forecast for Friday was not looking great. We left Oak Bluffs Harbor at 5 am and somehow hoped that the buoy data indicating 5-foot swells every five seconds was wrong. We enjoyed a smooth run out of the harbor, but once we passed the rip at Wasque, we were greeted by 6- to 7-foot seas with a frequent 8-footer in the mix. The boat handled the big sea with ease, but any time you have big swell that tight together, someone is bound to get sick.
Our destination was about 25 miles south of the Vineyard, we found a temperature break near some good structure and we starting chumming.
Chris put the boat in position and Fred and the crew kept chumming while setting out five lines with horse mackerel with a squid skirt above them for additional action. The crew also deployed a live bluefish, which was fished on the surface from a kite, opposite our slick.
Blue sharks started moving into the slick within 30 minutes. They were not bashful and would come in close, nosing around the boat and chum bucket. There were some bigger blue sharks in the group, including a couple that looked to be near 200 pounds. It was only a matter of time before a reel started clicking. “Fish on!” Donald set up on the fish making sure to give it more than one good hook-set. Donald made quick work of a 150-pound blue shark, and the rest of the crew worked the fish next to the boat and even got the hook back. Within a few minutes, the blue shark was back on its way, no worse for the wear.
As the day went on, the weather conditions got better and better. Everyone got their turn on a fish, and the blue sharks were plentiful, to say the least. We saw a big fish jump from about 200 yards away, but we couldn’t get an identification on the fish. It was, however, enough motivation to stay in the spot a little longer and pick through some more blue sharks.
After a lull in activity, we decided to use our last hour and a half to move up to a wreck nearby and power chum.
Fred and the crew got the slick out and the lines in quickly, and 45 minutes later, we were hooked up on something much different. Joe, who had been pretty seasick from the way out, was up on the rod. Despite being exhausted and dehydrated with nothing in his stomach, he strapped on a belt and got the fish to the boat quickly. The fish was not finished, however, when this fish saw the boat and it went on a blistering run, but we didn’t get to see any color. It was apparent that we had a better fish on our hands. Fred and the crew cleared all the lines to get ready for the end game. The fish wasn’t ready to give, and led Joe around the boat, but he kept cranking and we finally had the leader on the rod. The crew was ready with two flying gaffs, a straight gaff and a tail rope. When the fish came boatside, and all I heard was “Mako!” Both gaffs hit the fish and there was a gigantic thrash and a thud as the Mako smacked the hull. It wasn’t long until the tail rope was on and the fish was under control.
We made sure to give the fish plenty of time to bleed out before hauling him through the tuna door on Akula.
We headed in with a nice Mako just before the day’s end. The steam in was smooth and a following sea helped bring us in quickly. It was Friday night on the Vineyard, and the crowds had shown up in big numbers. We had been spotted by people walking around the harbor, and Fred backed the boat into the slip. We couldn’t see past all of the onlookers. In the end, we decided to fillet the fish and not weigh it in though we estimated the fish to be just under 200 pounds.
It’s really funny to watch how long people stare at a shark, but I would say the average person would stare at it blankly for at least two full minutes. There is definitely a real curiosity, fascination and fear about sharks.
“Is that thing alive?”
“How big is that?”
“Where did you catch it?”
Fred and Chris let children on the boat to get pictures and get up close and personal with a shark for the first time.
Mako are delicious, they have a meaty and mild taste akin to swordfish, so the crew ate well. They filleted the fish and got a good night’s sleep, geared up to do it all again starting at 4 am Saturday morning.
Day two, we left the dock at 4 am, sharp, and started steaming out on smooth seas. The previous day’s rough morning seas really made me appreciate the weather. We had an incredible false dawn, with crimson red streaks through the sky and crystal-clear visibility. Chris was driving from the tower, keeping his eyes out for tuna, but nothing popped up. We finally made it out to the Star, a bendy group of contour lines on the chart plotter that indicated a radical depth change. Fog came up quickly, and we saw little sign of life to start, save for the dots on the radar indicating other boats starting to fish our area, as well. Chris had had enough of our first spot after about an hour-and-a-half, and moved a little north to get away from the fleet. Chris came down from the tower to help set lines. He took a live bluefish from the live well, and placed the bridle on it for kite fishing. Things weren’t looking good at that point, with no wind for the kite and no sign of life below the surface. Chris let the fish free swim and felt something whack the line about 20 feet below the surface. After letting the line sit for a bit, he pulled it up, the bluefish was gone. Not long after that, a balloon started wiggling on one of the shallow baits near the boat, indicating that something had taken interest in it. A shark came up to the surface, but we couldn’t get a good look right away. Fred had gotten a good eye on it, and called out, “Thresher!”
What impressed me most was how the Crimson Tide crew handled the situation very calmly: Everyone was quick to get to their positions, with three gaffs rigged and ready. While Fred got the tail rope ready, Adam, the rod man, was strapped in, with Eric over his shoulder, calling out the direction the fish was moving to Chris, who had returned to the helm.
The fight was on. The thresher burned through the line and Adam worked hard to recover from the run. All of a sudden, the line went slack and Adam had his head down, reeling like a mad man. Eric yelled to Chris, who threw Akula into forward. Adam’s line came tight again to the thresher, which had run directly at the boat. Eric gave Adam water, and poured it over his back. When the fight became straight up and down, Eric continued to give directions to Chris as he turned the boat, taking it in and out of neutral. Fred oversaw the cockpit, and made sure everyone was in position. Finally, we saw color, as the fish came up quickly on the starboard side, swimming next to the boat, turned on its side with its 5-foot tail just a couple of feet under the water. The leader man swung the thresher in closer, and two flyinggaffs hit the fish simultaneously. The fish was lifted up vertically with its dangerous tail under the boat, and Fred secured a tail rope behind the split in the tail. Not long after, the thresher was pulled through the tuna door and tied down on the deck.
I began feeling like one of the kids I had witnessed on the dock the previous day staring blankly at the fish. Threshers are impressive-looking sharks, with lizard-like eyes that dart quickly from one point to the next, a snub nose above a small mouth with tiny teeth, and, of course, the threatening tail.
A thresher’s tail is relatively thin, and the under side of the sickle tail comes to a point like a blade and is actually sharp to the touch. The extended upper lobe of a thresher’s tail is used to cutting through schools of baitfish like bunker to kill or stun the forage, while the shark will then return to feed on the mangled bait.
Chris and Fred made the call to run back to the island to weigh the fish. We had a smooth ride back, while the fog burned off, and we were able to catch up on some much needed sleep. The run took a little over three hours, and when we started approaching the island, we saw a huge squall-like storm system isolated over the island middle. Big bands of lightning touched down, five at a time over Oak Bluffs, and we could see the rain dumping down. Unfortunately, we were heading right for it. It wasn’t long until we were right in the eye of the storm, and we shut the door and hung out in the cabin. The storm passed as quickly as it came, and when we pulled into the harbor, the crowds were back out and in bigger numbers than Friday.
Though we were back at the dock and ready to weigh in around 12:30 pm, Chris didn’t get the call to head over to the scales until 3 pm. Akula was the first boat to weight in and Chris backed into the slip to a crowd of more than 1,000 people going absolutely nuts. The thresher tipped the scale at 251 pounds. It was an incredible moment for me that I’ll always remember, and standing on Akula’s tower gave me a unique vantage point to see the tournament from.
Though it was a respectable shark, it was less than half the size of the largest thresher weighed in at the tournament. There was also a huge porbeagle shark weighed in as well. The overall tournament winner for the second year in a row was the Tuna Tangler out of Montauk, NY, which tallied the most total points by weighing a quality shark on both days of the tournament.
Thanks again to Fred “Seaworm” Lavitman, Chris “Hoop” Joyal and the rest of the crew for having me aboard. They are genuinely funny, and the nicest group of guys, and I look forward to fishing with Akula in the future.
After weighing the thresher, scientists removed the fins and liver for research, and the meat was given back to us. We soaked up the cheers, and headed back to the slip to celebrate.