The fearless blue shark weaves a figure eight up the slick. In a flash, it spirals downward, its notoriously long body now out of sight, nowhere to be seen. You can hear one voice after the other: “Where did it go? What happened to it? Is it coming back?”
The line’s balloon begins to bob up and down frantically. Within seconds, the line screams out of control and “Fish On!” echoes loudly through the air. It’s amazing how quickly the game changes.
By the time the first angler is strapped into the chair, the “blue whaler,” the nickname given to a scavenging blue shark who feeds on whales, had run off 240 feet of line. The teenaged angler knows not to reel against the drag, which can twist and break the line. This give-and-take game goes on for the better part of an hour. Like a fast-moving torpedo, the fish takes off in a long run, but the poised angler pulls back and slowly inches the shark’s tubular body closer to the boat.
Cautiously, the first mate pulls up the leader only to have 300 pounds of shark, angled at boatside. It thrusts its angry body back into the slick.
The crew, wild with excitement, leans over the edge. The captain reaches out and snips the wire to comply with the National Marine Fisheries’ “Tag and Release” program. The happy blue—left in good health—heads back out to sea.
The day starts, dark and damp, at four in the morning. My husband, Captain Eddie Carreiro, and his first mate, Eric Awalt, hoist frozen chum onto “Reel Attitude.” Shark rigs are lined up on the bait station, ready to rig to big-game lines of 130-pound test. Stacks of bluefish, caught the day before, rest on ice, soon to play a part in a chum-and-drift game that will scent a sliver of the sea and spur the ocean’s mighty predator, the shark, to feed. Amidst the early morning dew, Carreiro and Awalt move to a familiar rhythm, preparing for what is to come: three families’ two full days of charter fishing.
With recent sightings of sharks feeding east of Chatham’s waters, these toothy denizens of the deep have fired up plenty of anglers. And this anxious group, with four teenagers in tow, is no exception. They remember, all too well, the harrowing scenes with the great white in Hollywood’s Jaws. It is the first time sharking in Cape waters for Jordan, Henry, Sarah, John, Tim and Lee, who beat out others in the “family struggle of who gets to fish.” They are chomping at the bit to tangle with the big one.
Fishing shows on television like to spotlight the fighting angler’s bend of a rod from the lightning strike of a fish. But that heart-racing, adrenaline-pumping, made-for-TV scene is nowhere to be found aboard the “Reel Attitude” for the first two hours of the trip. “It is different from the bass trip we took the year before.” says Jordan Buttz. “We have been sitting for a long time, watching the captain and the mate chum the water. I am going to take a nap.”
The rest of the crew keeps vigil for signs of life on the vast, open sea. A few scramble to the tower, their eyes glued down to the water. Some linger at the bow waiting for their finned friends. Others huddle at the transom. But sharking takes plenty of patience—a virtue the spirited angler, let alone a teenager, doesn’t often possess. A long chain of events must occur before the first dorsal fin cuts through the waters in hot pursuit to feed.
Just days before the trip, the captain looked for concentrations of shark prey moving in cooler water temperatures. Playing the hand of 40+ years’ experience, he found massive schools of fish clustered around sandy structures and shipwrecks; underwater havens like these spell shark magic. He hones in on the secret spot where he powers off the engine’s twin diesels in a deepwater drift of wait-and-see. On a day where the sun burned off the fog and the waters ripple a gentle two-foot swell, the captain and mate put on their show. They bloody up the waters, leaving a scent of bait 20 yards wide and a mile long. “Shark fishing is all about setting up a slick,” Carreiro says. “It’s about positioning your baits and utilizing the ocean’s current. I want chum, this smelly, bloody concoction of mackerel, herring and bluefish mixed with Menhaden Oil, to create a long, wide slick in the water. And the smellier it gets, the better our trail.”
The anglers grow restless. “It’s a little boring when you’re not catching fish,” John Plimpton says. Stomachs churn from the stench in the air. They trust their captain’s instincts, but there has to be more than seagulls and terns swooping down to whisk away his bait. Where are the sharks? Cunningly, like a hunter stalking its prey, Carreiro and Awalt rig a tempting trap: three lines are staggered at various deepwater depths within a continuous slick emanating from floating chum buckets, tied off close to the boat, clouding the calm sea. Storepurchased glitter is sprinkled in the mix and sparkles like scales of fast-moving fish.
“Shark fishing is about positioning your baits and utilizing the ocean’s current to create a long, wide slick in the water.”
“The captain got the water all juiced up with this whole coating,” Jay Glassman says. “It was much more preparation than I had seen before.” Awalt doesn’t miss a beat as he throws chunks of chum—not too much, not too little—out into the slick every few minutes. “Sharks have an amazing sense of smell,” Carreiro says. “They can search out food—fish, squid, other sharks and marine mammals—by smell alone many miles away. They pick up scent from the tiniest traces of blood and can sense vibrations and movement in the water.”
Captains who’ve tangled their fair share of sharks know the bite often comes after two to five hours of chumming. Sure enough, in less than two hours, a voice shouts out, “Is that a shark over there?” and everyone perks right up, including the napping Buttz. All eyes turn to what they hoped would be the monster Mako: a species capable of growing up to 1200 pounds and traveling up to 50 miles per hour. Playful bantering on board mimicks the favorite Jaws scene: “I think we’re going to need a bigger boat.” And this is where they land the “blue whaler.”
The rest of the day is like playing musical chairs: the six anglers take turns conquering the deep blue with their own trophy catch. Eleven sharks are caught and released. Sarah, the only woman aboard, takes her fair share of teasing, but she shows true grit and lands her own trophy. Indeed, the bloody trail lures one predator after the other.
Sightings turn out far more than just blues that day. A thresher—a species that twists and spins with demonic leaps into the air— breaks the line’s balloon but, clever devil, he misses the bait. A thresher’s dangerously powerful tail is likened to getting hit with a steel pipe moving at 40 miles per hour. A porbeagle, a mackerel-type shark with a snout that models a porpoise, wastes no time taking his seat at the slick’s table. And one noteworthy blue, lurking in the slick, runs right up to the transom, its razorsharp teeth ripping into the chum bucket. This is one hungry fish.
After a long day, it is time to pull in the lines and head back to port. At the table that night, the families feast on the surprise “keeper” of the day—a succulent mahi-mahi that weighed in at 20 pounds.
Even though the piquant scent of chum can be a powerful lure in nature’s food chain and the fight for survival, it’s likely the “missing” Mako moved further offshore to scavenge on a preferred school of tuna, outwitting the captain. But one thing’s for certain: The day’s bites from so many blues made for a spectacular chase at sea.