SHARKATHON COMPETITORS TRY THEIR SKILL AT CATCHING GULF GIANTS
by Dan Oko • Photos by Chase Fountain
Sean Curless and his buddy Casey Sanger have a Captain Quint glint in their eyes as they launch a sit-on-top kayak into the 5-foot waves bum-rushing the sands of Padre Island National Seashore.
The Texas anglers are 30 miles down the island from Malaquite Beach, where each summer international crowds turn out for the release of endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings. Today, it’s late October, and sea turtles aren’t on their minds. Though less grizzled than actor Robert Shaw, who played the captain in the Hollywood classic Jaws, these fishermen are ready to face rough seas and predicted squalls as part of Sharkathon, a weekend-long catch-and-release shark derby.
“What we really want is something close to a 10-footer,” Curless says. “I’m not sure anybody has released a shark that long in competition, so that would pretty much win it.”
He and Sanger have been training hard in the weeks leading up to the contest, including an arduous, high-altitude elk hunting trip to Colorado, although neither outdoorsman filled his tag on that hunt. Curless makes his living doing tech work for a firm in San Antonio; Sanger owns a metal fabrication business. They’ve fished together 13 years.
In 2014, Curless won the Sharkathon shark division (there are also classes for redfish and other species) with a 74-inch blacktip shark; the energetic duo has returned every year since. Curless drives a Ford pickup, Sanger a Chevy. Both beefy trucks boast custom-built metal platforms that help keep their lines above the waves when they kayak out to drop baited hooks into the churning Gulf.
Since 2004, Sharkathon has been a celebrated feature on the Coastal Bend fall fishing calendar. Run as a fundraiser and as a way to provide fishery data and small grants to researchers at the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M–Corpus Christi, the derby draws close to 1,000 anglers from Texas and nearby Gulf states to Padre Island and the shorelines along Mustang Island. Armed with sturdy 10- to 12-foot rods and reels loaded with a mile or more of line and backing, Sharkathon competitors regularly face spitting rain, big waves and the indignities of handling fish fabled for their rough, sandpaper-like skin (to say nothing of those sharp teeth).
Still, despite being an extreme event — paddling or swimming baits into offshore lanes where top aquatic predators dominate the scene — the macho atmosphere is tempered by an abiding conservation message and ongoing efforts to ensure family-friendly opportunities, including classifications and prizes for men, women and children.
DAY ONE BEGINS
Sanger snaps into his life vest to make the first hook placement. He’s got a quick-release fastener snapped to the rigging of the kayak, holding in place a chunk of fast-thawing crevalle jack donated by a fishing-guide friend. The rig includes a heavy lead weight to hold the hooks in place offshore; a small buoy keeps the jack's remains dangling in range of swimming sharks rather than sinking to the sea floor.
Sanger’s brother and a friend of his, who both reside in Kansas, target redfish and trout rather than sharks. Contest rules are strict about who can handle tackle and help land sharks.
In short, the organizers require each angler to captain his own fishing operation, but the rules also allow anglers a first mate largely because the contest relies on photo proof for winning catches. It’s not easy to wrestle a shark and work a remote camera at the same time. Curless and Sanger will take turns paddling and reeling. In camps down the beach, anglers enjoy similar camaraderie.
“We met at an outdoor gear store, and started kayak fishing together,” says Curless, while keeping a sharp eye on his friend. “But we also were doing a lot of land fishing, learning to read the surf. We started seeing these camps, and I was hearing people talking about sharks on the [online] message boards, so we decided to try it. It was, like, why not fish for everything, but I also wanted to see a live shark myself.”
Today, cash prizes and internet buzz continue to boost interest in Sharkathon, a homegrown contest run by a small group of press-shy Texans. In its early days, a few hundred anglers would show up; now about a thousand anglers register each year. In addition to prizes for competitors, including general categories for women and kids not tied necessarily to catching sharks (the fall run of adult redfish offers nearly as much sport), and a tarpon section (which rolls over when it’s not filled, and as of press time sits at about $4,500), the nonprofit that owns Sharkathon provides stipends to school fishing programs, the national seashore and Harte Research Institute programs. Many anglers also act as citizen scientists, taking fin clippings and tagging sharks for future identification.
Sean Curless takes a kayak to drop a line in the Gulf to catch sharks.
“Anglers who tag fish help us carry out research at a scale that would not be possible for us monetarily,” says Greg Stunz, chair of recreational fisheries research at the Harte Research Institute. “Through Sharkathon, and the Texas Shark Rodeo, which is a competition that pretty much runs year-round, we have tagged over 5,000 sharks.”
In Texas, we have most of the major players when it comes to sharks, even white sharks from time to time.
“One thing that’s interesting, and makes shark management a little tricky, is how hard it can be to identify them,” Stunz says.
Stunz credits the shark competitions with helping spread the word about conservation among Lone Star anglers, who have embraced live release of sharks.
“There’s really no reason to kill them when so many more tasty fish live in the Gulf,” he says.
Though Curless claims he’s not particularly obsessed with sharks as an angler, after a couple of years sorting out strategies, he and Sanger arrived at the notion they could be competitive in Sharkathon, which was still in its infancy when they entered in 2007. A few years passed and the pair caught a lucky break when the 11th annual Sharkathon brought crushing 40 mph winds and 6-foot swells that pushed participants right up to the edges of the grassy dunes that back Padre Island’s beachfront. As a result of the weather, many anglers stayed home that year.
Still, across the entire field, 27 sharks were caught and released, and Curless managed three with Sanger’s help. His 74-inch blacktip shark, which was the biggest fish landed the entire weekend, and another two sharks brought Curless’ total catch length to more than 210 inches. That allowed Curless to claim victory for largest shark and greatest overall length, and he took home $20,000 in prize money and other rewards, including a custom shark-fishing pole he still uses.
“Even if we never win another Sharkathon, we scored a lifetime of entry fees,” he says with a grin.
A Sharkathon competitor's custom-rigged truck makes its way down the beach.
Not everybody is a tough guy: Sharkathon works to offer family-friendly opportunities. Kids come out, and some even compete.
PVC tubes hold competitors' rods set in the surf.
CATCH AND RELEASE
Like many modern fishing tournaments, Sharkathon organizers have distinguished themselves by adopting a strict catch-photo-release (CPR) program.
“Successfully catching, tagging and releasing sharks takes practice, teamwork and swift actions to ensure the safety of yourself and the shark,” reads a section of the website. This aspect reflects a shift from the old-school, self-styled shark fishermen on Texas beaches who thought little of butchering sharks to hold onto their jaws as a trophy (or to sell to souvenir shops) or cutting the dorsal fin of specimens believed to be detrimental to game fish.
Today’s more enlightened anglers recognize that ocean predators play an important ecological role in the Gulf of Mexico, and people threaten many more sharks than the other way around — commercial fisheries worldwide kill around 100 million sharks each year.
“If we don’t protect sharks, there won’t be any left to catch,” is a common refrain heard at Sharkathon. With their dorsal fins used in Asian recipes, most “finned” sharks are released to die. By contrast, although sharks inspire fear in humans, shark attacks account for just 10 human deaths a year.
Stunz regards the Gulf of Mexico shark fishery to be in a state of recovery following the heavy commercialization of the fishery in U.S. waters in the 1980s.
Population stats remain largely academic to the paddlers at Sharkathon, where chum lines stretch nearly 100 miles. Sanger arrives back at the beach winded and soaked through. Up and down the national seashore, which extends some 70 miles from Malaquite to the Mansfield Cut, pods of anglers gather as far as the eye can see.
With the waves smacking the sand, few have the guts or endurance for the long pull Sanger has just made, expertly piloting the kayak past the breakers nearly a half-mile out. Instead, flying pirate flags and building bonfires, several other teams bunch at the edge of the surf, casting mightily, but it’s clear that the odds favor a hook set way out in the Texas Gulf.
Sanger and Curless promptly set their rods in the holders welded to the frames above their truck beds, lines singing in a stiff wind. The platforms even have room for cots, keeping the anglers out of the blowing sand.
With the bait in place, the crew awaits a bite.
Talk turns to the late Billy Sandifer, a fishing guide who lived out of his truck on Padre Island after returning from the Vietnam War. Sandifer led beach cleanups, helped found Friends of Padre Island and became a true champion for Texas sharks.
“In my youth, we were knights and sharks were dragons and it was all about being a hero and slaying dragons,” Sandifer once wrote. “Thankfully, the greatest majority of modern-day shark anglers are happy to count coup on them instead of killing them.”
In the dark of the night, Sanger runs through the camp, honking an air horn (a bit past its prime) that sounds somewhat like a goose deflating. There’s a shark on his line, and after failing to land something substantial that grabbed and dropped his bait earlier, this may be his best chance to place in Sharkathon 2018. Curless scrambles from his bunk. It’s dark, and everybody is shirtless in underwear or swim trunks.
After a long half-hour, what appears to be a 67-inch blacktip shark finally allows itself to be pulled from the surf. They have their official Sharkathon yardstick, and a digital camera at the ready. The circle hook is lodged in the corner of the malevolent-looking grin of the blacktip, which appears mostly concerned with returning to the sea.
The fellows take a quick snip from the fin, put it in a vial, and affix a ribbon-like tag marking the date, time and location of the catch. Then Sanger turns the giant fish by its tail back into the waves. It takes a minute to recover and, with a pulsing movement, swims off.
The following day passes without much action. Sanger’s brother lands a couple of redfish from the beach. The weather gets steadily worse for the fishermen, and soon they erect a canvas shelter on a frame. Curless frets that the fish won’t make the grade length-wise, and so he and Sanger keep making drops with those slabs of slimy fish. They catch a bull redfish on the shark set, a couple hundred yards offshore, which gets released. The desperate feeling spreads among the camps, and other paddlers begin to make similar long runs to spread their bait.
Sunday arrives, bringing Sharkathon to its end, and a parade of trucks rolls off, some rigs carrying towers that reach two stories tall. Huge Texas flags, some pirate banners and the occasional Confederate battle flag flap from various vehicles, like an armada out of Mad Max. The closing ceremony includes lots of friends and families chatting, a close-knit community at the end of the day.
It turns out that the shark Curless and Sanger landed does not win them even honorable mention. Jonathon Johnson pulled in an 89.25-inch bull shark for the top prize.
Curless doesn’t seem to care. He’s been outdoors, and out of cellphone range, for two days.
“That’s what I like about Sharkathon,” he says. “You grab your friends and head down the beach for this great adventure. And, hey, we got to see a shark!”
Sharkathon 2019 is scheduled for Oct. 11-13; register at.
Dan Oko has written stories on kayak fishing, tarpon and the mysterious habits of snook. He plans on leaving shark-fishing to the experts.
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