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One that didn't get away

One that didn't get away

Walter Maxwell (center) is surrounded by a crowd of excited spectators after he landed this 1,780-pound tiger shark on June 14, 1964.

Nothing draws a crowd quicker on a Lowcountry beach.

Sun worshipers snap to attention if they see a triangular dorsal fin knifing through the waves.

Tourists flock to see a surf fisherman unhook his catch, marveling at the sandpaper-like skin and the tiny but vicious-looking teeth.

Visitors to South Carolina fishing piers may puzzle over signs saying shark fishing is not allowed.

There's a good reason — chamber of commerce officials don't want bloody baits and big sharks mixed in with swimmers, even though the last fatal attack in this state was in 1883.

Almost a decade before "Jaws" hit the big screen, shark fishing from piers was an accepted and popular practice in South Carolina. But that changed after Walter Maxwell landed a 1,780-pound tiger shark from the end of Cherry Grove Fishing Pier in North Myrtle Beach on June 14, 1964. Maxwell's catch shattered the world record by more than 350 pounds and still stands today in what has been called "Big Game Fishing's Greatest Catch." Maxwell's catch also became the catalyst for banning shark fishing from piers and populated bathing areas.

Maxwell, a stonemason from Charlotte, was part of a hard-core group of fishermen who would gather in the summer and camp on the piers, sleeping fitfully as they listened for the telltale clicker on their big reels signaling the bite of a big shark.

One of Maxwell's closest friends was Jim Michie of Columbia, who had learned to fish for big sharks on the beaches in Texas when he was stationed there in the Navy. When Maxwell decided to invest in his own reel, he purchased the biggest reel made by the Penn Fishing Tackle Co., a left-handed 16/0 Senator that could hold almost a mile of 130-pound-test line. Michie built Maxwell a matching custom rod.

M.C. Meetze was another of that cadre of fishermen, and one of his contributions to the world record effort was a heavy leather fighting harness that would lessen the strain of holding the heavy rod and reel while battling a big shark for hours.

One that got away

Before there can be a great catch story there almost always has to be "one that got away," and that was the case on this June weekend. Michie, who would become an archaeology professor at Coastal Carolina, kept meticulous records. In his journal he wrote that on Saturday, June 13, baits were carried out more than 700 yards by boat. The group of shark fishermen had 17 runs and Maxwell hooked one that was brought to the pier.

Michie told writer Don Millus in an article that appeared in Outdoor Life magazine that the tiger shark was about 18 feet long and "must have gone at least 2,500 pounds."

"Michie had a pole vaulter's pole with a gaff attached, and there were huge swells and he just couldn't hold the fish," Millus said. "The shark swam away with the gaff still in it. As it went out to sea it looked like the periscope of a submarine."

Disappointed but undaunted, the shark fishermen continued their quest the next day. Michie's journal said baits were carried out approximately 800 yards. Michie caught the first fish, a dusky shark that measured 10 1/2 feet and had a 69-inch girth.

"Twenty-seven runs followed. Nick Laney hooked a possible 11-foot tiger, played for 3 hours and was lost around pilings. Walter Maxwell hooked and caught tiger shark."

Spectator sport

Then as today, whenever fishermen would hook a shark, beachgoers gathered to watch the battle. One of those spectators that day was a 14-year-old girl, Susan Hoffer (now McMillan) of Camden. Her parents owned a beach house adjacent to the Cherry Grove Fishing Pier.

"There wasn't a lot to do on the weekends in Cherry Grove, so we were actually there when the fish took the line," McMillan recalled. "It was hours. I remember going home to eat lunch and I was there when they brought (the shark) in."

Millus said the shark made some 30 runs. At times during the 2 1/2- to 3-hour fight, the line on the spool dwindled from the diameter of a bowling ball to that of a 50-cent coin. Maxwell finally brought the huge shark close enough for Michie to sink the gaff, which this time was attached to a heavy rope. Michie then went down to the beach, waded into the surf and attached ropes around the fish's head and tail so it could be dragged onto the beach.

McMillan was part of the crowd standing behind Maxwell and the monstrous shark when Michie took a photograph. She can be seen over Maxwell's left shoulder, looking toward the massive rod and reel Maxwell used to catch the fish.

A wrecker was called to hoist the huge shark onto a flatbed truck. The next day the shark was weighed at Ford's Fuel Service in Loris. Notary Jessie Ruth Graham attested to a weight of 1,780 pounds. The fish measured 13 feet, 10.5 inches and had a girth of 103 inches.

What happened to the giant shark and its mouthful of razor-sharp teeth is fuzzy. Shirley Spence, who was married to Maxwell at the time, said they were busy filling out the paperwork for the world record application and the people who had hauled the shark to Loris were supposed to bury it.

"They took it out and dumped it on somebody's property and we didn't know about it until later," she said. "I think a farmer smelled something and called the sheriff's department. They went out and found it. I think they had the chain gang come out and bury it then. You probably couldn't get away with that today."

One of the teeth, however, was extracted and submitted with the world record application to the International Game Fish Association. Jason Schratwieser, IGFA's conservation director, said the tooth is not overly large, but it can still slice a piece of heavy monofilament like a razor.

The fishermen received plenty of notoriety for their catch. Tom Higgins, a former outdoors writer for the Charlotte Observer, remembers it being one of the first big stories he was assigned as a young reporter.

"I guess it came over the wire and said he was from Charlotte so I started tracking him down," Higgins said. "He was pretty shy but a pretty good talker. Being a country boy like him, I was able to get through to him. It was a hell of a story, how a man could fight a fish like that from the pier."

Another record catch

Maxwell fished all his life, both freshwater and saltwater, Spence said. So when they banned shark fishing from the Myrtle Beach piers, he shifted his attention to pier-fishing in North Carolina.

In 1966, Maxwell landed a 1,150-pound tiger shark off Yaupon Beach Pier, also a state record. The drive to Yaupon Beach was longer, and eventually Maxwell backed off from his coastal fishing trips.

"He had fished all his young life and continued to fish," said Spence, who still has the record-setting rod and reel. We had a little pond behind our house and he fished there until he died."

Maxwell never made any money off his catch. Penn sent him a reel, and the line company, Ashaway, sent him some fishing line. The photo Michie took of Maxwell with his record catch became a best-selling postcard souvenir at Cherry Grove Fishing Pier until the pier was sold. And the pier still proudly displays a photo of Maxwell with his record catch in its tackle shop.

Sue McMillan never thought anything more about the big shark she saw landed when she was 14 until years later, when she was married and had moved to Conway.

"I volunteered on an archaeological dig with Jim Michie's crew," she recalled. "(Jim) was sitting around at lunch talking about this world record tiger shark at the Cherry Grove Pier, and I was like 'Oh my gosh, I was there.' Then he said let me show you the picture and I was 'Oh my gosh, I'm in the picture.' "

McMillan went on to become a research assistant for Michie, a lifelong bachelor who was estranged from his family. Michie developed dementia, and McMillan oversaw his care during his waning years.

During visits to the assisted living facility, she came across Michie's shark-fishing scrapbooks, filled with priceless photos, newspaper clippings and tickets from the fishing piers. The scrapbooks were falling apart and Michie had tossed many of them into the trash.

McMillan retrieved the scrapbooks and during some of Michie's better moments she got him to identify the fishermen and the locations in the photos.

"I knew that was his legacy," she said.

Maxwell died Sept. 29, 1991, at the age of 61, and Michie died July 25, 2004 at the age of 63, but theirs is a story that endures.

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