Every week was “Shark Week” in 1979, the year I moved to Charleston.
Eleven years before the movie “Jaws” was released in 1975, Walter Maxwell of Charlotte set a world record that still stands, catching a 1,780-pound tiger shark from the Cherry Grove Pier. After a 2½- to 3-hour battle, Maxwell’s fishing partner Jim Michie was able to gaff the fish and they maneuvered it to the shore, dragging it onto the beach. A wrecker was needed to lift the big shark onto a flatbed truck and it was officially weighed the next day.
When Maxwell made his catch, only a handful of fishermen targeted sharks. But there’s no question that the movie helped popularize the sport in the late ’70s and into the ’80s.
When I arrived in Charleston, my biggest fish probably was a 3- or 4-pound largemouth bass and I had never fished in saltwater. The opportunities were mind-boggling. An ocean full of fish was begging to be sampled. Unfortunately, the nearest fishing piers were in the Myrtle Beach area.
Most of the shark experts in Charleston were the two to three dozen members of the Greater Charleston Shark Club. They met regularly to share information about catching sharks, but more importantly, during the summer months they held regular tournaments where fishermen vied to catch the heaviest shark in four categories — tiger, hammerhead, blacktip and other. Their fishing wasn’t limited to tournaments. They fished every weekend, weather permitting, and oftentimes fished after work on weekdays. The mentality of the day, whether it was catching sharks or billfish, was to bring them in for others to admire. The conservation ethic didn’t come into play for many years.
Most shark fishermen used heavy tackle — 80-pound class rods, 80-pound-test braided Dacron line and 9/0 or larger Penn Senator reels. Shark leaders were measured to IGFA world record specifications and generally were made from plastic covered cable, which could be handled more easily than thinner wire or cable alone, with a pair of large shark hooks. Common baits were 5- to 10-pound Atlantic sharpnose sharks, stingrays or large chunks of bloody and oily fish.
I was quickly drawn into the shark fishing community where I met people like Tom Sadler, who would become a regular fishing buddy; Tony McGuiness; Mark Almond; Leon Shiver; Ed Ripley; Dale Favero; the Schultz brothers, Ivan and Mike; Bruce Bennett and a number of others who shared that same passion. There also was a younger generation, guys like Steve Leasure, Dale Lackey, Chuck Garner, Jay Costa and others.
Unlike Chief Brody in the movie “Jaws,” we didn’t feel the need for bigger boats. Most people targeting sharks fished from boats ranging from 17 to 21 feet in length. Everyone’s dream was to break Maxwell’s record, and while a few thousand pounders were taken, no one has come within a few hundred pounds of Maxwell’s record.
“I think a lot of people started to shark fish after ‘Jaws’ came out,” McGuiness, 61, said recently. “Our tournaments went from four, five, six boats to 40 boats. I think that had a lot to do with it.”
“I don’t remember what got me started, but I was shark fishing before the movie came out,” added Almond. “We started fishing in the rivers and wanted to catch bigger and better and more sharks. The movie certainly bumped the popularity way up.”
There were many memorable catches brought to the docks in the late ’70s and early- to mid-’80s. Six 100-pound tigers and other large sharks were brought in regularly, catches most of us today probably wish we had released, since the populations of many species have plummeted. You still can keep a tiger, a blacktip, a hammerhead or a lemon shark, but federal regulations dictate that other commonly caught species such as sandbars, sand tigers and dusky sharks must be released.
“We always grew up catching small sharks and wanting bigger and bigger ones,” McGuiness recalled. He holds a state record that likely will never be broken, a 199-pound, 4-ounce sandbar. McGuiness fished out of a 17-foot Aquasport, and his biggest tiger shark was a 1,250-pound, 13-foot beast they had to tow in because it was too big to put in the boat.
“I have a picture in my office of an 880-pound tiger with me, Georgie (Dent) and Dale Favero rolling the fish (over the side) into the boat. You can actually see the water coming in the side of the boat. I decided then that was the biggest fish I wanted to put in the boat,” McGuiness said.
Almond also holds a state record that likely will stand, a 466-pound, 12-ounce dusky shark he caught in 1981.
“Tony McGuiness and I cut work to go fishing and then we were in the paper,” Almond recalled.
The biggest tiger he had a hand in catching was a 1,140-pound shark he and Mike Schultz had to tow in with Almond’s 21-foot Sportscraft, arriving at the dock late at night.
The S.C. Wildlife and Marine Resources Department (now Department of Natural Resources) had opened state record categories for a number of species, and in July 1981, I was fortunate enough to break the lemon shark record with a 317-pound catch (the current record is 380 pounds).
Shark fishing is not nearly as popular today. Most of us moved on to other pursuits. King mackerel fishing was becoming popular and I gravitated toward that. McGuinness and Almond became more involved in hunting.
“I did a job not too long ago at Fort Johnson (the wildlife department headquarters located on Charleston Harbor) and went down to the docks and sat there reminiscing,” McGuinness said. “There was many a day I went there and brought in a shark to weigh.
“The last four or five years I shark-fished, I never brought a shark in. If it wasn’t a tournament, I tagged them and let them go.” TL