The Family – Chapter 8

The Sharkman

Sharkman hated much of the world. He hated the crowding that was all around him; he hated a government that took more and more of his money and gave him precious little in return; he hated the biased media; and he hated the fact that strangers were overwhelming his favorite haunts, strangers that didn’t even bother to learn his language. He had even begun to hate women, the women who spied the movie-star handsome 6’3 hunk and wanted him for themselves (his neighbor Candy Sweet being the worst). He didn’t need them or their incessant pursuit and it was beginning to get on his nerves.

Most of all though he hated the people who interfered with the one sole remaining passion in his life—his pursuit of sharks. For while Sharkman hated people, he loved sharks, especially the ones that roamed the waters around the pier. The ironic contradiction was the fact that he had never killed those he hated while he had killed many of those he loved. That fact never bothered him until late one night.

Sharkman’s goal most nights was the large bat rays, shovelnose guitarfish, and leopard sharks that called the pier their home. Occasionally he would use a really big bait and rig up for seven-gills or makos but he knew his chances of getting either species at the oceanfront pier were slim at best.

A fresh and bloody mackerel was his favorite shark bait, a whole squid, sometimes stuffed with a live fish, was his favorite for the rays. As a rule he used two poles, one for the sharks and one for the rays, and staked out an area for himself complete with net, lights, a cooler filled with bait on ice, and his thermos filled with brandied coffee. He would sit, smoke his Camels, and wait for the bite.

There was a time when he would spend the entire night at the pier but the imbecilic cretins at City Hall (that term tied with sloth-like bureaucrats when the churlish Sharkman described them) decreed that the pier be closed at midnight. At most, he was now able to get three to four hours of darkness before closing, the preferred time for the sharks. Those same idiots had now decreed that it was illegal to smoke on the pier, or even on the beach, but to date no one had tried to enforce that edict. He wasn’t sure what his reaction would be if someone told him to stop, he just wasn’t sure. He didn’t like it one bit but it was just one more insult to add to the increasingly frustrating list of reasons to leave the area. But he needed those sharks.

The night that finally brought things to a head, started slowly. He began to fish when the night gods finally pushed that dreaded sun into the sea and most of the day trippin’ inland anglers headed home. Bait was in the water by 8:45 and the first fish hit at 9:00. A small bat ray, no more than fifteen pounds that was hauled up by net and quickly released. Soon after saw a shovelnose hit, a decent-sized one about four foot in length and it too was released.

Action then slowed both in the water and on the pier. By the next hit, near 11 O’clock, the pier was basically deserted except for the Sharkman. This time the fish hit hard and immediately headed around the left side of the pier. It was a big shovelnose but it wasn’t a match for Jack. He was too experienced, his gear too good, and he knew enough to follow the fish and to keep it away from the pilings until it tired. At that point he could net the fish. Although the fish was strong, the fight was over within ten minutes.

This time Jack kept the fish since he loved the meat of the shovelnose. He quickly killed the fish and then hauled it over to the cleaning station where he cut off the tail before removing its two long fillets. The remains of the fish went over the side to be used as chum for more sharks.

About twenty minutes to midnight and the time to leave, the Sharkman hooked a really big fish that hit hard and nearly spooled the reel. Jack thought it must be a big old bat ray—and there’s a reason why they’ve been given the nicknames mud marlins and freight trains. But still, he slowly gained line and had it headed toward the front of the pier. Finally, as it got close to the pier, his flashlight revealed that it was indeed a huge bat, one of the largest he had ever seen.

Most anglers would have been unprepared to catch let alone hoist such a huge fish up to the pier’s surface. But Jack was the Sharkman and knew fish like this might show up. He had already hooked up a wench and pulley system connected to a really large net for just such a situation. The moment of truth of course was getting the fish into the net. It’s never an easy task but almost impossible when you’re by yourself and trying to hold on to the rod with one hand and the net with the other. Jack wouldn’t have been surprised if he failed but there really wasn’t any other choice.

Somehow though the fish glided into the net just as he lowed it to the right spot in the water. Jack immediately grabbed hold of the net’s ropes with both hands and began to pull it up. Still, even with the pulley it wasn’t easy getting that monster to the pier’s surface. Finally though he was able to edge it over the top, net and fish landed with terrific force on the pier. Jack was exhausted and almost out of breath but he had done it. The fish would weigh at least 150 pounds since it was much larger than his previous best, a mud marlin weighing 132 pounds.

Then he witnessed something that was to change his way of thinking forever. The ray, an old female (the biggest are always these matrons), began to give birth in the net. Nine babies emerged, each an almost exact replica of their mother. Jack watched the babies emerge and each seemed to look him square in the eye. More important, he looked into the Bette Davis-like eyes of the mother and she seemed to bore right into his soul.

Was it right to kill this mother and her babies? It didn’t make sense to release her. After all, fish have offspring all the time, this just happened to be under his watchful eyes. But as the babies squirmed, and the mother seemed to relax, Sharkman knew he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t kill such a magnificent animal nor see the babies separated from their mother. It wouldn’t seem to make much sense to a rugged hunter like Sharkman but it was to be so.

Sharkman tenderly removed the hook from the mother’s mouth and then, with a strength he didn’t know he possessed, lifted that net and its family of ten and slowly lowered the net back down into the water. Thereafter he packed up and headed home.

He thought about that scene for many days and finally decided his sharkin’ days were over. He loved the sea, he loved his time on the pier, and he loved the solitude it provided, but he no longer wanted to catch that big shark. In many ways the sharks and rays were like him. They preferred to be alone, were strong and powerful, and were vulnerable. Overfishing had reduced their numbers just as modern society seemed to be reducing and trivializing rugged men like Jack. He would continue to rile against the government and its infringements on his freedoms but he would do it in a different setting.

He did make a special visit to Jasper and the Family before his exodus from the pier. It was one of the few groups he respected and Jasper had long been a person he trusted for advice. He explained what had happened, his thoughts, and they offered their opinions—and support. The visit seemed to give a stamp of approval to his decision and he was now ready for the next stage of his journey.

Jack became a leader of a group fighting for the elimination of commercial fishing for sharks and the atrocious and ridiculous amounts of bycatch allowed the commercial fishermen. Bycatch, an innocent sounding word, but one that in real world meant the indifferent and perfunctory killing and dumping of hundreds of thousands of unwanted sharks at sea. One day he was surprised to see that some in government were willing to help him in his endeavor; it was almost a shock to his system to accept their support.

In time his fame, doughty nature, and single-minded dedication to the Selachii (sharks) and Batoidei (skates and rays) attracted the attention of another like-minded naturalist, one who was willing to spend a fraction of his billionaire’s wealth to set up a foundation headed up by the Sharkman. Studies were started, lobbyists were hired, and pressure was put on the members of Congress to protect this fragile resource. It wasn’t easy but progress was made.

In addition, a facility was built where his aquatic friends could be both studied and exhibited. He had long noted the Monterey Aquarium and the influence it had on people’s attitudes toward sea creatures; he would try to duplicate those attitudes in regards to sharks and rays. In time his facility became noted as one of the finest of its kind in the world and the only one that refused to take government money for its varied projects. The Sharkman still distrusted government and intended to make sure there was no interference with the studies.

Amidst the accolades and attention he received (including a whole new set of women who wanted his attention) there was only one thing he missed—his nights out on the pier. At times he would slip a light jacket on and visit those piers nearest the facility. There he would talk to the shark anglers but now his was the role of teacher and he would gently give guidance using the Socratic method. His questioning approach allowed the anglers themselves to reach an understanding as to the value of these often maligned creatures. Many gave up their pursuit of sharks and rays and instead concentrated on the bony fish. Sharkman’s attitude toward those fish was somewhat indifferent. He would leave their protection to someone else.

Now a celebrity of sorts, he was forced to give interviews and talks in order to ”spread the word” but he had now accepted that part of his job. Inevitably the question would come up about his personal side, how or why he had chosen his role of protector. He would talk of his early interest in sharks and of his pursuit of them for many years. But he never revealed to the reporters, writers, his followers, or even his padawans how it was that those brown, Bette Davis-eyes of an old lady bat ray had changed his life. They just wouldn’t understand.