Thursday, January 05, 2006

A Shark Tale

Sweat erupted all over the fisherman’s body. The strain of pulling against the as yet unseen force below rippled the muscles in his arms and torso. Blood ran in trickles down the opaque monofilament line cutting into his hands dripping into the open Pacific Ocean as if to some instinctive ritual rhythm. The Bull shark rose towards the surface slowly. There was no hurry. It spun the hand hewn dugout canoe in a lazy circle like the hand of clock running backwards. He could see it now. It looked nearly as long as the canoe. He got to his knees for better leverage.

On the next pass a cold, unblinking left eye met his. Knowing it was hooked, it bolted for deeper water nearly capsizing the canoe. Warm bile-colored urine quietly ran down his leg in a soft stream to mix with the turquoise seawater that now half-filled the dugout. Minutes later it rose to just below the surface, still circling. Unafraid now, it stared at him pulling against the line. Salt water and tears stung his eyes. An eerie acrid smell assailed his nostrils. An icy grip clutched at his heart. He thought of his wife and children. Tomorrow would be Christmas.
But today, one of them was going to die.

This was a three week fishing vacation on the Pacific Coast of the Choco Region of Colombia. I'd moved up to do some salt water big game fishing in addition to pursuit of other species in freshwater rivers, like the Chori, Jurubida and Tribuga that empty their tropical rain forest fed waters into the Pacific. Fifty-pound plus catfish species and monster Red Snapper often fed just outside these river mouths. Other bragging-size predator fish like Sierra, Aguja, Tuna, Albacore, Wahoo and Dorado also frequently feed in these areas. Sharks frequent the area too, lots of sharks.

A Bull Shark

Fishing guide Pepe Lopez and I caught a two meter long Bull Shark on Saturday, the 24th of December 2005 that was harassing a local fisherman in a three and a half meter long dugout canoe just outside of Utria Ensenada National Park. The shark had already swallowed the fisherman’s bait: a whole, live 18-inch long Tuna and was circling the fisherman and his canoe. The shark still had the 120 pound test nylon line and double number four hook rig in its mouth and was spinning the canoe and fisherman in circles. The fisherman still had the other end of the line providing tension against the fish. The line could hold the fish but was no match for the razor-lined jaws. Soon the line would be bitten through or break from the strain and repeated abrasion of the shark’s sandpaper-like skin. Now if you’re thinking, “Just cut the line and the shark will go away”, then you don’t know Bull Sharks. No chance. It had just eaten a free, easy meal and was looking for the next course. That shark wasn’t going anywhere, at least not just yet.

You Do the Math

If the fisherman won, he could look forward to a hefty payday. The shark’s fins alone would command a tidy sum at regional markets, while the shark’s meat, called “Toyo”, is a highly-prized commodity on its own. The situation didn’t look too good for the home team at the point we joined in though. Two meter long Bull shark, one of the three most dangerous and aggressive shark species in the world, three and a half meter long wooden dugout canoe with no motor, just single-paddle manpower. No stun gun. No machete. No knife. The shark had just swallowed a free, easy meal and was on the make for yet another. They were miles from shore on the shark’s turf. You do the math.

If the Bull shark broke, capsized or sunk the canoe and won – well, the fisherman would never see home again. In this region of the world, “it happens all the time” said Doris Lopez a resident of Jurubida, a local fishing village. Fortunately, our boat was a seven meter long heavy wooden launch equipped with an outboard motor. We also happened to have a detachable head harpoon with 250 pound test braided line and a wooden float attached. As we approached the scene the fisherman frantically waved for help. The look of terror on his face spoke volumes. Salt spray stung our eyes and nostrils. Our lips tasted of brine. The wind-whipped, humid air reeked of death.

A Friendly Chat

Only an hour or so ago we had pulled alongside and chatted briefly with him. He was after Bravo and fished a single live-baited line with a double-hook rig weighted to a depth of about thirty feet. The live bait of choice was Tuna which run in schools of 40 or so and are from 14 to 20 inches long weighing six to ten pounds in these waters. Already he had two thirty-pound Bravo in his hand hewn dugout canoe and was going for the hat trick. A third Bravo had “just thrown the Tuna bait and broached the surface, apparently spooked by something else”, the fisherman related. He wasn’t sure what. The shark was worked up to a depth where he and it could see each other. That’s when all hell broke loose. It then became a fight in earnest but the home team was losing ground.

The Final Battle

We circled the scene and decided to harpoon the beast to aid in the battle to first tire, then subdue it. Three of us took nearly an hour to vanquish and land the menace. The fisherman’s original nylon line finally broke under the strain. I manned the gaff. Finally, we had to knock it out using an oar with repeated heavy blows to the gills and brain areas above and behind the eyes. We killed it and hauled the creature onboard our launch. The fisherman cut out his double-hook rig and took the shark's dorsal and front fins which were worth almost as much as all of the rest of the shark. He headed off in his battle scarred dugout to Bahia Solano. That was the last we saw him and never got his name. Pepe sold the shark carcass to a commercial fishing vessel, the “ARES”, whose captain took it south along Colombia’s Pacific coast to the port of Buenaventura for weighing and wholesale. Interestingly enough, my wife and I took this same boat ourselves back to Buenaventura on the return trip home the next day. On the same trip in fact, as the shark.

Prof Larry M. Lynch is a bi-lingual copywriter, expert author and photographer specializing in business, travel, food and education-related writing in South America. His work has appeared in Transitions Abroad, South American Explorer, Escape From America, Mexico News and Brazil magazines. He lives in Cali, Colombia, fishes the South American Pacific coast, Amazon and Orinoco River basins for exotic salt water and fresh water game and food fish. For no-obligation information on how to get original, exclusive Exotic fishing stories, fishing technique articles, fishing-action photography and one-of-a-kind content for your fishing-related newsletter, blog or website contact him today at: for more free, action photo-packed, South American fishing adventure articles.