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Angling challenge

Shark battles, manatee surprise

Kim Fundingsland/MDN Rob Holm, Riverdale, left, and Mort Bank, Bismarck, with a manageable blacktip shark caught on hook and line in the Florida Keys. The shark was safely released moments later.

KEY LARGO, FLORIDA – Overhead a delicate kite appears almost motionless, suspended on sleek wings above a calm, aqua-colored sea. A white heron passes by leisurely, a few feet above the water, its sleek, long legs trailing behind. A white ibis sits alone in a nearby mangrove-lined shore, its curled bill a vividly identifying feature.

High, billowy, white clouds against a blue sky, their presence mirrored on smooth water, provides stunning accent to a picturesque morning. On the horizon a dark rain cloud appears to be active, its downward sweep of gray too far distant to be of concern. It spawns a brief rainbow that adds enchantment to an already perfect morning.

In the fishing boat a trio of anglers are choosing between watching the beauty of the world around them and preparing for a shark fishing adventure. There’s bait to be cut and a chum stringer to attend to but, at least for a few minutes, the tasks can wait in favor of eyeing the postcard-like view. It’s understandable and expected, and unforgettable.

The white clouds mirrored on the calm water move gently, rhythmically, as the wake from the boat rolls slowly across the surface of the sea. As the boat rises up on plane for a trip across a saltwater bay, attention turns to the hopes every fisherman has when pulling away from the dock at the start of the day. What will happen in the minutes and hours to follow is unknown, other than it will be something memorable. The ocean is deep with surprises.

On this day Rob Holm, Riverdale, will make his first attempt at shark fishing. The career fish biologist is no stranger to big fish like pallid sturgeon and paddlefish, but he’s yet to encounter his first shark at the end of a fishing line. Using a piece of barracuda meat, he carefully baits a barbless circle hook suspended two feet beneath a softball-sized bobber and gently slings it a few yards behind the boat.

Kim Fundingsland/MDN Multiple rows of razor sharp teeth encased in powerful jaws make the blacktip shark an exciting quarry for saltwater fishermen.

After watching the bobber for a few minutes, pleased that the presentation is proper, Holm snaps on a large red and white lure and begins casting among the clusters of mangroves in three to four feet of clear, calm water. A wake appears behind his lure. Judging by the size of the wake, it must be a very big fish.

Suddenly, with a rush, the wake closes the distance to the lure and the surface of the saltwater erupts, not once, but twice. The speedy surge sends water flying into the air, the thrashing loudly bringing the sleepy ocean surface to life. Almost as quickly, the burst faded away and surface calm returned.

“Oh, my goodness. I was shaking,” said Holm.

“That had to be a shark, a good one,” said Mort Bank, Bismarck.

No question about it. Holm’s rod and reel and line and leader would have been put to a severe test. The discussion about what might have been was still quite lively when the shark rod bent nearly in half. It took considerable effort to tug it out of the rod holder. Sharks, even average sharks, have a lot of power.

Kim Fundingsland/MDN A manatee swims underneath an outboard motor being flushed with fresh water. Slow moving and friendly, manatees are the largest animals found on the Florida coast.

Holm grabbed the rod and attempted to crank the reel. The shark hooked on the other end had other ideas. The battle began. It was game on!

Fortunately, the blacktip shark was “only” about five feet long, the biggest fish Holm had even caught but only a starter compared to what was to come. Nevertheless, it was high fives all around when the toothsome, leathery predator came boat side and a long tool was used to successfully remove the hook. The trio of fishermen watched as the blacktip swished its long tail and moved quickly away from the boat. It was the first of five sharks hooked that day.

Two days later the anglers returned to the same area. Again the wind was little factor. Shadows of big fish under the water came into view and disappeared, only to reappear in a different location. It happened with such frequency that it was readily apparent that a big number of sharks were on the hunt, and sharks turn and circle to pick up scent.

Holm, at the rear of the boat and nearest the baited shark rod, tossed his casting rod down and grabbed the same rod and reel that had boated several sharks in previous days. The bobber quickly, rapidly, disappeared from view as the 120-pound test line sliced through the water. The line was screaming off the reel. This was no five-footer. It was angry and ornery and not in any mood to cooperate.

The fisherman had never encountered anything like this. Holm was leaning back on the stout fishing rod arcing toward the water, straining and feeling the sheer power of the shark in his shoulders and forearms. Holm balanced on the wide gunnel of the boat as he raced from front to back and to the front again, all at the demand of the shark.

Many minutes passed before the shark finally came near the boat. As the bobber became visible just below the surface the angler got his first look at the big blacktip.

“Oh my! That’s incredible!” exclaimed an exhausted Holm as the big shark came into view.

The cantankerous shark wasn’t through. Maybe it was just sizing up its opponent. A sudden surge renewed the struggle. It took considerable effort, but Holm was able to bring the shark near the boat a second time. Alongside, the predator was stretched to its full length. Estimates of a six to seven footer, which is quite big, changed to eight or more. It was about as big as whitetips are known to get and definitely a fish to respect.

After the hook was removed the monster shark moved slowly, almost as if it was considering revenge. The it swam away as usual. As the shark’s dark outline disappeared from view Holm slumped into on a seat in the boat, savoring the moment and the memory.

Manatee eruption

Back at the dock after a sensational day on the water, Holm was running fresh water through the outboard motor when a beast from the sea, a manatee, made an appearance. The “sea cows” enjoy a fresh water treat, and the sound of the water spilling out of the motor was all that was needed for the manatee to come calling.

Friendly, the manatee was unafraid of humans taking photographs only a few feet away. When the water hose cleaning the motor was finally shut off the manatee moved away slowly, which is the only speed they can move.

The following day, fishing a mangrove shoreline in three feet of water, the fishing crew dropped anchor and sat down to enjoy a lunch break. About 100 yards distant something kept breaking the surface of the water. Sharks? Tarpon? Dolphins? Crocodile?

As soon as the trio finished lunch the anchor was pulled and Bank turned the boat toward the spot where, again and again, something was breaking the surface.

“Don’t cast until we get close enough. We don’t want to spook them,” cautioned Bank.

It turned out to be manatee breaking the surface to catch a breath before slipping beneath the water to graze on seagrass. Quite a sight. First one in view, then two and three. Then a particularly large manatee came to the surface a few feet in front of the boat. It gave out a “huff” and the water all around the boat erupted. Water, mud, sea grass, and broad manatee tails all around us. That boat shook.

We were surprised to find that we were in the middle of a feeding cluster of manatees. They had found ample seagrass on which to feed and that was the attraction, more so this year than in the past due to a shortage of their preferred forage. The 1,000-pound mammals need up to 150 pounds of seagrass in their diets daily. This year manatees have been dying in Florida waters at an alarming rate, a major concern for biologists who track the population estimated to be only about 6,500 animals.

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