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According to a scientist at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, the offshore waters of Florida have the heaviest year-round shark population in the world, yet few Florida seacoast towns try to capitalize on the fact. But Jacksonville is not reticent about promoting its "natural resources." Newspapers and TV stations regularly run stories about shark fishermen and their catches, and the Chamber of Commerce magazine has even had an article on the subject, featuring illustrations of the sharks caught on nearby beaches.
But Jacksonville has always been something of a maverick city. On one hand, it has a symphony orchestra, considerable wealth and a number of major industries. On the other, it is a port city, a border city, a tough city where overalls are a favorite Christmas present, country-music bottle clubs abound and shark-fishing clubs flourish.
Around Jacksonville macho posers with shirts opened down to brass belt buckles and boots that strike sparks off the sidewalk don't cut it. Shark fishermen do. So it figures that given this much interest some of those fishermen would have themselves a little tournament, sponsored by the Florida Shark Club, the oldest and largest in the country.
But this year, when the big sharks were weighed and measured, the club was not pleased. A skinny 47-year-old contractor named H. B. (Blackie) Reasor had won with a 14'4" hammerhead weighing 703 pounds, which, if certified by the IGFA, will beat the current all-tackle record by almost 300 pounds. But Blackie is a member of the Jacksonville Beach Shark Club, whose members usually fish from a pier rather than boats. Moreover, second place went to Joy Simmons, a 24-year-old woman who brought in a 9'8�" bull shark weighing 477 pounds. Its girth—4'10�"—measured an inch more than Mrs. Simmons' height.
The contest was hardly more than 12 hours old when I climbed into a boat with Al Wiltshire early Friday morning at Monty's Marina. Al is a 32-year-old railroad auditor and former president of the Florida Shark Club. In spite of the hour he had a beer in his hand and a smile on his face. "The tournament got off to a good start," he said. "Lots of folks went to the beach last night, opened up the beer, set out poles and started praying for rough weather so the sharks wouldn't interfere with their drinking."
Half an hour later the boat slid to a stop in the clear offshore waters and we dropped anchor. Al slapped a two-pound hunk of bonito on back-to-back tuna hooks, eased overboard the one-pound sinker followed by 15 feet of tiller cable serving as a leader, paused to slip two inflated balloons over the lip of a marlin snap, then watched as the wind carried the balloons and bait across a reef. The balloons were 200 yards away when he snubbed the 130-pound-test line that was free-spooling off his 10/0 reel and jerked the rod over his head, popping loose the balloons and dropping the bonito to the bottom. Then he reeled in about 15 feet so the leader would not snarl, set the clicker, opened another beer, turned on the portable radio to catch the Firecracker 400 at Daytona and started talking.
"O.K., shark. Let's have some commotion in the ocean. Grab ahold of that hunk of meat." He turned around to tell me, "Went to the slaughterhouse and tried to get us five gallons of beef blood to use for chum. But nowadays they're using it to give a little color to those fat-burgers and wouldn't let me have any." Then he strapped on a custom-padded fighting belt. "Lordy mercy, can't forget this. Got to have my butt plate on. I catch a shark without this thing, and I'll have an instant hernia.
"This is the hammerhead hole. Yes, sir. They are here." Al paused, took a swallow of beer and added, "Don't fall overboard, 'cause if you do it'll be cryin' time again." Another sip of beer. "Definitely."
By then I had baited my hook, ballooned it out and was dozing in the hot midmorning sun. It must have been an hour later when, with no warning, the clicker sounded off.
"Oooooh. He's gone over the hill," Al said. "He has flat gone the other way. Set the hook. That's a hammer sure as I'm setting here."