Catching Monsters With A Maryland Shark Fisherman
The bloody truth about fishing for sharks in Ocean City, Maryland—plus what to do for fun once you’re off the boat.
Ocean City, Md.—We’ve just caught half a shark. It’s a two-foot-long Atlantic sharp nose, and Captain Mark Sampson is reeling it onto his boat, the Fish Finder. Its silvery top half sputters and flops as blood drips from where its tail used to be. “This just means there’s a bigger one out there,” Sampson says, as he holds the dying half-shark aloft. And he’s right. A few minutes later, Sampson pulls in—and then, with the help of his first mate, wrestles to the deck—the furiously writhing culprit: It’s a six-foot-long Dusky shark, that was apparently hungry for the smaller fish.
Sampson pilots his 40-foot charter fishing vessel off the coast of this seaside resort town, and specializes in plucking sharks out of the water. He baits a rod, hands it off to a tourist, and lets the thrill-seeker reel in whatever shark comes along. Sampson will take back over when the battle gets fierce. And then his real work begins: Once the big Dusky is on deck, for example, Sampson goes to work on it like a one-man NASCAR pit crew. He measures it on a plastic mat, sticks a fresh water hose in its mouth to keep it oxygenated; tags the base of its dorsal fin on behalf of the National Marine Fisheries Service; scrapes a DNA sample; and then, with his mate’s help, he uses the measuring mat to heave the Dusky, a protected species, back into the ocean, where it will presumably live to bite another day.
He repeats this process quickly and frequently during a recent half-day shark fishing trip, ensuring that his boat’s six passengers experience the thrill of pulling a live one onto the boat—even if their catch is only there long enough to snap a grinning iPhone pic before it’s thrown back into the deep. We’re just a mile from the amusement rides clustered on the inlet tip of Ocean City’s boardwalk, but the sharks keep biting—another six-foot Dusky here, a smaller spinner shark there, all lured by the scent of rotting tuna carcasses tied to the back of the Fish Finder, as well as a few baited rods and kite lures flying from the boat.
Ocean City has lately experienced several high-profile shark sightings, including a rogue Hammerhead that caused the beach patrol to evacuate the water after it was seen heading for a group of boogie boarders (around the same time as a scary spate of shark attacks off the coast of North Carolina). Another Hammerhead gave birth to a litter of pups on the beach and then washed up dead. And a 3,450-pound great white shark was tracked swimming past nearby Assateauge Island.
But for Sampson, every week is Shark Week, and every day is at least a little bit sharky. He’s been fishing these waters since he was a kid—along with Florida’s Lower Keys in winter time—and over the years he has caught makos, blues, tigers, threshers, sandbars, blacktips, hammerheads, sand tigers, bignoses, finetooths, lemons, bonnetheads, spiny dogfish, and more.
As Ocean City reaches peak sharkiness, I spoke to one of Maryland’s premier shark fishermen about his chosen profession:
Is there a special feeling you get when you’re shark fishing that you just don’t get with other fish?
When you set up a chum line and start attracting sharks to your boat, you never know if you’ll be dealing with minnows or monsters. There are so many different species and all have their own unique habits, biology, and life history. While an average fishing trip might involve catching sharks in the 4- to 6-foot range, some big 14-foot monster could come wandering up the chum line.
Tell me about the biggest shark you’ve ever caught.
The biggest shark we ever hooked and brought to the boat was a tiger that we released back into the water. We estimated it was over 1,000 pounds and 14 feet long. The largest shark we ever put in the boat was a 970 pound tiger. We’ve taken mako sharks up to 684 pounds and threshers over 450 pounds. I’ve set two International Game Fish Association world records for sharks taken on two- and four-pound test lines, and my wife, Charlotte, has set 14 IGFA world records for sharks taken on both conventional and fly tackle.
Lately, have there been a greater number of sharks around Ocean City?
We’re catching just as many sharks as we did years ago, but that’s probably just because we’ve learned a few things over the years. There are definitely less sharks in the ocean than there ever were. But I think that in the waters we fish, the populations of some species are doing better than in other parts of the world, because in this country we have some pretty strict regulations on both commercial and recreational fishermen. Some species such as makos, sandbars, duskies, spinners, blacktips, threshers, and sharpnose seem to be showing up just as much as ever, while sand tigers, hammerheads, and blues are not as common in our waters as they once were.
When is it appropriate for fishermen to keep a shark they’ve caught?
In U.S. waters, many species of sharks are illegal to keep at any size, at any time. Great whites, duskys, and sand tigers are some examples. Only sharks that are both legal to keep and good to eat, like Makos, should be considered for harvest. Even then, considering the plight of sharks these days, anglers should think twice about bringing in any sharks.
Do sharks feel pain after you hook them? And what happens after you throw them back?
Research has shown that sharks and other fish do not feel pain the same way we feel pain. When we insert tags, remove hooks and do other procedures to sharks that to humans would be painful, we rarely see any indication of pain to the shark. The sharks we encounter in the mid-Atlantic area are always on the move and rarely stay in one specific place. When we release sharks, they usually just carry on with their usual travel plans. We almost never catch the same shark in the same location. On only three occasions have we recaptured the same shark we tagged ourselves, and in each case we caught them the same day. Over the years, we’ve had hundreds of our tagged sharks caught by other anglers in other places. A couple were caught as far away as the Azores.
Have you ever seen anyone bitten badly by a shark they’ve just caught?
We always keep our clients at the “safe end” of the sharks we catch, so only my mate and I work closely at the business end. As a result, the only bite I’ve had the displeasure to witness was to my own hand, when I got careless one day and didn’t use my pliers to remove the hook. Stupid! I had been nicked by teeth before, but that’s the only time had to go to the hospital for stitches for a shark bite.
In some Asian countries, commercial fishing boats still practice the barbaric method of “finning” sharks just for soup, and discarding the rest of the body. Are there any unethical practices like that in the U.S.?
While I do not agree that commercial shark fishing—catching sharks for market—is a practice that is sustainable, I will acknowledge that at least the U.S. has some of the most restrictive shark fishing regulations on the planet. As long as commercial and recreational fishermen fish by the rules, they will not make anywhere near the devastating impact on shark populations that occur in some other countries. U.S. fishermen are not allowed to “fin” sharks at sea and they fish under strict quotas designed to prevent them from overfishing certain species.
What is the best way to responsibly fish for sharks?
For recreational fishermen, targeting sharks in a responsible manner requires that they have enough respect for these animals that they simply don’t mess with them until they have a realistic knowledge about sharks, and the tackle and equipment to catch and release them in a way that’s safe for the sharks and the crew, and a genuine desire to ensure that however they interact with sharks does not leave a bunch of dead sharks in their wake.
To charter a shark-fishing trip with Mark Sampson on the Fish Finder, go to Bigsharks.com.
Here are some other fun things to do when visiting Ocean City, Maryland:
DO: Escape the bustle of Coastal Highway—Ocean City’s main drag, which is teeming with all-you-can-eat crab houses, souvenir shops, and mini-golf courses—by taking a 20-minute drive to Assateague Island. There, you can see its famous wild horses grazing on saltmarsh and beach grass. You can also drive on the beach at night (with a permit, and ideally a pick-up truck), and kayak, canoe, or hike amid the lush, ecologically diverse habitat of beaches, marshes, and forests that are home to an abundance of wildlife, ranging from tiny Sika deer to the nocturnal, beach-crawling ghost crab. After you’ve had your fill OC’s 2.5-mile-long boardwalk, head to Speed World to ride the Cyclone Cart Coaster, billed as the “world’s first go-kart roller coaster.” It’s not exactly a white-knuckle thrill ride, but the Coney Island Cyclone-inspired elevated wooden tracks make for a welcome twist on the usual go-kart loops.
EAT: Hit theCrab Bag for all-you-can-eat, Old Bay-dusted steamed blue crabs (or larger “heavy” crabs available by the dozen), BBQ sauce-slathered pork ribs, and divinely adulterated char-grilled oysters. Try Bull on the Beach for its signature pit beef sandwiches, a triumph of tender sliced roast beef, best washed down with a NattyBoh draft or two. For a reliably gluttonous pig out, belly up at Phillips for a popular seafood buffet that resembles a Golden Corral on steroids; it spans everything from steamed snow crab legs to fried chicken to raw oysters and clams. Dine at The Shark in West Ocean City for fresh, locally-sourced seafood (it overlooks a commercial fishing harbor) and a rotating daily menu that might include blackened mako bites, sushi-grade big eye tuna, and elevated versions of Ocean City’s ubiquitous broiled crab cakes and fried soft shells. For a straight-up boardwalk classic, grab a bucket ofThrasher’s French Fries, which cooks its addictive spuds in peanut oil (the customary vinegar topping is highly recommended) and devour it all while gazing upon the boardwalk’s signature giant Jesus sand sculptures. What would Jesus do? He’d eat these fries.
DRINK: The sprawling, tropical-themed nightclub Seacrets is a bustling party-plex that looms imposingly over the rest of Ocean City nightlife. It’s frequented by a lively young crowd of tourists and locals looking for lust (or at least to loosen up over a few drinks). There are multiple bars, a fake beach, live music stages, and—for those who want to cruise right up to the club—a bayside boat dock. For an enjoyably divier vibe, check out the Purple Moose Saloon, a venerable boardwalk roadhouse that specializes in cheekily anachronistic cover bands like Judas Priestess—yep, an all-girl Judas Priest tribute act. Or, catch a Ravens game at theBearded Clam, a biker-friendly sports bar that sells one of the more risque tavern t-shirts in town. Don’t forget to soak up the sea breeze at the waterfront Harborside Bar & Grill in West Ocean City. Try the signature “Original” Orange Crush (1.5 oz. Smirnoff Orange vodka, 1.5 oz triple sec, juice of one orange, top with Sprite) and watch the fishing boats return to their slips with a fresh haul.