A Sea Story

Editor's Note: The following is a tale of beach adventure and peril written by Billy Sandifer and published in this magazine back in January 2005. Billy has given us many fine tales over the years and during his current struggle to regain his health and resume fishing and writing regularly we are bringing our readers what we believe are the best of Billy's works.

Not much particularly exciting going on in my part of the fishing world since the record Christmas snow fall so I thought I'd use that as an excuse to share a true and somewhat harrowing story from my past.

As those who follow my column monthly may recall, I mentioned a while back that I am actually a storyteller more than a sportswriter and that will likely never change. Hopefully this little tale will be entertaining while also helping a few understand some of the potential dangers that can confront beach anglers.

Young fishermen are always curious and frequently come to me asking, "What is the most important thing that we should learn in order to be successful down there?" Of course they're talking fishing success in general on Padre Island National Seashore and my answer never varies and it always takes them by surprise.

I tell them, "The first and most important thing everybody needs to learn is that no matter how much you might love Mother Ocean, she doesn't care on way or the other if you live or if you die. All of her children kill each other every second of every day in order to survive and she does not take sides. She cannot take sides or the system would simply cease to function. So before you bite it off, you better make sure that you can chew it because it could very well cost you your life."

That always sets them back on their heels. You see, to a young angler seeking a quick fishing lesson, that answer seems more than a little extreme. But I have reasons for giving it.

For a number of years I fished alone for shark way down the beach using heavy tackle and large baits. Along the way I gained a lot of experience and today I do not advise anyone to fish for sharks by themselves; there are simply too many things that can go wrong, and when they do a person can sure get hurt bad or end up dead.

I remember one particular time when I bit off a rather large mouthful while fishing by myself down in the south end of Big Shell. It was late summer and the water was quite rough and there was a very strong current running south to north. The bait was about 15 pounds of jack crevalle with three big J-hooks in it and I knew it was going to be hard to hold that large bait any distance offshore in the fast moving current.

I took six large sinkers at two and one half pounds each and tied them about a foot apart using heavy copper wire and then attached this long string of weights to the leader. Determined to place this bait well offshore in the rough seas, I reduced the air pressure in the one-man vinyl life raft to a minimum as a fully inflated raft gets battered and driven back by the swells more than one man can handle. I had a really tough time making any progress offshore with all that weight in the raft and using only my hands for propulsion.

When an especially large ground swell approached, I would throw one leg out of the life raft and dig my heal into the bottom of the raft underneath mebest trick I ever found for successfully riding out the big swells in a raft.

There were really big ground swells breaking on the offshore bars but I was determined to get the bait out, well into the third gut. The second bar was around 7- to 8 feet deep. I was already physically exhausted, and just as I got in the middle of the second bar this absolute mountain of a ground swell appeared out of nowhere. The swell instantly picked the life raft up and violently tossed both it and me into the air. I distinctly remember doing a one-and-a-half gainer in mid-air before hitting the water hard and face down.

It knocked my remaining breath completely out of me and as I desperately tried to get a breath of air I swallowed three mouthfuls of seawater in quick succession. Then something really strange happened. Instead of bobbing back to the surface, as one would expect, I was being steadily pulled under. I desperately tried to tread water, but the steady pull on my right foot repeatedly pulled me under.

Realizing that I was in bad trouble, I looked around and there was the life raft, just out of reach. I remember thinking, "now or never" and lunged towards it with my left hand extended just about the time a swell brought it with my reach.

A 1/4 inch nylon rope ran along the outer sides of the raft; secured in place by plastic keepers that were built into the raft. As I grasped for the raft my fingers came into contact with this line. Instantly there was tremendous pull from below and I lost my grip with two fingers but managed to hold on with the other three. Whatever had my foot kept pulling me under and I felt as if my body was being pulled in tow.

I fought to the surface long enough to get a gulp of much needed air and I remember thinking as I was pulled back under that if I survived I would probably be seven feet tall from all the stretching when this was over.

Evaluating the situation, I realized that my only chance was to free my foot and lower leg and that knowledge struck fear into my very being for I had already imagined that they were most probably in a shark's mouth.

It is strange how things go through your head during times of great peril but that was all that I could figure out. A shark had been under the raft when the bait and I had been tossed into the sea, and in all the confusion and white water, the shark had grabbed my foot instead of the jackfish. I was in no pain which was strange but I also knew that shock can have that effect. And to be honest, all that I could hope for right then and there was that he'd eventually turn loose if I could somehow find the strength to hang on.

Now my situation was desperate and I couldn't hold on for much longer so, I came up with a plan. I would locate his head and mouth with my free hand as best as I could and determine how much of my leg was in his mouth. Then I would find one of his eyes by feel and do my very best to gouge it out with my thumb. Yeah, I know; sounded a bit risky to me at the time too, but I really didn't have any options.

I fought to the surface long enough to get a quick gulp of air and then bent as far over as I could underwater while maintaining my grip on the life raft. I ran my free hand down my leg towards my foot. Instead of a shark, I discovered that long string of sinkers had become half-hitched around my ankle. The combined weight of the sinkers plus that big bait bouncing around in the current was what kept pulling me under.

It took numerous attempts to free my ankle and to this day I don't really know how I managed to survive that little ordeal. I figure the Creator probably had something to do with that, and I remember being very grateful for it.

Every time someone mentions to me that I am lucky to be alive after all the foolishness I've been through, I just say, "Yeah, I sure am. I sure enough am."

And although I say, "Thank you," every morning and every night of my life; writing this brings back the reality of that experience and it seems fitting that I end it by saying, "Thank you again boss Thank you!"

Be careful, be courteous and be kind. -Captain Billy L. Sandifer (still only 5'10" tall)