Setting the Bar: Giant Hammerhead Lives to Fight Again
Back in May, the time of year when spring begins to feel like summer, I and some friends and customers succeeded in catching and releasing a great hammerhead shark measuring over 13 feet in length. To my knowledge, this marks the first documented live release of a great hammer of this size in Texas. Though this wasn't the longest hammer I and my people have landed on these beaches, the fish represents an achievement of epic proportions, one which might change the landscape of shark fishing in the Lone Star State for the better.
Like others around the world, Texas anglers adapt their methods to best match the places and conditions in which they operate. In the wide world of shark fishing, some locations provide a user-friendly interface which better facilitates catching and releasing big sharks than do the surf waters of Texas. Our beaches present numerous challenges, including super shallow water close to shore, insanely strong currents and colossal waves crashing over steep sandbars. To further complicate things, currents run in both directions up and down the beach.
While our techniques are often compared unfavorably to those used in Florida, people making those comparisons don't realize the advantages anglers in the Sunshine State possess. We rarely experience the easy conditions they have on a regular basis. Other than relatively rare calm weather anomalies, we deal with intense and confounding variables most of the time, except during the mid-summer doldrums.
Accordingly, as the beginning of this summer approached, spring had been brutal to fishermen. The relentless wind basically never backed down. Those of us who fish the Texas surf expect to deal with wind, but this year's blow felt ridiculous. In a normal spring, a few breaks in the wind usually materialize, sometimes for a couple days, sometimes up to a week. This year the calm windows just didn’t materialize. The wind blew hard and harder, and the water warmed up earlier than normal.
The sharks were around, but extremely difficult to effectively target most of the time. About a week before the scheduled charter on which we caught the giant hammerhead, things looked questionable. However, I told the guys to remain hopeful and stick to the plans. In the end, a brief window of prime weather coincided perfectly with this trip, which had been scheduled as part of a bachelor party. The Seigmund crew, led by brothers Wesley and Randy, wanted to join their closest companions at the edge of the ocean, in a search for sea monsters.
I'd taken Wesley, Randy and their father Warren on similar trips in the past. Their good luck seems to accompany us on every adventure. On the charter before this one, we put their better halves on some solid, beefy bull sharks. The photos that followed rank among the coolest I've shot. On this trip, the boys were ready to shift the balance of power in this friendly teeter-totter competition.
On a gorgeous Saturday morning, I hit the beach around sunrise and ventured down to meet the crew. I relocated them from their temporary camp to a stretch farther south. The surf cooperated with our wishes, moderately kayakable for the first time in a while, but the wind still blew fairly strong from the south, keeping the current rolling with intensity. Nonetheless, I sought out a location that would allow us to kayak baits around a break in the sandbars where the waves weren't too big. By late-morning, we had cast several baits out, and were actively fishing.
I asked Wesley, “Are we going for numbers, or are you guys wanting to take our best shot at Jaws?”
“Go big or go home,” he answered, playing right into my wheelhouse.
I live for trips like these, so without hesitation, I grabbed some stingrays from the ice chest and rigged them for deployment. Right before noon, I kayaked the two large baits out beyond the bars, dropping the first about 400 yards out, the other closer to 450 yards from the beach.
As soon as I beached the kayak, the wind started to blow harder, fueling the strong current that was running up the beach. I rigged up one more fairly large bait, fought through the waves, and deployed it about 200yds out. The plan was to leave these three baits out until late-afternoon. If they weren't taken by then, I would change things up right before dark.
Beautiful green water fronted the beach, and far offshore some bird activity had begun. We continued to relax and fish, waiting on the big ones, but the action was slow, almost feeling like a late-summer pattern, though the calendar said May. Even the smaller baits we'd cast out weren't being touched.
Then, late in the afternoon, something picked up the most distant of the big baits and started slowly offshore. A couple minutes into the drag-stripping run, we knew we'd found what we wanted. The brothers let their good friend Cody take the rod, and we coached him through the battle. From the nature of the fight, I knew the shark's species, and that it would provide a pleasant surprise for the boys. After about a 45 minute duel, Cody pulled his opponent into view atop the first sandbar where I could grab the leader of a healthy 10'2” male tiger shark.
The crowd went wild while we snapped a few killer photos and quickly released the prize. As we shared high fives and headed back toward the truck, another shark hit one of the remaining big baits. I jumped up on the platform and the bait bounced, moved, stopped, moved again, then began to roll out. Still curious, I observed as the fish started to swim faster and faster, eventually just melting line off the reel. I knew exactly what kind of monster we'd succeeded in hooking, but would we be able to stop it?
Our only chance of landing this fish would be with a group effort; the brothers took turns waging the battle. Several times they succeeded in stopping the shark for just for a few seconds, before it continued swimming offshore. Eventually we were down to a quarter spool left, with line still disappearing quickly. With the drag on the Avet 80W reel pegged to the max, the Jawbone 1053 rod bent horizontally, we started to see bare spool, with line still disappearing. At the last possible moment, by some miracle, the fish slowed with each spin of the spool, finally stopping and turning toward the beach.
Very little line remained on the reel when our adversary turned, and I began coaching the guys hard. I told them to crank as fast as they could and keep the line tight. Within fewer than five minutes they recovered about 300 yards of line, about a quarter spool. The shark then turned and headed back offshore, the situation looked about as grim as before, when the fish stopped and turned back toward us the second time. The process repeated a third time, taking us well over an hour into the battle. On a final attempt to dump the reel, with less than 50 yards on the spool, our opponent stopped and turned toward us again.
While they cranked line back onto the spool, packing it ultra-tight, I realized the guys didn't grasp how big a shark we had on the other end. As the fight neared its conclusion, the shark could still slowly take out a few yards of line, but stopped making strong runs. After about an hour and 45 minutes, our worthy foe swam diagonally over the second sandbar, revealing her size. With two guys following, I ran into the waves with a rope and lassoed the beast by the tail. At that point, I knew every second was critical. With hammers being notorious for dying during the final stages of the fight, especially the big ones, I wanted to do everything possible to release the fish alive.
I quickly cut the cable; the 24/0 hook should rust out in a couple months or less. In mere seconds, we took our measurements, snapped a few photos, then dragged the shark out into the first gut, and she immediately began swimming in the shallows, something almost unheard of for a shark so big. Taking a direct path toward deeper water, the great hammer became high-centered on the second bar. A few of us swam out and helped her cross the barrier, then watched as she continued to swim off just under the water's surface. We all felt the gravity of the moment. This memorable shark did much more than set the tone of the trip. By proving what's possible, she might well have started a trend of Texas anglers catching and releasing giant hammerheads to live and fight again.