I was 27 years old when I took my first deep sea fishing trip on the open ocean. Being born and raised in the rolling foothills of the Appalachians, I was accustomed to only fishing in lakes, ponds and rivers around Georgia and Alabama. I traveled to Panama City Beach with a group of friends for what would become an unforgettable adventure.
We booked a trip with Captain Scott Fitzgerald of Madfish Charters and set out on a beautiful sunny September morning. I did not know what to expect to catch in the emerald-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and asked Capt. Scott about our chances to gain some sense of reassurance.
“You think we’ll catch a fish or two?” I joked.
“Oh, we’ll catch plenty,” he laughed. “Your arms might get tired from reeling them in.”
We boarded the boat and held on and he ramped the motor up to what felt like 100 miles per hour. We seamlessly glided across the water to our destination nearly 10 miles offshore. As I stared at the endless blue horizon, my friend, Paul, slapped my shoulder and pointed to a massive sea turtle making its way toward the surface as we zoomed past. I quickly realized that today was going to be vastly different than fishing any Georgia freshwater reservoir.
We arrived at our first stop where a shipwreck lay roughly 100 feet below us. I fished a scrap of blackfin tuna that Capt. Scott had caught just minutes earlier for our day’s bait. The bait and sinker plunked into the water as the tuna left an oily trail on the surface.
“Got one!” Paul yelled as we turned to watch him fight the day’s first catch, a small red snapper.
Capt. Scott grabbed the line and raised the fish into the boat to give us a closer look.
“Check out the teeth on that thing,” he said, showing me the fish’s needle-sharp fangs.
Before he could release the snapper, our friend, Jason, piped up.
I focused on my own rod to ensure I hadn’t missed a bite. I slowly cranked the reel just one turn before I felt a sharp tug on the end of the line. I quickly wound the line and felt the unmistakable sensation of a fish dancing on the hook. This did not feel like the old run-of-the-mill largemouth bass or bream I was used to catching. The fish tugged and darted with much more power than I anticipated, sharply jerking the pole downward as the reel whined against the catch.
My heart was pumping as I brought the fish to the surface. Another red snapper. I was amazed at how the brilliant red color seemed to brighten to a different hue as I brought it out of the water.
We continued to reel in fish after fish. Our group caught mackerel, beeliner, triggerfish, grouper, and the occasional shark. All the worries I originally brought with me on the boat about returning with an empty cooler vanished. It was every bit of fun I had hoped for—and more.
As the heat began to wear on our boat in the open sun, we began to maneuver around the vessel for the small sliver of shade offered by the covered steering column in the center. Soon, Jason had reached his limit for standing in the hot sun.
“Captain, can I jump in and take a dip for a minute? It’s hot as all get out,” he said.
“Absolutely not,” said Capt. Scott replied. “These are shark infested waters and we have been chummin’ up the water all day.”
In light of Capt. Scott’s warning, Jason persisted.
“Come on, man,” he said. “It’ll be alright if I just jump in for a little bit. I don’t see any sharks around here anyway.”
Capt. Scott firmly declined once more, to which Jason continued to plead for just one minute of relief from the boiling sun.
“Look, you’re a grown man, so you can do what you want to, but the second you step off this boat, you are not covered by any kind of insurance I can offer,” said Capt. Scott. “Do not jump into—”
Capt. Scott was interrupted by a large splash as Jason jumped into the cool water. The Captain shook his head and muttered a few choice words regarding Jason’s decision.
“Wooo! Come on, fellas! This feels great!” said Jason as he smiled with relief from the sweltering sun.
“Dude, get out,” said Paul. “I don’t want to be pulling you up out of a shark’s mouth.”
After our group reasoned with him, Jason relented and climbed into the boat.
“SHARK!” Paul yelled as Jason picked up a towel to dry himself with.
Jason smiled at what he likely thought was a joke from his friend, but his grin quickly sank into a shocked expression as two full-grown bull sharks cruised past the boat directly under where Jason had just exited the water.
We stood in silence as the pair of large sharks swam away from our vessel.
“See what I mean?” Capt. Scott said in a matter-of-fact-tone.
Jason and our group tried to dismiss what we had just witnessed with nervous laughter, realizing that we narrowly avoided a nightmare scenario. We soon relocated to avoid any further incidents with the sharks. Our group arrived at what Capt. Scott said was a fairly large reef below. Within minutes, we were all back to hooking and reeling in fish.
“Whoa! I got something big,” said Paul.
Moments later, Paul’s line went limp as he continued to reel in what he hoped would be a monster fish. As his hook neared the surface, it became evident that Paul had initially hooked into a medium sized snapper that had been bitten clean in two.
“Looks like the sharks are back, let’s get out of here,” said Capt. Scott.
We all protested, hoping that one of us would catch one of the giant creatures.
I caught another decent red snapper, which floundered atop the surface after being released. The fish floated away nearly 20 feet from the bow of our boat. I flinched as one of the sharks crashed the surface, snatching the fish away before returning to the depths.
“Did you see that?!” I shouted to our group.
Reaching into my pocket for my phone, I realized that the camera on my Samsung flip-phone had recently been damaged. My stomach sank as I realized I had not taken one single photo of any fish we had landed that day. I quickly asked Paul and Jason to get their phones ready to capture footage of the sharks.
Jason replied that he had left his phone in the hotel, while Paul began readying his brand-new smartphone to capture any glimpse of the sharks.
“No!” he groaned. “My phone is dead! I can’t believe this!”
Capt. Scott laughed as we agonized over what we knew would be a fishing story nobody would believe.
“You guys didn’t bring a camera?” he said. “I usually keep one in the boat, but my wife has it today.”
We laughed at our misfortune and continued to enjoy our time on the water. Our group began catching large red snapper around the reef, two of which were likely more than 20 pounds. Once again, I felt a distinct tug on my line and began reeling in what I knew to be another red snapper. After fighting the fish for a few seconds, my line seemed to lock into place and refused to budge. I pulled on the rod, but it had snagged something that felt to be unmovable.
“Captain, I think I’m hung on that shipwreck down below,” I reported.
Captain Scott stepped out from behind the steering console to investigate.
“No, you’ve got one of those sharks,” he grumbled.
“It’s not moving. I’m pretty sure I’m hung up,” I said.
As I pulled once more and attempted to turn the reel, something on the other end nearly pulled me off the boat. The rod tip bent down just inches away from the water’s surface as I quickly realized that I had indeed managed to hook one of the large bull sharks circling our boat.
The reel screeched as the beast fought against my efforts to hold on for dear life. I can only describe the experience of fighting a full-grown shark on medium-tackle as similar to fighting any other catch, but instead of having a fish on the end of your line, imagine it being hooked to the bumper of a pickup truck that’s driving wildly around a parking lot.
When the shark would let up, I would pull the rod closer to my body, wind down any slack he had given and brace for the next round of thrashing and pulling. Captain Scott, entertained by my struggle, was grinning widely as a I fought to keep my feet planted on the boat.
“Want the belt?” Captain Scott asked. “It will keep that rod from hurting your stomach.”
“No, I’m fine,” I said, ignorantly trying to preserve my masculinity by assuming that I was fighting the fish “the old fashioned way.” After a few more minutes, the rod began to make it’s presence known at my waistline, piercing down while I continued to battle the beast. I soon realized that I would need the belt in order to have a chance at hanging on to the rod much longer.
“Alright, give me that belt,” I said.
I fought the shark for what seemed like an hour. The fish darted and ran back and forth with so much force that it seemed to tug the boat around with ease. Occasionally, the shark would relent and allow me a few moments to reposition my grip and catch my breath. Beads of water clung to the line and dripped off into the ocean while I wound the reel to reclaim some of the line that the fish had taken. Just when it seemed that I was making progress, the rod would bow down again and the reel screamed as the shark went on another run.
Twenty minutes passed as I struggled with the fish before our crew was able to get a decent look at the animal roughly 25 feet below the surface.
“Yeah, that’s a nice one,” said Captain Scott. “Looks like he’s a good 8-feet and probably 200 pounds or more.”
I was both exhilarated and exhausted from the fight, but unwilling to concede to the fish who seemed to be weakening significantly. Before we could begin to decide what to do if I managed to get the fish to the boat, the line suddenly went limp—dangling in the breeze. My reel, which had been whining and screaming for the past half-hour was now silent.
Our group peered over the side of the boat into the depths below to investigate, but it was evident that the fight was over and the shark was gone. I reeled back my empty hook and leaned the rod against the steering column behind me. My feelings of disappointment were dampened by the sense of relief from the end of such an intense fight.
Our day on the water was an unforgettable adventure. We returned to the boat dock with a cooler-full of fish and more than our share of memories. My arms still ached and trembled from fighting the shark.
My first deep sea fishing trip offered more excitement than I could have ever imagined. While I was able to cross off one bucket list item, I added another one to my list: Catching and photographing another big bull shark.
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