Shark fishing trips fascinate off Va. Beach coast

Shark fishing trips fascinate off Va. Beach coast

Shark fishing trips fascinate off Va. Beach coast

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by Associated Press

WVEC.com

Posted on August 13, 2014 at 5:23 PM

Updated Wednesday, Aug 13 at 5:23 PM

VIRGINIA BEACH (AP) - Rachel Hibberd grabbed the shark's tail and squeezed behind the gills, marveling at the fish's power.
   
Then she leaned down and kissed it on the back of the head, avoiding a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth, before flipping it back into the ocean.
   
Her encounter with an Atlantic sharpnose shark was greeted with smiles and high-fives.
   
No screams, no blood, no gaping wounds and no scary background music.
   
But just like in the movies, it took place within sight of the beach.
   
Hibberd was enjoying a morning of shark fishing with friends Maggie Whittemore and Keegan McLaughlin aboard the Git-R-Done as the vessel drifted a couple of miles off the resort strip.
   
Mate Frank Riganto III had put a whole menhaden on the ocean bottom, had a piece of cut menhaden floating 20 yards from the boat and had a live menhaden suspended just below the surface, held there with a pink balloon.
   
He was plunging a piece of PVC pipe into a larger pipe filled with dead fish, pushing the stinky mess through the holes of what is known as a chum tube. Oily pieces of fish and liquid formed a slick that floated and sank for miles behind the boat. It was to attract the sharks.
   
Capt. Trick Standing had at first tried fishing a couple of hundred yards off the beach, where he had been catching plenty of blacktips in previous days.
   
"Frank threw the cast net for bait right off the end of the (Rudee Inlet) jetty the other day and had a blacktip in with the menhaden," said Standing, also a surfer who has seen plenty of sharks cruising the shallows. "We were in 7 or 8 feet of water.
   
"There were plenty of them there."
   
Sharks... lots of them... that close to the beach?
   
You betcha.
   
On television, "Megalodon," ''Shark Hunters" and "Shark Week" are wildly popular, but reality lives off coastal Virginia and North Carolina.
   
According to researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, there can be as many as a dozen species swimming close to shore at any time from late spring to early fall. They include: blacktip, sandbar, bull, hammerhead, spinner, tiger, blue, mako, sand tiger, sharpnose, dusky, and smooth and spiny dogfish.
   
Even great whites from time to time.
   
Several species spend a good portion of their visit within a mile or two of the beach. At dusk and dawn, they often venture closer as they follow bait.
   
"We've always known there were lots of shark around here," said McLaughlin, a surfer who fought a nearly 4-foot-long blacktip on his morning outing. "I guess some people might be surprised."
   
Mary Lee, a 3,500-pound great white equipped with a satellite tag from Ocearch, two years ago ventured inside Ocracoke Inlet before spending a few days at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Maryland-based captain Dan McClarren caught an estimated 15-foot-long great white last August while fishing for sand tigers just 3 miles off the Oceanfront.
   
"It was every bit of 15 feet," McClarren said of his fish. "And it likely topped 700 to 800 pounds."
   
They're usually not that big, but they are plentiful, he said. Last month, he averaged 100 sharks a day, and he's had 200-fish days.
   
Shark fishing is so good along the Oceanfront during the summer that many captains have created a niche business of half-day trips where customers troll for Spanish mackerel and bluefish, then use the catch as shark bait.
   
"Our entire industry is based on meat, but most people who come here aren't going to go back to their hotel and do anything with the fish they caught," said Capt. David Wright, who runs High Hopes. "You mention sharks to a family and the kids light up. This is entertaining for them, and we're not killing any sharks.
   
"Do you know how many of my customers have gone home and changed their profile pictures to one of them with a shark?"
   
Despite so many sharks and even more people in the water, there are relatively few interactions.
   
Last year, there were 125 incidents worldwide, according to the International Shark Attack File. Seventy-two of those were confirmed shark encounters, and of those, only 10 were fatalities.
   
Of the encounters last year, 47 were in the United States, with half of them in Florida.
   
So far this year, there have been 24 reported encounters in the United States, with 15 in Florida. There have been no shark-related deaths in 2014.
   
There was a fatal attack at Sandbridge in 2001, followed by another on the Outer Banks a few weeks later, prompting more than a little beach hysteria every time a dolphin fin rose from the surface.
   
"You've got a better chance of getting struck by lightning or winning the lottery as you do getting attacked by a shark," Standing said. "They're always there, and they aren't eating people."
   
Still, humans are enamored with sharks and exhilarated by the possibility of encounters, which is part of the mystique of the Virginia Beach shark fishing trips.
   
Gary Seay, a former member of the now-defunct Virginia Beach Sharkers, vividly remembers shark tournaments in the 1970s and '80s, when hundreds of curious spectators would line the docks at weigh-ins.
   
Seay caught two of the biggest ever with then-state record tiger sharks that weighed 518 and 1,004 pounds. "Don Lipps had a tiger shark on one day that had to be 2,000 pounds," he said. "He hooked it about 12 miles off the beach, and it dragged us to the North Carolina line before getting off."
   
Seay's record was broken in 1981 by a 1,099-pound tiger caught by John Thurston. It is the largest fish of any species on record ever landed from Virginia waters.
   
Tigers and other species seemed to disappear soon afterward, but they are making a comeback.
   
Seay said he doesn't shark fish anymore, but he's glad other anglers are enjoying the experience.
   
"It can be thrilling."
   
The trio on the Git-R-Done sure was having a good time even though fish didn't show up behind the boat as they often do.
   
"It can be like fishing in a barrel," Riganto said. "They're usually all over us in no time."
   
Changing pressure from an approaching storm might have turned the fish off.
   
Or maybe it was just one of those days.
   
Whittemore nervously grabbed the tail of the first shark she had ever caught and reluctantly grabbed it behind the head, looking up at Riganto to make sure it was OK.
   
"It's not slimy," she said before leaning over and giving the sharpnose a quick kiss after Riganto pulled open its mouth to display the teeth. "They put up a good fight."
   
And they didn't chomp off any fingers.

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