Captain Bill commercially fished for sharks in Florida from 1967 to 1986. During his career, he captured more than 6000 sharks. Stayed tuned to his blog to learn the real deal on sharks, from a hands-on expert, not a desk-sitting scientist.
MEET CAPTAIN BILL
In the spring of 1967 at the age of seventeen, I ran away from my home in Pittsburgh and headed south to Siesta Key, an island off the Gulf coast of Florida. I gave up high school and shoveling snow for white sand beaches and bikini clad girls. Add to that fishing and scuba diving and I was in heaven.
I found work on local fishing boats baiting crab traps and working gill nets but I yearned to hunt sharks. They had been a fascination for me as a child and I wanted to learn everything about them. I was a teenager who had neither fear nor respect for them although they often fed on our catch, ripping apart our traps and nets. At first, I listened to the shark ‘experts’ (marine biologists). That sharks were misunderstood. Not dangerous. Their aggression was just toward other fish, that’s all. Although the commercial fishermen I worked with thought otherwise.
I found out first-hand the horror sharks could inflict. My German Shepard was ripped apart by a hammerhead one day while my girlfriend and I swam in shallow water off Siesta Beach. From that moment, sharks meant death .
Soon after that, I began hunting sharks. I sold their meat to bait shops for crab traps and I cleaned and sold the jaws. I also wanted to understand their nature, so I often captured and maintained various small species in tanks. My adventures allowed me to sell live sharks to Dr. Eugenie Clark when she operated Cape Haze Marine Lab on the southern tip of Siesta Key. When Dr. Perry Gilbert and Mr. Bill Mote took it over (and renamed it Mote Marine Lab), I kept live sharks in the open water pens Dr. Clark had left behind.
In 1970, I started Ocean Life, Inc., a live fishing business I operated both from Mote Marine Lab and a shop I’d renovated into a public aquarium in Siesta Village. Later, I sold live sharks to the Miami Seaquarium, Marineland in St. Augustine and the Aquatarium in St. Pete. The last pair of sharks I’d sold were to the newly opened Sea World in Orlando.
My live shark operation ended after a year long battle with red tide. Still, I was fortunate to have worked with great fishermen, like Captain Bob Hughs, founder and president of the Venice Shark Club (and who would be pleased to know I’ve met a girl who’s convinced me to eat raw oysters!). And the renowned Captain Bill Gray, THE pioneer in capturing sea life. He had been The Director of Collections at the Miami Seaquarium until his death in the eighties. (God bless you Captain, may you rest in peace in that big ocean in the heavens).
[kml_flashembed publishmethod=”static” fversion=”8.0.0″ movie=”http://sharkmanofcortez.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/slide_show_final.swf” width=”640px” height=”480px” targetclass=”flashmovie”/]
In the late seventies, my first wife, Cindy and I moved to Longboat Key, where I began commercial fishing exclusively for sharks. I long-lined for them and started a charter business out of the fishing village of Cortez, taking would-be thrill-seekers on adventures of their lives. I’d lower them into a protective, underwater cage so they could view sharks close-up beneath the waves. They actually paid me to scare the hell out of them!
After my divorce, it was through the drinking establishments and natural landscape of Cortez Village that people began calling me The Sharkman. There were other names, but that moniker stuck.
As I fished the shark-infested waters at the mouth of Tampa Bay ‘mostly off Egmont Key’ and relentlessly searched for love in the wrong places, I found that the two-legged sharks on land were as deadly as the ones I hunted offshore. Nevertheless, I met my second wife and we married on the beach – a story-book start.
Between 1967 and 1987 I captured and killed nearly 10,000 sharks of a dozen species. I’d compiled extensive notes on migration and year-round habits of the different species. From this I wrote a book. This first attempt was geared to help fishermen and divers learn the truth about sharks in Florida waters. I didn’t want to see the common, so-called facts of the ‘experts’ go unchallenged. I could easily disprove their ‘sharks aren’t dangerous’ theories by experiences on my boat, battling sharks while they cannibalized each other, watching them suck a sea bird down in one gulp, pulling dolphins and other animals from their stomachs. The job of sharks is to eat, anything and anyone.
It was another of these ‘expert facts’ that morphed into the ban on long-lining for certain sharks: that sharks were in danger of being over-fished. Because great whites and mako were on the endangered species list (neither shark is indigenous to the Gulf), limitations were put on long-liners. Of course, I could never understand how the sharks would know if they were ‘endangered’ or not; they would bite my bait no matter what. How was I to bring up an angry, toothy shark to my bow and not be allowed to kill it?
Regulators swooped down from Tallahassee, imparting new regulations on all fisherman. Developers ran rampant and the landscape of the historical fishing village of Cortez and the rest of Southwest Florida began to change. Like many fisherman, I was put out of business. With the added kick in the eye that every summer sharks would eat people. Yet it was the sharks that needed protecting. Not the people on the beach or the livelihoods of commercial fishermen.
Every shark attack I read or hear about sends a spear through my heart. I grieve for the parents of Jesse Arbogast and Jamie Daigle, for the couple chunked up in Australia, (from which the movie Open Water is based), for the families in Texas whose loved ones are victims of the increased attacks off the dead zone. I take these personally because I know with some truth and education, most of these shark attacks could have been prevented.
My fishing days over, my first manuscript languished on my closet shelf for years while I raised three sons. One day my eighteen year old found it, read it and bragged to my other two sons, “Hey, Dad’s written a book about sharks! It’s killer!”
So I thought I’d give it another try. This time with talented writer, Marisa Mangani, and written as narrative non-fiction about life, love and what has historically become the death of the commercial fisherman.
CAPTAIN BILL IS AVAILABLE FOR SLIDE PRESENTATIONS FOR YOUR CLUB OR GROUP. CALL: 941-330-7502
Good fishing, good loving and God bless you,