Santa Claus - Shark Hunter
Do you ever wonder what Santa Claus does for the other 364 days of the year? For the Santa Claus I knew, the answer just might surprise you. He chased big game, small game, and loved to fish. When he was fishing, one of this favourite things to target was a small type of Shark called the Spiny Dogfish, or Mud Shark. That’s right, Santa Claus is a Shark Hunter.
My Grandfather was certainly not a celebrity, but in the small town where I grew up he was definitely famous. His favourite thing to do in the whole world was playing Santa Claus. A large man, it was easy to say that Santa Claus was a role he was built to play. Of course, he spent much of the holiday season at parties and working in the mall, but no matter what time of the year, his snow white beard and long white hair stood out, and I can remember many occasions when I would be in town with him that other children would come up to talk to “Santa”.
Another passion my Grandfather had was to take us kids fishing and hunting. He always had nicknames for each of us, although admittedly they weren’t always the most creative. A cousin Jimmy (the dark haired elf above) was “Cricket”, but that’s as creative as it got. Jimmy’s brother Rick was Ricky, I was simply Davey, Wayne was Wayney, I’m sure you get the picture. He loved to tell the stories of taking Wayne rabbit hunting as a young boy. “Wayney always took his shot, then he’d drop the gun wherever he was standing and take off running toward the bunny. He didn’t need that gun anymore, because he would always make a perfect shot on every one”. If these stories were true, things don’t always get better with age, because like everyone, Wayne has missed on occasion as an adult.
One summer, when I was around 12 (this wasn’t yesterday), he asked me if I’d like to try Shark fishing. I’m sure my eyes became the size of saucers. I can remember thinking he must be crazy, or pulling my leg, because I didn’t think you could fish for anything larger than a brook trout where I grew up. I can even remember the first time we prepared to fish for them, he sent me to the garden to dig worms. This must have been a joke, we’re going Shark fishing, and the bait we’re bringing with us was worms? Even as we were driving to our destination in his old car, I still believed he was just going to stop at some local beaver dam and it would all have been a crazy, or at least elaborate ruse. Grampy, like the rest of us, might have been a little crazy, but this was no fish tale. There’s a small member of the Shark family, the Spiny Dogfish, that prowls much of the Northwestern area of the Atlantic Coast, and we were going to catch them.
Our destination for much of the summers while I was a “tween”, as they like to say now, was an old abandoned wharf only 15 minutes from my childhood home. The worms, as it turned out, were actually to catch the real shark bait. When we’d arrive, he’d always put me to work dropping a weighted hook directly off the wharf to catch eels and tommy-cod, and that’s what would go on the actual shark rigs. Shark fishing back then was mostly a waiting game, where we’d cast our lines out and simply sit and wait for the target to take it. While we were waiting, we’d bait fish.
We would fish about 1.5 hours before high tide, through slack tide and for about 1.5 hours on the way out. During this time, and during the right time of the year, we’d always catch fish. Often, it would be a Skate (either Winter or Little), but back then, the sharks were always the target. We’d each reel in these 2-4 foot dogfish nearly every time we went out, and much of the fun was boasting about who caught the most, or who caught the biggest on the day. Surprisingly, with as good as the fishing was for us back then, Grampy, Cricket and I mostly had the place to ourselves. For the most part, the other people we saw there had come to spin their wheels and play in the abandoned warehouse nearby. I can still vividly remember the squealing of tires you could hear from inside that building as these folks had their fun. For us, there was a lot of sharks, a lot of jokes, and a lot of fun. This is, without a doubt, one of my favourite memories of my Grandfather.
This week; which marks the beginning of summer vacation for students in our area, I thought it would be a great idea to take Wayne and his son Hunter to the old wharf and try our hand at Shark Fishing. Hunter is 14, and I wanted nothing more than to see the look on his face as he held aloft his first Shark!
We went with the same plan that I remembered from when I was Hunter’s age. Hunter brought along worms, and we were set to arrive at the wharf about 2 hours before high tide. The plan was going exactly how I had remembered it. When we got there, things were different to say the least. To get to the wharf, we used to step over a small ditch from the driveway to the wharf. Nowadays, it’s eroded to the point where you could drive a tractor trailer through that ditch easily. It’s such a difference, that people have made a walking path down the ditch and back up onto the wharf. Certainly, erosion isn’t the only thing that’s changed in the last 20 years.
Back then, as I mentioned, we were often the only people fishing from the wharf, or during peak season we’d have a couple of other local fishermen as company. Today, there were no less than 7 rods in the water other than ours. People were surf casting from the beach nearby, and some folks had even set up a tent trailer in the driveway and were clearly making a weekend of it. What’s changed since I was last here? It’s simple, and only two words: Striped Bass.
During the last summer I went fishing Sharks with my Grandfather, Jimmy caught a Striped Bass. This was unheard of in that area. A couple of locals on the wharf with us that day didn’t even know what it was that Jimmy had caught. We were used to catching sharks and skates, what in the world was a striper doing here? This was the only bass we caught or had seen caught during those four or five summers back then.
Talking to each of the men and women there this weekend gave me kind of a sad feeling. Most of them fished these waters regularly, every one of them was there in search of Striped Bass, and only one of them had ever caught a Shark from the wharf. While we were busy catching Atlantic Tommycod and Eels to use as our bait (some things haven’t changed), one of the others hooked into something. As he reeled it in, we heard him exclaim “what the heck is that?” We rushed down to his area, only to see a small Little Skate surface. As I explained to him what he had on his line, freed it for him and then released it, I felt as though I was in “bizarro world” to some extent. Skates were an absolutely common catch from that wharf back then, how could someone who fishes there regularly not have seen one before?
As it turns out, Striped Bass and Spiny Dogfish are on opposite ends of the population spectrum. The Spiny Dogfish used to be the most abundant shark species in the world, but the global populations have declined significantly. In fact, in the Northeast Atlantic, they are now critically endangered, meaning stocks around Europe have decreased by at least 95%. Things are not nearly as drastic in our area of the world, but at the same time, Striped Bass populations globally have grown to more than 10 times what they were in back then. Clearly there’s a new dominance in those waters.
I had a great day fishing with Hunter and Wayne, even though our total catch of the day was only a couple of eels, a couple of tommycod, and one small skate. At the end of the day, as the tide was receding, I had a few things stick out very apparently in my mind. Firstly, today I quickly realized that the baitfishing was simply a way to keep us youngsters busy between the prized catches. A teenager busy catching tommycod is a lot more entertained than a teenager waiting for something to happen as his bait sits on the bottom. Santa was no fool.
Secondly, I really wish I had fished here more with my Grandfather while I was a teenager. Unfortunately, usual teenager things took over, and by the time I was 16 or so, Shark fishing wasn’t something I wanted to do any more. Perhaps most of all, it was a definite lesson in not taking things for granted. Our nearly private spot from when I was young was now essentially a crowded campground, and the Sharks of my youth are certainly not there in the numbers I remember. Even the “tire squealing” warehouse doesn’t exist anymore. The cement slab is still there however, and many a tire was still squealed by the others.
I believe we went a bit early this year in our pursuit of sharks, and I am still aiming to make a couple more attempts this summer to get Hunter his first shark (I believe we can still do it), but we couldn’t think of a better way to spend Father’s Day weekend than fishing with our kids. Most importantly of all, I would like to appeal to all of my fellow fathers (and grandfathers) reading this: Take your kids fishing, and never shy away from taking them to try something new. They may take it for granted at the time, but I assure you, they’ll never forget it.
In case you were wondering, after my return from the wharf, my four year old son and nearly two year old daughter stuck to something a little bit tamer; we caught a few foot-long Brook Trout.
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