When a voice belted out a warning about an approaching shark early Friday morning, the four men did the expected and ran like mad.
But instead of scurrying for safety, the crew of the Partnership made a beeline for heavy-duty fishing tackle in an attempt to retain its first-place title in the annual Big Bucks Shark Tourney off Oxnard.
At stake was a first prize of $6,500 for the heaviest fish of the three-day event and a $5,000 bonus for the heaviest fish of the day.
"We're going to give it heck," swore Wayne Prather, the Oxnard electrical contractor who last year landed the 187-pound winning shark in the tournament. The event is touted by organizers as the largest of its kind on the West Coast.
Prather and 72 boatloads of fellow shark fishermen set out from Channel Islands Harbor, making the most of a competition in which anglers clamor to get their hands on the same fish that swimmers and even most other fishermen go to great lengths to avoid.
Spotting sharks, it seems, is usually not the high point of a fishing expedition.
"Normally, you find shark when you don't want 'em," said Prather, 50, a former Navy man who, with beefy face and crew cut, bears a striking resemblance to Sgt. Snorkel in the Beetle Bailey comic strip. "You'll be fishing and you'll land something and they'll come up and eat it."
But the emergence over the past decade of a thriving commercial shark fishery has whetted the appetite of both diners and deep-sea anglers, said Dennis Bedford, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game. Once viewed only as something to fear, the shark is seen now as providing the makings of an elegant meal.
And generous purses don't hurt, either: The crews of six boats split more than $28,000 in prize money from last weekend's tournament.
Such events are multiplying like plankton, with a dozen major tournaments in California and dozens more in other coastal states. Mako, thresher and blue shark inhabit the waters off Southern California.
But the tournaments are not without their controversy. South Coast Sportfishing Magazine, a leading regional publication, does not promote tournaments with cash prizes because they can lead to "over-utilization of resources," senior editor Richard Heldt said.
"Sharks are a part of a bigger system," he said. "If you take too many out, then you're going to have problems."
Rights for Shark Hunters
The Department of Fish and Game, which allows unlimited sportfishing of sharks, says recreational fishermen should be able to stalk shark with the same abandon as commercial fishermen, who haul in about 4 million pounds annually.
Nobody disputes that shark tournaments represent the average guy's only opportunity to participate in the sort of big-game fishing adventures immortalized by Ernest Hemingway. Stakes in tournaments for such billfish as marlin can run as high as $600,000, but the cost of equipment and travel arrangements to such contests are out of reach of many fishermen, said Mike Leech, operations director of the International Game Fish Assn.
"It's a poor man's billfish competition," said Larry Hagebusch, a distributor of scuba-diving equipment who served as the Oxnard tournament's president. "You don't have to have a big boat or sophisticated equipment or go to an exotic location. You can just go out there and get one."
And even if shark are easier and less expensive to catch than their more prestigious and elusive brethren, they still offer the thrill of the hunt, he said.
"They put up a fight. They leap across the water. They greyhound. They tail-walk."
That description also fit the anglers themselves at a pre-tournament meeting.
An organizer, Torbin Frederiksen, a 37-year-old truck repair shop operator who is built like a bouncer, strained to keep order amid a rising tide of catcalls and jeers. The crowd complained loudly when he explained that a catch from waters recently fished by another competitor could be disqualified. A timid question as to whether fly rods would be allowed drew rowdy guffaws. But it was word that, yes, sharks could be attracted by dumping mammal blood that elicited the loudest response--an unbridled cheer.
If shark fishing is high-powered adventure, you couldn't tell it from the first three hours of competition on the Partnership. One of the 34-foot boat's two engines conked out, causing a two-hour delay. When crew members arrived at a desired spot off Malibu, they found it was already taken.
They spent an hour "priming" the water around their boat with a secret mixture of mackerel parts obtained from a cat food processor before the first strike. By that time, the anglers had practically given up hope.
"I've never had so much trouble fishing in one day in all my life," said Dick Christensen, a 55-year-old dental technician from Oxnard and the boat's skipper.
Around 10 a.m., with one angler taking a nap, another in the head and a third having just finished tinkering with the radio, crew member Chris Larsen yelled: "Shark!"