Ivan Donoso, after almost five hours of anticipation, felt a tug on his fishing line. Soon his fellow fisherman, Brian Cargill, reported the same.
Slowly and carefully, they reeled in their lines, sure that they had finally snagged a shark.
But once they got their lines out of the water, all that remained at the end of each rod was the hook and sinker. Gone were the half-pound mackerels that had been used for bait. The big one had gotten away.
That was the closest Cargill, 38, of Bonsall and Donoso, 32, of Chino came Saturday to landing a shark, but on Sunday their luck improved. They reeled in two sharks, prized by many Orange County anglers.
But Cargill and Donoso, on this weekend, were not your ordinary fishermen. They were among about half a dozen teams from several county harbors competing in the United Anglers of Southern California Mako/Blue Shark Tag and Release Tournament, the first conservation program of its kind. Each team paid $250 to enter and compete for prizes donated by sportfishing equipment companies.
In the competition, the teams were awarded points for catching sharks and fitting them with numbered tags, then setting them free. If a tagged fish is ever landed again, officials hope that the lucky angler will notify the state Department of Fish and Game, which is trying to track the growth and migration patterns of sharks.
The tag and release program "means maybe there will be a good fish out here 30, 40 years from now," Cargill said. "The fish is so special in a way. It's a beautiful fish."
Blues and makos are the most common species of sharks found off the county coast. Blues--typically five to six feet long off the county coast, but growing up to 12 feet long and up to 150 pounds--are five to 10 times more numerous than makos in the area, experts say.
The mako, closest cousin to the great white shark, also grows to 12 feet and up to 150 pounds. They are faster and more aggressive than blues and can jump clear out of the water. Because it is a better-tasting fish, the mako is more prized. It has been known to attack boats and people.
The two-day tournament was mainly an effort to gather information about sharks and raise public awareness that the mako population is threatened by overfishing. Mako fishing has become more popular as a sport in Southern California in the last five years, Cargill said, with several tournaments held each year.
"It's a craze," Cargill said. "All of the sudden, it was the thing to do."
Most concern about the growth of mako hunting derives not from sport fishermen but from commercial interests that are getting the species to market. Anglers such as Cargill want to keep the giant fishing industries from depleting the shark population.
Several teams reported tagging sharks Saturday and Sunday, said Jim Gilmore, president of United Anglers of Southern California and organizer of the event. One team from Newport Beach reported tagging and releasing 20 sharks.
Cargill and Donoso teamed with David Fielding, 39, of Lake Elsinore and Chris Alfaro, 12, of Ontario. They launched from Dana Point at 6:30 a.m. Saturday on Donoso's 27-foot speedboat, El Guapo, which means \o7 handsome.\f7
Although they spotted such marine life as marlin, seals, porpoises and flying fish, the team saw no sharks. But like most patient fishermen, they were seemingly unbothered.
"This is nice out here," Donoso said as he sat on a cushioned boat chair with his legs stretched out and line in the water. "No worries, no nothing."
Most of their morning was spent racing toward what looked like shark fins but turned out to be either a seal lying on its side with a flipper out of the water or a bird swooping down to catch a fish.
For most of the afternoon, they just let El Guapo drift east of Santa Catalina Island in an area known in fishing circles as The Slide, an underwater plateau with slightly warmer waters.
Cargill, the skipper of the boat during the contest, said he developed an interest in makos in 1983 while fishing for marlin off Catalina. "We would seldom catch any marlin and would get all these makos," he recalled. "I said, 'We're fishing the wrong fish. This is perfect tournament fish.' "
In 1985, he started the Southern California Mako Sportfishing Tournaments, in which contestants compete annually from six Southern California marinas.
As the hours passed Saturday, it was apparent that the bait was running low and the makos just were not eating.
"I've never come off the east end, off The Slide, and not caught a shark," he said.
Then he reassured everyone that luck has something to do with catching the fish: "It's a fair game. If you're the best guy out there, it doesn't mean that every time you'll catch a fish."
By the end of Saturday, they resigned themselves to catching about a dozen mackerel. But they were eager to head back out Sunday, when they caught two sharks.
"That's the thing," Cargill said. "When you get skunked, it just whets your appetite, and you're ready to go out again."