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SPORTS WEEKEND | OUTDOORS

Criticism and Controversy Follow a Catch of a Lifetime

July 17, 1998|PETE THOMAS

It was as frightening as it was exciting, a 12-foot mako shark charging up from the depths and launching itself out of the ocean in a fit of rage, performing a somersault 15 feet above the surface and crashing down way too close for comfort.

Scary?

"If that thing landed in the boat we'd be dead," said John Romanak, skipper of the 33-foot sportfisher, from which three other seasoned anglers and his young son, Rex, also watched in awe as the shark flung itself into the air less than 100 yards away in an attempt to shake the hook. "I mean, my boat's pretty tough, but I don't know about a 600-pound shark."

At another point during the battle, the mako made a drive-by in the "Bahama blue" ocean, giving the fishermen an up-close look they won't soon forget.

"That thing was like a freight train moving through the water. It had its mouth open and, I swear, it could swallow a man whole," said Richard Somers of Marina del Rey, "I've seen lots of sharks and big fish, but never anything like this, and I'm a diver, or at least I used to be until seeing this thing."

The mighty mako made one more spectacular leap, but because of some fancy boat handling by Romanak, some hard work behind the rod and reel by John T. Miller, the trigger finger of Ron Hamady and the gaffing of Keith Lambert, the once-feared predator lay motionless beside the boat after about an hour, a .44-caliber slug in its brain and its captors feeling somewhat guilty about killing this creature while wondering how they were going to get it on the boat.

They never were able to do that, instead spending two hours roping it to the transom and towing it from the middle of the San Pedro Channel to the IGFA scale in Marina del Rey, where it topped out at a whopping 632 pounds.

It was indeed an impressive catch, but also a controversial one. The four anglers, three of them members of the conservation-minded Marina del Rey Anglers fishing club, were competing in a tag-and-release tournament put on by the operators of "Sharkin' Online," a Web site (http://www.sharkin.com) devoted to shark fishing and whose members are largely proponents of tagging sharks, not killing them.

The catch was disqualified, naturally, and the fishermen caught some flak, not merely for killing a mako shark but for killing a large female with the potential to breed.

"They've turned everything we've worked for upside down," said Keith Poe, one of the most active and outspoken volunteer shark taggers for the Department of Fish and Game, which is trying through these efforts to learn how many makos there might be and what their migration patterns are, among other things.

The fishermen disagree with Poe's assessment and, although not all of them wanted to kill the shark, they defended their right to do so, calling it a once-in-a-lifetime catch and saying they never expected to encounter such a large and angry beast in the first place.

"I haven't killed a shark in four or five years," said Romanak, of Mar Vista. "In fact, I fish all the time and release almost everything. I just don't keep that many fish. I felt bad about this at first, and maybe it wasn't the best possible thing, but we killed it and we're OK with that . . . "

Lambert, 36, who stuck a flying gaff into the shark so it wouldn't sink after being shot, said he spent 20 minutes trying to persuade Miller to cut the line and let the fish go, but was unable to do so.

He added, however, that Miller, as a licensed fisherman, surely was within his rights to keep this prized game fish, which is under no protection from the DFG. The mako not only put up an acrobatic fight, it yielded 300 pounds of delicious steaks that were distributed equally among the team.

As for anyone criticizing the Marina del Rey Anglers, Lambert points out that the club has done more toward conservation and toward introducing new anglers to the sport than anyone leveling criticism.

That's true enough. The 23-year-old club has been involved in many noteworthy projects over the years and is pen-rearing white sea bass as part of a cooperative effort spearheaded by Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute and the United Anglers of Southern California to restock the ocean with this prized game fish.

Miller, 40, a construction worker from Venice, said the critics can moan all they want. "I've released the majority of the sharks I've caught, but I wanted this one," he said.

That was enough for Somers, who said this about Miller: "We tried to talk him out of it at first, but he's stronger than all of us put together--and he waited all his life for a fish like this."

BIG FISH TALE II

Most people would be happy to catch a 15-pound yellowfin tuna. Daniel Fisher uses them for bait, and by trolling them behind his small panga he has gained quite a reputation in and around Cabo San Lucas.

Fisher, a government employee who works in the public registry office in San Jose del Cabo, had a day off last week and went trolling his big tuna about 2 p.m. at the popular Gordo Banks.

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