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SPORTS WEEKEND | The Outdoors

Shark Apprehended, No Shots Are Fired

October 16, 1998|PETE THOMAS

It launched out of the ocean "like a Polaris missile coming out of a submarine," crashed down with a furious splash and proceeded to race around for nearly three hours until Bill Tittle's muscles cramped and his legs nearly gave out.

"I was whipped," he would recall more than a week later.

Back at the docks in Marina del Rey, under a night sky and before a growing crowd, the mako shark Tittle eventually whipped measured 10 1/2 feet with a 66 1/2-inch girth. It tipped the scale at an impressive 582 pounds.

Much bigger makos have been pulled from local waters, to be sure. A 740-pounder, believed to be the largest caught on rod and reel in California, was captured in 1996 by Barry Andersen of Redondo Beach. A 632-pounder was weighed in two months ago by Keith Lambert of Mar Vista.

But Tittle's 582-pounder, caught only three miles off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, is perhaps more noteworthy because it was subdued without use of a gun and thus probably will be approved as a state record, striking from the books a 298-pounder caught off Anacapa Island in 1970.

Shooting these open-ocean predators is against the rules when it comes to record consideration, but many believe it to be the safest and most humane way to dispatch them, that is if one chooses to keep them in the first place.

Neither Tittle nor Hunter von Leer, owner and captain of the vessel on which the mako was caught, is among those who share this belief, although Von Leer is no stranger to shooting sharks--he once played the role of B.D. Calhoun and dueled with J.R. Ewing in the popular television series "Dallas."

Von Leer prefers merely to use a flying gaff (with a detachable head tied to a main line), a series of ropes and lots of muscle (he weighs more than 200 pounds). And to put the shark out of its misery, he thrusts a knife into the stem of its brain. "That takes care of it as quickly as a bullet," he explained. "And it's legal."

This is a man who enjoyed steady work as a stocky, blond character actor throughout the 1980s. These days, though, Von Leer, 54, is busier playing out large game fish than he is play-acting before a camera.

His role now is that of The Great White Hunter.

At least that's the name of his boat, a 23-foot aluminum Bayrunner that even he said "looked a lot smaller" when the giant mako approached.

By Von Leer's side, usually, are his fiancee, Fariba Zand, 36, of Malibu, and Tittle, 47, of Venice. Zand holds a line-class world record for Pacific halibut: a 222-pound barn door she cranked up on 16-pound-test last June at Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Tittle caught a 218-pounder on the same trip.

Von Leer put himself in the world-record book last year by catching a 43-pound California halibut on 50-pound test.

His specialty, though, is shark fishing. Notably for makos and, more notably, large makos.

And for those who believe no sharks should be taken from their hazy blue world, and cringe at the thought of somebody filling one full of lead or stabbing it in the brain, Von Leer points out that he kills them only during tournaments or for record consideration--or if he's planning a barbecue because mako shark, he said, "tastes every bit as good as swordfish."

This much is sure: Von Leer's method is more selective than those used by most shark fishermen. There are no lines in the water when he sets up his chum slick with a steady stream of ground-up mackerel.

Instead, he waits and watches and picks out his intended target, thus leaving the less glamorous blue sharks and smaller makos unharmed.

If nothing else, this process makes great theater. The blues are usually the first to show, followed by small makos and, he hopes, larger makos. They aren't shy and usually swim to the stern and chomp on the prop once or twice, perhaps thinking it to be the source of the alluring scent.

Gulls land on the water and squabble over bits of mackerel, occasionally falling prey to lunging sharks. Sea lions dart about nervously, and rightly so.

This was the scene nearly two weeks ago during a small tournament to raise funds for a local charity. Zand and Von Leer were on watch while Tittle napped at the bow. Three or four small makos and three large blues were cruising around. A large school of mackerel had taken to the chum as well.

Suddenly, everything scattered and Zand noticed "a silvery flash" shooting through the mackerel. "She said, 'What was that, a whale?' " Von Leer said. "I only saw a glimpse of its tail, but I knew it was either a big mako or a small great white. This thing was a real sub."

He cast a hunk of skipjack tuna, rousted Tittle from his nap, handed him the rod and got behind the wheel. The mako immediately took the bait, Von Leer hit the throttle and Tittle reared back to set the hook.

"The reel was just smoking," Von Leer said. "The mako ran off about 75 yards in only a few seconds and then that fish just went airborne."

Only then did Tittle realize what he had gotten himself into.

"It was tough," he said afterward. "I could hardly lift my arms after that."

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