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OBITUARIES / Frank Mundus, 1925 - 2008

Renowned Long Island shark hunter

September 16, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Frank Mundus, a Long Island shark fisherman who became famous for catching gargantuan great whites and was thought by many to have been the inspiration for the irascible Capt. Quint character in the novel and movie "Jaws," has died. He was 82.

Mundus, who retired from his charter-boat business in the early '90s and moved to Hawaii's Big Island, died after a heart attack Wednesday at the Queen's Medical Center in Honolulu, said his wife, Jeannette.

Described by Newsweek magazine in 1978 as "the most celebrated shark fisherman in the world," Mundus fished out of Montauk, N.Y., for 40 years on his 42-foot boat Cricket II.

Over the decades, he caught a number of great whites, including a 4,500-pound shark harpooned in 1964, and helped catch a 3,427-pounder on a rod and reel in 1986.

"Shark fishing with a legend like Frank Mundus, the best at what he does, is like playing baseball with Mickey Mantle," writer Russell Drumm told the New York Times in 1998.

A five-day charter trip Drumm made with Mundus in the early '90s became the basis for Drumm's book "In the Slick of the Cricket."

Mundus was already a seasoned fisherman in 1951 when he moved to Montauk and became a pioneer of sportfishing for sharks on Cricket II.

"I started shark fishing as a joke and called it 'Monster Fishing' to attract customers," Mundus said on his website.

The selling point, he once said, is "poor man's big-game fishing."

In the summer of 1961, Mundus harpooned a 3,000-pound great white in 75 feet of water off the beaches of Amagansett, N.Y., which drew hundreds of gawkers, as well as reporters and photographers, when he brought it to shore.

"There was another big one I caught off Amagansett later that summer, but the chamber of commerce kept it hush-hush, quiet, you know, because they didn't want to scare away the tourists, just like in the movie," Mundus recalled in a 2005 interview with the New York Daily News.

The "movie," of course, was "Jaws," the 1975 Steven Spielberg-directed mega-hit co-written by Peter Benchley and based on Benchley's 1974 novel about a great white shark that terrorizes a small island resort village.

The writer had gone shark fishing with Mundus in the late '60s.

Although Mundus is widely viewed as having been the inspiration for the Quint character, played by Robert Shaw in the movie, Benchley denied that Quint was based on Mundus or any other individual but was instead a composite.

Mundus asserted that Quint knew how to handle people the same way he did and also used similar shark-fishing techniques based on his methods.

"I was never consulted on the movie, never made a penny off it, never met Robert Shaw or any of the other actors," Mundus said in the 2005 Daily News interview. "All I ever wanted was a 'thank you' from Benchley, and I never got it, not in more than 30 years."

Benchley, who died in 2006, acknowledged in an interview with Newsday in 1991 that he had been fishing with Mundus before he wrote "Jaws."

"Lord knows the character Quint is based on a lot of fishermen I know," he said. "I don't object to him saying he was the inspiration. He is enormously skillful. He is one of the last great colorful fishermen."

Indeed, stories abounded about Mundus, who wore a gold earring and a shark's tooth around his neck.

The stories, as Newsday reported, included Mundus dancing on the floating carcass of a whale as it was being eaten by great white sharks, sticking his hands into the water to grab a 100-pound shark by the tail and pulling it into his boat, and "lassoing blue sharks to stir them into a frenzy."

Another time, while Mundus was teasing a 2,000-pound great white shark with a large piece of bait, the shark suddenly emerged from the water and snapped its jaws shut 3 feet from Mundus' hand.

"I was looking down, and all I could see was teeth," Mundus recalled.

On his website, Mundus said, "I respect white sharks, but I'm not afraid of them. Whenever one got away, I felt that he had won the game. This is where I respected him. After all, it is just a game we're playing."

And despite numerous close calls, he said, "I was lucky and didn't have any injuries."

As for "Jaws," the movie that made moviegoers think twice about taking a dip in the ocean, Mundus told the Daily News in 2005 that the first time he saw the movie, "I was laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes. It's stupid; there's no fish strong enough could pull a boat like mine forward or backward, or any fishing boat."

Born in Long Branch, N.J., on Oct. 21, 1925, Mundus moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., as a child. He caught his first fish when he was 8 and began working on a charter boat as a teenager.

Mundus was divorced from his first wife, Janet. In addition to Jeannette, his wife of nearly 20 years, he is survived by three daughters, Barbara Crowley, Patricia Mundus and Teresa Greene; his sister, Christine Zenchak; five grandsons; and five great-grandchildren.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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