Sheepshead Bay

Catching the whopper: Brooklyn’s annual shark-fishing contest

Thirty-eight boats, $50,000 and a sea full of sharks.

June 24, 2019 Paul Stremple
Sharks caught in the tournament hang outside the Stella Maris Bait and Tackle shop in Sheepshead Bay, their weights recorded in white. Eagle photo by Paul Stremple
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As dawn cracks the Saturday sky above Sheepshead Bay, more than 30 boats set out for the open sea. The sixth annual Brooklyn Shark Tournament has begun.

The vessels will return in the afternoon to hang huge sharks from a giant scaffold in front of bait-and-tackle shop Stella Maris, drawing a crowd and slowing traffic to a crawl.

At stake? More than $50,000 in prize money.

Captains arrived the night before, parking their trucks along Emmons Avenue and heading inside the venerable bait shop to register their boats for Brooklyn’s only shark tournament. Crowding into the narrow aisle of the shop, between racks of rods and reels, they pay their fee in crisp hundreds from calloused hands.

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“Thresher only, you entering the calcutta?”

“Yeah, and I need five buckets of chum”

“You got it.”

They wear t-shirts from shark tournaments past with the sleeves cut off, revealing deep tans and nautical tattoos faded by the sun. They’ve come up from New Jersey and Staten Island, from Nassau County and farther out on Long Island.

Some are Brooklynites returning, drawn back to the borough where they were born to compete in the tournament. Still more are Southern Brooklyn locals, sailing out of Gerritsen Beach and Sheepshead Bay, moored just down the avenue.

Since it opened in 1947, Stella Maris has provided supplies and knowledge to the Sheepshead Bay fishing community, but never hosted a shark fishing tournament until recently, says John Calamia, the tournament’s director. Now in its sixth year, the Brooklyn Shark Tournament, a collaboration between Stella Maris and Whatta Catch Sport Fishing, has attracted the captains and crews of 38 boats.

In the alley leading to the dock, there’s beer on ice and a barbecue churning out just about as much smoke as the cigarettes clamped in the teeth of the fisherman as they jostle and joke, exchanging the embellished fishing tales that are common currency here. They are catching up, but they’re cagey: There’s money — and reputation — on the line tomorrow. It’s a competition, after all.

Hoisting the day’s heaviest catch, a 277 lb. thresher shark, up onto the scaffold. Eagle photo by Paul Stremple
“Are those real?!” Eagle photo by Paul Stremple

The morning of the tournament is bright and clear, with a slight breeze — ideal shark fishing conditions, says Calamia. Boats can set lines and drift in the current, without too much chop kicked up by the wind.

“It sounds pretty sharky out there — plenty of action,” he reports.

Shark season lasts from the tail end of spring into the summer, as warm water currents bring thresher, mako and blue sharks north into New York’s waters. All three sharks are eligible in today’s tournament, though each boat is allowed to bring in only one shark.

The tournament demands strict adherence to legal guidelines for the licensing to fish for shark, down to the style of hook used.

To find sharks, most boats head out to the 20-fathom line, a depth of around 120 feet. That means a trip about 30 miles out into the ocean, one to two hours off the coast.

“This isn’t going out in Jamaica Bay and relaxing for the day,” he says. “You’re out on the open ocean.”

These sharks weigh a couple of hundred pounds. Landing one takes coordination between crew members, deft maneuvering of the boat, and a bit of luck. (Later today, one crew member will take a bite to the hand from a mako, while another will take a solid slap to the chest from a shark’s thrashing tail.)

“One of the most exciting times in a fisherman’s life is getting a big shark next to the boat,” Calamia says.

“In the last few years, they’ve been in shore more,” says Calamia, a shark fisherman himself. “I’ve seen them within three miles of the beach. Thirty years ago, we ran much farther out than we do now.”

The Whatta Catch crew returns with a blue shark. Eagle photo by Paul Stremple

As boats start to return in the early afternoon, a crowd gathers outside the shop, snapping selfies with the hanging sharks and asking repeatedly, “Are those real?!” Traffic is slow along Emmons Avenue, each driver in the back of the line honking and angry at the delay until they pull even with the sharks—at which point they too slow to a crawl, roll down their window and snap a quick picture.

There’s a raffle table set up and the theme from Jaws seems to be playing on an endless loop. A crowd of kids gathers around an inflatable pool filled with small, toothless nurse sharks, where they take turns mustering up the courage to briefly pet one of the scaled-down predators.

Each time a new boat rounds the turn toward the docks, the crowd surges to the wall, trying to glimpse the catch. The Stella Maris staff toss down mooring lines and pilot a small hydraulic lift into position above the boat. They drop an electronic scale at the end of a cable, and after the crew loops in the shark’s tail, they lift.

Crewmen on board inevitably cite larger sharks that nosed around their bait, or were lost in the fight, from broken lines to slipped hooks earlier in the day.

“I couldn’t sleep at night if I lost a fish that big,” someone observes.

“Lost a lot bigger than that in my time,” comes a laconic reply.

As the 6 p.m. deadline approaches and the light goes gold over the water, boats are stacked up in the marina, waiting for their turn to weigh in a catch. There’s jockeying in the rankings; just a few pounds separate big winners from those who will go home empty-handed.

Early returns of the day hang outside Stella Maris Bait and Tackle shop. Eagle photo by Paul Stremple
Early returns of the day hang outside Stella Maris Bait and Tackle shop. Eagle photo by Paul Stremple

Ultimately, it’s one of the earlier returns, from Rockfish Charters, that wins the day: a gorgeous 277-pound thresher that will net the team somewhere north of $20,000 in prize money.

Fishing from around 5 a.m., the boat had a couple sharks on and a few bites from makos and blue sharks before hooking the winning thresher, some nine hours into competition, says Cpt. Kyle Colesanti.

The tanned 27-year-old, celebratory bottle of scotch now in hand, has been fishing since he was a small child, and a captain since he turned 22. It was Rockfish Charters’ third year in the tournament, said Richard Columbo, owner of the Rockaway Beach charter company.

With shark fishing tournaments stretching the length of Long Island and beyond, being in Brooklyn makes it that much sweeter.

“The fact we can win a local tourney is awesome,” Colesanti says.

But no matter who takes home the cash prizes, it’s the building of community that organizer John Calamia focuses on:

“I’m glad to see more young guys, teenagers, out there,” he says. “It takes a certain kind of commitment.”

Paul Stremple is a freelance photographer and journalist based in Brooklyn. You can follow his work on Instagram and Twitter.

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  1. Janis Lozano

    I think this contest needs to be banned. There is no use for the shark meat, which becomes a complete waste. Not to mention that these animals are going to be extinct soon, if we don’t stop the barbaric hunt for them. Let animals be. Leave them alone in their natural habitat. Going out 30 miles from shore and taking something out of its environment for a stupid contest is senseless, unethical and plain cruel.

    • Totally agree with Janis Lozano. I already hear some ignorants will start saying”…Blah blah blah, all those environment talks…”. Not only this is a cruel and completely senseless competition, but also I am sure whoever offers the $50,000 prize for a slayed marine creature could put that amount of money into something that is actually useful for people of NYC. I don’t need to list where exactly that money would help, the causes can be countless; any reasonable person could name at least 5.

  2. Dorota Cieslikiewicz

    It’s a shame that sharks are not getting a chance of rebuilding their numbers and surviving. I get that many people dislike them and are terrified of them, but wiping them out dispupts the balance in our seas and has negative effect on numerous other species. Such contests only promote lack of responsibility and wastefulness. It should not be allowed for children to witness it either, seeing animals killed for fun will make them think such purposeless vandalism is acceptable and killing for fun can be a valid hobby.