</script>San Luis Pass is the natural outlet of West Galveston Bay into the Gulf of Mexico, and it also forms the western boundary of Galveston Island. Before the toll bridge was built connecting Galveston to Follett’s Island on the Freeport side, it was a desolate, isolated spot – the uninhabited dead end of a thirty-mile-long barrier island. Then, as now, it was a place of rugged, windswept natural beauty. The Pass has always attracted fishermen for the variety and quantity of species drawn to the inshore-offshore water exchange. The tourists come to see the birds, the water, – and sometimes the fishermen.
Attracted as surely as a moth to a flame by the lone campfire burning on the beach this night, a tourist stopped his car nearby. Out of a curiosity so strong it overcame his caution in dealing with the unknown, he got out and approached the three rough-looking fellows gathered in the glow of the flickering embers – as only a tourist would, – for they were a motley looking crew indeed. Two were in serious need of shaves, while the third wore a wrap-around beard, – and all badly needed bathing. Cigar smoke drifted away from the trio in the gentle sea-to-shore breeze, beer cans were crumpled and hissing in the fire’s edge, and one man carried what appeared to be a large caliber pistol in a shoulder holster. With the overall look of the campsite and its occupants, plus the thick rods mounting bucket-sized fishing reels standing in pipe holders driven into the sand, the tourist felt his interest and excitement rising! Surely these must be some of those elusive and crazy beach shark fishermen he’d heard so much about, but never been able to locate before! Wishing he had a flash for his Polaroid, he gave the men the universal greeting given to fishermen by non-fishermen the world over,
“Hi there! Catching anything?”
Two pairs of hard eyes focused suddenly on the uninvited visitor, as one’s head tilted back to let the last of a beer roll down his throat. The other fisherman – the bearded one – merely continued to stare fixedly into the night.
“Catch many sharks around here?” This was the second most popular question in such situations. A quiet, “Not many” was the only reply.
“What’s the biggest shark you’ve ever caught?” This third question was as automatic as the first two.
The men who had somewhat acknowledged the tourist looked at each other and shrugged. The one nearest the bearded man nudged him with an elbow, and without taking his cold gaze from the interloper, said, “Say, John. Fella here wants to know ’bout big sharks.”
Turning from the surf at last, the bearded one looked the tourist over for the first time. He seemed to think the question over carefully, – possibly painfully, – and finally spoke for the first time in a voice as soft and cracked as the sound of a big wave just curling over itself and crashing on the beach.
“Got a cold beer?”
The visitor hurried to his vehicle for a can of suds, sure he was about to share extraordinary and wonderful secrets of the sea. As that great soothsayer, P.T. Barnum, once noted, there truly is one born every minute.
With his fingers securely wrapped around the beverage can, the silent man looked at each person around him for a moment, stared intently into each face, took a long pull on the beer, and began his tale.
“Biggest shark I ever had personal dealin’s with was a ‘hammer’ down at Boca Chica a few years back.”
Seeing the questions in the tourist’s eyes, one of the other men interpreted, “HammerHEAD! Boca Chica’s the beach between the Brownsville ship channel jetties and the mouth of the Rio Grande River.”
“AW, he KNEW that!” put in the third fishermen.
“Big ‘un?” questioned the man with the gun, – as if hearing the story for the first time himself.
“Over twenty feet, I’d say.” Another swig, and he spoke more freely now. There was a wild light in his eyes as he hunched towards the fire and his listeners, as though drawing each of them into the adventure with him.
“Every shark man south of Corpus was after that fish,” he said, “But we couldn’t get him. Easy enough to hook him, – he hung around the jetties spoilin’ for a fight, like a smart ol’ prairie wolf that teases the hounds, enjoys running ahead of ‘em, just so he can prove who’s the toughest! But nobody could hold the damn thing! Watched the drag washers smoke into nothing’ on a 16/0 Penn, and never slowed him down. Heard he tore the low gear out of a 12/0 Finn Nor reel and broke a man’s back on his first run one night. Damn thing had to weigh over two thousand pounds, easy!”
“Record fish.” Commented one of the other fishermen.
“WORLD record!” put in the third.
Not for any rod and reel tackle in this man’s world,” continued the storyteller, “too big and strong. Decided I’d have to resort to drastic measures to catch a fish like that one!”
There was a long pause, now, until the tourist took the bait.
“Well, did you ever catch him?”
“Got any more beer?”
The tourist grabbed a six-pack from the cooler this time, to stave off future interruptions. As soon as they were distributed, the story continued.
“Talkin’ always makes me thirsty. Anyhow, I got a welding shop in Brownsville to make up one helluva shark hook out of one inch ID stainless rod. Shackled it to fifty feet of hawse rope off a crew boat, with a section of log chain for a leader. Used a hunnerd pound jewfish for a live bait, and swum it out, ‘bout a half mile off the Gulf side of the south jetty.”
“Rig like that oughta hold,” observed one of his companions.
The other shook his head to express a negative. “Rope ain’t long enough.”
“Knew that. Watched that bait for two days and three nights without getting’ any sleep before that sly ol’ hammer took it. Rose up outta the water with it until it looked like he was standin’ on the end of his tail and shook his big ugly head, slingin’ jewfish parts an’ blood an’ guts all the way to me an’ the jetty! That fish wasn’t scared, though. He run out the fifty feet of rope quick enough, but then I wuz ready to spring my surprise!”
“What did you do?” asked the foolish tourist, who seemed to be hanging on every word.
“Grabbed my bait cuttin’ knife and my best flyin’ gaff, slipped on my baby brother’s water skis, – and jumped in after him!”
“Damn!” exclaimed one of his straight men.
“The Hell you say!” added the other.
The tourist just looked on incredulously.
“Did it work?” His friend prompted.
“Yes, an’ no. I stayed right with him well enough – ya’ll know how a big hammer likes to blast across the surface with a bait after he feels the hook – but I sorta underestimated his power. After the first ten miles or so, he looked back an’ saw me wavin’ that gaff around an’ seemed to get scared – probably for the first time in his whole existence! Once he got the spook on him good, he sure ‘nuff turned on the speed! I tell you, boys, that was the most excitin’ ride I’ve had since Crazy Larry an’ that ol’ girl from Kirbyville ran me through the woods on the hood of his ’56 Studebaker!”
The man with the gun turned to the tourist, “Crazy Larry’s ol’ car NEVER had good brakes.”
“Well, that fish pulled me a week an’ two days. Through the middle of the Gulf, over to the Straits of Florida, then zigzagged back across the beginnins’ of the Gulf Stream to Cuba. Last three days I had to ski slalom, cuz’ a playful sperm whale bit off the other one. Damn fish had gone insane with fear by then an’ tried to swim right up on the beach in Havana Harbor, right up on dry land and sovereign Cuban soil, – with me kickin’ off my one ski in the shallows and wadin’ ashore to get the gaff in ‘em to make it a legal catch. Before I could get the hook in ‘em, damn fish died of a heart seizure! A Cuban game warden came along ‘bout then and locked me up for fishin’ without a Cuban fishin’ license, parkin’ my shark in a no-shark zone, an’ cruelty to poor dumb animals,”
“Tough break, after all that work.”
“Get out OK?”
“Well, they wuz havin’ some trouble harvestin’ the sugar cane crop that year – airline strike causin’ labor shortages or sumthin’, an ol’ Castro tried to get me to stay long enough to help him out of that jam.” Another crumpled can was tossed into the fire and had to be replaced with a full one. “But I said to him, ‘Fiddle’, I said, ‘as much as I’d like to help out a friend an’ fellow fisherman, I purely got to get back to Texas, not so much for my own sake as for the well bein’ of all those loved starved females I had to leave behind!’ Being a gentleman and a scholar, he could understand my position, so we said adios.” He looked at the hard at the tourist now.
“Got a woman in that car with you, boy?”
“Why, uh – no.”
“Too bad. Anyway, I gave ol’ Fiddle the shark as a peace offerrin’, and he made a movie with it. Called it ‘Chaws’. Heard it did real well down there, too.”
“How’d you get back?” asked one of the listeners in a casual manner.
“Swum over to the Yucatan. Caught a ride on a commercial snapper smack goin’ as far as Tampico. Rested up there in a house of ill repute, I guess you’d call it, – right next door to the Corona brewery.”
“Real nice set-up.”
“Must’ve cost a bunch to maintain that kinda lifestyle, though?”
“Naw, the girls took up a collection out of gratitude for my company. Actually left there with enough money to buy a pretty fair shrimp boat.”
“Didn’t know you had a shrimp boat?”
“Shrimpin’s too much work. I swapped it for a liquor store in Port Aransas as soon as I got back.”
“What happened to that one?”
“Well, as embarassin’ as it might sound, I got real, REAL thirsty one Saturday night an’ drank the whole damn thing!”
The other two looked towards the tourist, who was now edging nervously to his car.
“Helluva fisherman, huh?”
“A real legend in his own mind!”
The tourist drove hastily away, and for a time there was no sound except the surf crashing on an empty shoreline. Then another pair of headlights began to float down the beach towards the campfire. When it became apparent that this car also would stop, the bearded man turned to the fellow closest to him and nudged him with a slow smile,
“I’m about all talked out. Your turn to buy the beer this time!”
(Author’s note: This story first appeared in Yachtlines, then in on the back page of Saltwater Sportsman, and in Mariner’s Log. It has also appeared in a couple of now defunct internet publications. It won Honorable mention for fiction at the 2001 Texas Outdoor Writer’s Association conference in Port Aransas, Texas.)
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