© Wes Gow
I had just convinced our gang to make a swim for it. Safety and shelter were only three hundred yards away across a shallow flat.
SPLASH! “OH DEAR GOD!!” I screamed like a tweeny boy-band fanatic. A sudden, aggressive thrashing in the water, not twenty yards from the boat. From our vantage point we could tell that it was a shark, and that wasn’t the first one we’d seen over the last few hours. In fact, we had two of them inside the boat. But the boat was our problem.
I’ve logged enough time on the water that nowadays I’m able to carefully assess a situation before accepting an offshore invite. But that kind of experience came long after stories like this.
I grew up outside of Tampa, Florida, across the street from the Alafia River. The AR is a curious stretch of water. It’s full of fresh and saltwater species (I’ve probably caught more redfish and snook along its banks than bass), and it empties directly into Tampa Bay. This estuary, while naturally beautiful, is known to be a favorite breeding ground for sharks, and it was the scene of a memorable college misadventure!
Adam owned a boat and a cell phone. I’m not sure exactly how he procured either, given that we were broke college kids, but both of them were in working order on the morning of our launch. We motored out to the mouth of the Alafia River and were casting lures into schools of ladyfish and trout in no time. All was well, and we were thrilled to be masters of our environment.
Then the tables turned. Nature has a way of doing that.
Andrew, the third member of our crew, hooked a nice ladyfish. Ladyfish are known for their aerial acrobatics on the line, and they can be difficult to actually land. They can be especially challenging, however, when chased by a shark! Unbeknownst to him, Andrew was reeling in more than he bargained for.
Being the friendly fisherman that I am, I retrieved the hand net to assist getting Andrew’s catch into the boat.
Mistake! Should’ve let the sucker land his own dang fish.
Kneeling on the platform and extending my arm out to meet his line, a sudden nearby flash caught my attention in the shallow tide. Andrew’s fish was screwed two ways from Sunday: stay on the line and land in the boat, or fight the reel and get eaten by a shark!
I jumped back from the edge and screamed like a young eagle (that’s how I’d like to describe it). Andrew laughed at my misfortune, citing that the shark wasn’t much larger than the fish.
Sure. Any shark is big when it’s two feet from your face! We chalked it up to a fun memory. Until it happened again.
Suddenly, just about every fish we hooked was chased to the boat by at least one young shark! This was unlike anything we’d ever encountered. Knowing full well that such commotion would likely draw the attention of larger animals, we decided it was best to relocate.
Adam secured his line and went to start the engine.
Must be flooded or something. Give it a minute.
Check the battery. Try it again.
We were a few hundred yards from shore in the sweltering summer heat. Stuck. Stranded. Thankfully we had a cell phone and my uncle had a boat. Unfortunately, however, this was back in the days of limited reception. I used Adam’s phone and left a broken message for my uncle, something about being stranded at the mouth of the Alafia.
Then I did the unthinkable. I called my mother. My poor mother. I’m so thankful I’m a father to girls.
Her phone rang and she didn’t pick up. I was mid-sentence in my voicemail when another small shark broke the surface off the back corner of our boat; I screamed with excitement and shouted the following words, “…we’re stranded and surrounded by sharks!” And with that, Adam’s phone went the way of the Sith Lord, and died. (My mother told me later that she was in the mall when she got my message and immediately wept, certain of our fate).
We sat there pondering our options (which were none), when I figured that we may as well make the most of a blasted situation. I reached into the livewell, pulled out one of the trout, and proceeded to cut off his tail. Swapping my lure for a steel leader and a circle hook, I tossed the bloody meat into the water, much to the approval of my fellow castaways. I waited.
Not for long!
The line lurched away from the boat. Moments later, we were joined by a fourth shipmate, a twenty-four inch blacktip shark.
WE HAD DONE IT! WE HAD CAUGHT THE ENEMY! JOY! ELATION!
Now what the hell do we do with it??
We keep it, of course. We threw it in the livewell and rigged up another rod.
And we caught another shark!
This was supremely enjoyable and kept our minds off the reality of the situation. We were boiling hot, low on water, without food, and the regular afternoon thunderstorm (you could set your watch by it), was looming out over the bay.
That’s when I suggested we swim for it. In our case, the muddy mangrove shoreline never looked so comforting and yet so far away. And precisely before we did just that, another unprovoked crash erupted on the surface, like a warning. For most young men, it usually takes prolonged exposure to a situation for the gravity of it to sink in. We were no exception. At that moment, the fun adventure turned serious. There wasn’t another single boat in sight that morning, and we were living every Floridian’s nightmare: death by lighting or shark attack.
Miraculously, (and I mean MIRACULOUSLY), the weather held off. We drifted with the tide several hundred yards along the shoreline away from the mouth of the Alafia. Through the low-hanging humidity, I could’ve sworn we saw my uncle’s boat speeding out into the bay, then returning empty-handed back up the river.
Out of bait and out of patience, we finally drew the attention of the one and only passerby and managed to secure a tow to a nearby dock. Sunburn, memories, and a few small blacktips in the livewell made for a good day on the water!