With the first shark tournament of the season coming up this weekend, held from the Star Island Yacht Club in Montauk, a tale told by a visiting surfer and all-around waterman gets to the heart of the gut-level feelings stirred by the natural, and unnatural, hunting instincts of the big ocean predators.
“Sava began to whine,” Billy Hamilton said of his 10-year-old yellow Lab. The dog was in her familiar spot, standing near the nose of Hamilton’s surfboard waiting for the next set of waves.
Hamilton lives on the north shore of Kauai, and he and Sava were enjoying a go-out at Hanalei Bay in 2003. The surfing and surfboard-shaping legend and his best friend had it wired. “I watch her now as much as I watch the wave,” he said during a fishing trip aboard the Mishell II charter boat on Friday.
“She leans,” he said, getting down on all fours on Mishell’s deck to show how Sava has learned how to anticipate his cutback, a signature drop-knee turn recognized by surfers around the world.
But this day, the surfing dog kept whining. “I paddled in. Later that day, I met a girl at the post office who drew me a picture of the dorsal fin with a ragged trailing edge. Very distinctive. The shark had showed up a few minutes after I went in. The girl said it kept blocking her way back to shore. I said this shark is dangerous.” Whatever sense or combination of senses made Sava whine a warning, Hamilton said he now heeds it without question. “Whenever she whines, I go in.”
A week earlier, a large tiger shark had taken Bethany Hamilton’s arm near her shoulder. The young woman was surfing at a spot near Hanalei Bay on Oct. 13, 2003. She was just 13.
Billy Hamilton explained that tiger sharks return to their natal waters to breed around the islands in October. Earlier in the year, they are farther north feeding on seabirds, then move to the south munching on monk seal pups, and finally around breeding time come close to the islands and target sea turtles. He said that occasionally, transient tigers drop by and exhibit strange behavior, which was the case with this one.
It haunted surfing spots, even wriggling over the reef like a lizard to get to deep water closer to land. Billy Hamilton said he was the last person to visit Bethany Hamilton (no relation) before she left the hospital. “I met her father there. Tom Hamilton looked at me, angry, and said, ‘If you could catch that shark. . .’ ”
“Laird called me and said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to get that shark,’ ” he said, referring to Laird Hamilton, his stepson and a legendary big wave surfer. Eventually he and a friend did so by making a bait out of a whole gray nurse shark with two very large hooks embedded, the shark tethered by a chain to a float buoy. The fact that the bait was left to fish in the middle of Hanalei Bay did not make everyone comfortable.
After the fish was caught and dispatched with the help of a 44-magnum bang stick, Hamilton towed it offshore and cut it open looking for Bethany’s watch or perhaps bone. Nothing was found, but it had been three weeks since the attack. The jaws were cut out and brought to the beach so they could be matched up to the serrated half-moon-shaped bite that had been taken out of Bethany’s surfboard along with her arm.
“Bethany watched as we fit the jaws to the bite in the board, a very brave girl.” The teeth matched the bite marks exactly, including a spot on the board that bore no marks exactly where the young surfer’s arm had been.
Surfers were generally happy about what Billy Hamilton had done. “The surfing family liked it. Some of the Hawaiians who think of sharks as their amakua, their reincarnated ancestors, did not.” And, it took the intercession of a friend to prevent him from getting beat up, he said. “Another Hawaiian man wanted the tiger’s skin to make a drum head,” Hamilton added. He said the man died mysteriously while in the shower the next day.
Hamilton said he had rounded up troublesome sharks before, but only ones whose behavior had become dangerous.
Meanwhile, Bethany Hamilton continues to surf, and surf well with one arm. “Soul Surfer,” a movie about her heroic story, was released earlier this spring.
Billy Hamilton caught two keeper fluke and a keeper striped bass during Friday’s outing. He will be around for the next few weeks taking orders for custom shaped boards. They can be ordered via HamiltonSurfboards@hotmail.com, or by calling Hamilton directly at 808-639-3493.
The captains meeting for the Star Island Yacht Club tournament will take place this evening at the Yacht Club. Fishing will take place tomorrow and Saturday.
In other fishing news, larger striped bass are moving from west to east as proved by John Bruno, who used eels to catch 40.68-pound and 38-pound striped bass over the weekend. The bigger fish now lies in second place behind Bill Gardiner’s 42.26-pounder. A 39.56-pound striper caught by Wes O’Donnell was in third place as of Monday in the Montauk SurfMasters’ spring fling surfcasting tournament.
Paul Apostolides of Paulie’s Tackle shop in Montauk also reported bluefish blitzing right under the Montauk Lighthouse, and striped bass in the low-teen keeper size (over 28 inches) along the beach on Napeague and at Ditch Plain, Montauk, in the morning.