One That Didn’t Get Away

Joe McDonald, left, and Phillip Schnell caught a 469-pound thresher shark from the ocean beach in Montauk. “It was a surreal experience,” McDonald said.

Everyone who fishes has his or her share of fish stories. Some are impossible to believe, while some are clearly embellished and need to be taken with a grain of salt, along with a wry smile of doubt. But some are actually the honest truth, no matter how far-fetched they may sound.

It was sunny and windy on the afternoon of Oct. 17 when Joe McDonald and Phillip Schnell decided to do some striped bass fishing from the ocean beach in Montauk. But instead of landing a striper, the two local anglers crossed paths with a thresher shark so close to shore they could hardly believe it themselves. 

A strong outgoing tide that day produced a low tide that trapped the shark in shallow water, most likely while feeding on a school of bunker and hickory shad between the beach and an offshore sandbar. They took out their fishing gear, affixed with a diamond jig, and quickly landed the shark. 

“We were shocked to see the fish in such shallow water and it probably took only about three minutes to land it,” explained McDonald, who works as a mate on the Lazybones, a half-day open boat out of Montauk, where he also serves as the backup captain. “It was a surreal experience.”

With help from a few other people on the beach, the shark was lifted and trucked over to the Montauk Marine Basin, where McDonald docks his humorously named 19-foot boat, Gefilte Fish. A forklift was needed to get the thresher to the weigh scale on the dock. When it was finally secured, the shark weighed in at a whopping 469 pounds.

“That’s a big shark, but threshers do come in close to feed, as there is plenty of bait around,” said Harvey Bennett, owner of the Tackle Shop in Amagansett, who has witnessed such an event several times in the past. “When sharks get trapped like that between an offshore bar and the beach, they usually drown and/or get sand in their gills and choke. . . . They need to move constantly or they die. That’s what likely happened here.”

No matter the circumstances, McDonald and Schnell will always have a special fish story to tell over and over. And they have photos to back up their claim for any doubters.