ESPN2: Mad action for shallow-water mad fins

  • Editor's note: If you consider yourself a shark expert, or if you're just curious about these imposing denizens and how to catch them, tune in to ESPN2 television and watch "Mad Fin Shark Series," which re-airs April 30 from 3-6 p.m.; May 9 at 4 a.m.; May 25 at 4 a.m.; June 2 at 3:30 a.m.; June 15 at 4 a.m.; June 18 at 10 a.m.; and June 25 at 10 a.m. All times Eastern. Meanwhile, be sure to test your wits with our Shark Quiz.

    Sharks have an attitude that makes them unique among gamefish. They are in control and they know it.

    — Jeffrey Cardenas, in the book "Sea Level"

    When the early morning marina café conversation turns to sharks, many sights and sounds come to mind.

    For some, the menacing grin of Bruce appears, the cartoonlike great white shark that kids will remember swimming about prominently in "Finding Nemo."

    For others, the ominous theme music from the 1975 blockbuster "Jaws" sounds off somewhere in the distance, the salty sci-fi tune that perfectly fits Steven Spielberg's silver screen adaptation of the Peter Benchley novel that terrified millions of beachgoers.

    For me, the bloody image from a long ago issue of Fly Rod & Reel magazine comes to mind, a large tarpon sawed not-so-cleanly in two by a marauding hammerhead shark looking for an easy meal.

    But for Florida Keys fishing guide Tony Murphy, the mention of sharks brings something entirely different to his mind these days — a ton of angling enjoyment.

    Murphy, a part of the unique catch-and-release fishing tourney known as the "Mad Fin Shark Series," will vie for the series inaugural championship this Saltwater Sunday at 10 a.m. ET on ESPN2. (See re-air times above.)

    For his part, he's glad to have participated in this up close and personal angling reality series that concludes on April 23 on the Deuce.

    "We had a lot of fun," said Murphy, who operates Key Limey Charters out of Key West.

    "It was something that most of us have never done before.

    "I do a lot of fishing for a living and we do occasionally catch sharks, but to catch them, bring them to the boat, and have to manhandle them like that (to get the hook out), it was pretty exhilarating."

    Murphy, an Orvis endorsed guide who spends as much as 220 days a year on the salt guiding anglers for tarpon, permit, barracuda, sailfish, and such, thought he had just about seen it all in more than a decade of prowling the Keys.

    Until he and angling partner Carl Marcelo competed in the first ever "Mad Fin" series, that is!

    "On the last day, when we got back to the dock, I was showing somebody a big gel coat chunk out of my boat," Murphy said.

    Suddenly, he saw something unusual gleaming from the gash below his boat's rub rail — a one-inch shark tooth!

    "On one of the promos, I understand that there is footage of a big lemon shark coming up out of the water," Murphy said.

    "It apparently grabbed the rub rail and as my angling buddy Carl was wrestling with it, it broke a tooth off."

    Want to be the one to call the insurance company with that toothy "Murphy's Law" claim?

    Actually, it's the teeth of nearly all of the Keys shark species — bulls, hammerheads, makos, lemon, and nurse sharks to name a few — that got and kept the attention of the "Mad Fin" anglers.

    One such angler was Robert Moore, who owns and operates Tarponman Guide Service in the Hurricane Charley-ravaged hamlet of Punta Gorda, Fla.

    While certainly no stranger to saltwater tournament fishing — Moore and his "Mad Fin" partner Mike Mahan participate in the "Oh Boy! Oberto Redfish Cup" — the SW Florida guide admits that these critters are a bit different to have on the end of one's line.

    "Redfish don't bite back," Moore laughed.

    Moore forgot that simple but profound angling fact … and nearly came back home minus a few digits.

    "Yeah, on the first day, I reached down to pull the hook out of a lemon shark with a pair of pliers," Moore said. "Most anglers use a de-hooker, but I didn't have it handy."

    This is when Moore's angling autopilot — wired from plenty of past tournament fishing experiences — kicked in.

    "So I instinctively reached down there with a regular old pair of pliers," he said. "I got pretty close to getting one of my fingers bitten off, without a doubt."

    Other than finding a few people who have questioned his sanity for trying to remove the hook from the mouth of a shark that isn't too happy, Moore says that he has yet to receive any negative feedback about the unique fishing tournament.

    "I think it's a home-run," he said.

    It certainly was for Clay Harris, a 19-year-old guide who is anything but short on Keys' angling experience.

    "It was the most fun I ever had in a tournament," Harris said.

    Considering that Clay's father is Ken Harris that is saying something.

    The elder Harris, a Florida Keys guide since 1980, is no stranger to tournament angling in the Keys, having won prestigious tourneys for years in addition to hosting his own talk-radio fishing show in the Keys.

    Clay and his father are also no strangers to catching big sharks.

    In fact, Ken's Key West Sport Fishing guide service has seen some 65 International Game Fish Association world records come aboard his boat, many on fly tackle.

    While those records include such species as the African pompano, permit and kingfish, none of those really grab the tiger by the tail.

    That's because Ken Harris is perhaps most famous for the catch of a 564-pound tiger shark taken on 15-pound line.

    Such lessons haven't been lost on the younger Harris.

    In fact, Clay — who hopes to one day compete in a tournament like the "Mad Fin" series against his famous father — admits that he gets a special thrill out of seeing a big Keys' shark like a nasty tempered bull shark on the prowl.

    "It's real fun to see a bull shark attack the boat," Clay said. "When they get around 300 pounds, a bull shark will do that."

    "They'll bite the boat, head butt it, or even bite a big nurse shark on the back," he added. "They're just a mean fish."

    "They're real fun to watch … as long as you're in a big enough boat, I guess."

    If that sounds up close and personal, that's the whole point of this unique angling series says Tim Schick, producer of the "Mad Fin" series.

    "From the inception of the tournament series, we wanted to bring it (the action) much closer to the audience," Schick said. "We wanted to put the audience right in the action."

    So much so that if you'll watch the series' footage closely enough, you'll actually see a moment when a shark nips at an ESPN Outdoors television camera!

    After that brief "love-tap" from "Jaws," the camera actually went off-line momentarily leading to the question: technical difficulty … or operator malfunction?

    Schick isn't telling.

    But such action is exactly why ESPN Outdoors' viewers keep coming back for more catch-and-release shark fishing action.

    "Sharks, there is no getting around it — they can bite you, they can hurt you," Schick said.

    Even so, Schick says that what sets this shark tournament series apart from nearly all of its predecessors is a commitment to make sure that these toothy creatures are turned loose to swim another day.

    Stepping aside from the "slay the beast" format of many previous shark tournaments, the goal of "Mad Fin" has been to provide gripping footage via on-board cameras, underwater pole cameras, and overhead aerial shots.

    With a five foot minimum length limit — the length must be verified on camera — and a points system that sees points awarded for hook removal and for catching more difficult species like bull sharks, the producer is convinced that the first run of the "Mad Fin" series has been a success.

    "I think we have shown that it can be done," Schick said.

    Moore agrees.

    In fact, redfish notwithstanding, he admits that he already looking forward to another run of catch-and-release shark fishing on the Deuce.

    "It was a great experience," Moore said.

    "I'm already ready to come back — I've got my bags packed and ready to go."

  • For more information on Key Limey Charters, call 305-293-1814 or visit www.keylimey.com. For Key West Sport Fishing guide service, phone 305-294-8843 or visit www.fishfinesse.com. And for Tarponman Guide Service, call 941-637-5710 or visit www.tarponman.com.