The Old Man And The
Sea –The Sequel
A true story and I have pictures to prove it.
by Bill Norton
Today I would get one. It just felt that way. The conditions were perfect. Birds were diving. Bait fish were jumping and it was just after dawn, breakfast time for the citizens of this North Malibu kelp bed.
I was spear fishing
for white sea bass, the highly prized sport fish that tastes as about good as
anything you have ever put in your mouth. Thanks to a ban on gill netting, and a
state sponsored hatchery program, the sea bass are plentiful. Last year, not far
from where I was that morning, a world record 94 pounder was shot by
off duty fireman, Bill Ernst. That same year, I shot my personal best at 53 pounds.
Picture a monster
trout, stood up on its nose with its tail tickling the bottom of your chin.
That’s the size of a 53-pound WSB. Now imagine being underwater with that fish
on the other end of your spear gun line, thrashing, pulling you down, and trying
its best to drown your ass. They call it free dive spear and it is not an
My diving partner,
Dragos Lungu and I launched our kayaks off the beach called County Line and
paddled out a half mile to our favorite kelp bed. Dragos would work would work
one end while I’d take the other. The secret of WSB hunting is silence and
stealth. Noisy scuba gear is out of the question. Even the bubbles
coming out of a snorkel can spook the fish.
The routine of the hunt is to dive to fifteen or twenty feet then hold position, and scan for fish. Usually I hold my breath for about a minute then return to the surface, move to another area, and repeat the routine. Divers better than me can make dives of three minutes or even longer.
The gun I use is hand
made with a 65” steel shaft and a teak stock that weighs about fifteen pounds.
With four thick rubber bands for power it could shoot through a car door. The
heavy weight of the stock is designed to diminish the recoil that can be brutal.
I have heard stories of divers holding the gun butt too close to their face when
they fire and the gun butt kicking back and knocking teeth out.
The hunt can be frustrating. I spend three or four hours in the water every time I dive, and I can go for weeks without seeing a WSB. But this morning they were there. I had been diving for about an hour when at fifteen feet, I saw a flash of silver. The fish was at about nine o’clock, ten feet to my left. Unfortunately, WSB are not stupid. They see a five-foot gun swinging in their direction; they know something bad about to happen. With an easy flip of his tail, this one started to scoot. THWAP! I fired! The shaft shot out but I missed by inches. The fish swam away, not a care in its little fish head. #%$#!! I swore with so much vehemence that the snorkel blew out of my mouth. This was the first white sea bass I had seen in the
five days of diving. Perhaps twenty hours in the water and I blew it!
But maybe my diving buddy would have a chance. He was about a hundred yards away when I yelled, “FISH!”
“How many?” He answered. “One right here! Twenty pounds.” Dragos climbed up on his kayak and started paddling in my direction. The best diver I’ve ever known, Dragos feeds his family lobsters in the winter, halibut, and WSB in the summer. His personal best is a 150# grouper from a secret spot on the pacific
side of Baja California. To shoot and fight a fish that big, you’ve got to be just this side of super human.
By the time I had my gun reloaded, Dragos was back in the water and on the prowl. I dove, and dove again but saw nothing. Then I heard his yell. He had shot a solo traveler. Twenty pounds. It was probably the one I had missed, my fish…Oh well. I was happy for him, I guess. I like Dragos, but damn, I wanted that fish bad.
He set about recovering his prey which in typical WSB behavior had swam in circles around kelp stalks wrapping itself and a hundred feet of float line into a tangled mess. Dragos had to make repeated, exhausting dives to fifty feet before he finally got his fish loose and safely in the hatch of his kayak. By then it was 8:00 and he was late for his real job, the one that supports his babe of a wife and two kids.
Depressed, but not yet ready for the Kool-aid, I paddled part of the way back with him. Chances of seeing more fish were slim. If only I had hit that fish. I had gotten so close. So close.
Now, a word about myself; I direct TV shows and movies for a living. It is a business where one is best perceived as young and trendy rather than old and highly skilled. I fall into the latter category. A few days before this incident happened, I had, in fact, turned 65 which is a huge milestone and anybody who has faced it, knows what I’m talking about. At 65, you sign up for Medicare, and you have to make decisions about retirement and pensions and things that you don’t want to think about. Things like getting old and sick and weak and stupid and dying. So what I’m getting at; is that if from here on if this little story has elements of the Old Man And The Sea, they are unavoidable. God help me, I want to keep directing forever, catching fish, and never ever collect social security, or drink Geritol, or wear Depends and that is why, after Dragos left, I decided to stay out and give it one more last, desperate try.
I would be diving by myself now but this was not unfamiliar. I prefer to dive with a partner, but I’m an ex-beach lifeguard and I’ve been diving since I was a teenager, much of the time alone, so I wasn’t worried about it.
I paddled over to a new kelp bed and slid in. I went down to about twenty feet, looked around. Nothing. I surfaced, took a few refresher breaths and dove again. And then, straight ahead, swimming into a cloud of murky water I saw this great grey beast!
It was moving away from me into the murk, right on the edge of visibility. I’d have to shoot fast. I started to aim but before I could pull the trigger, it disappeared completely out of sight. Still, I knew the direction it was going so I adjusted my aim towards the cloudy water where I thought it might be. It was a Hail Mary shot, a fifty-yard pass into an end zone full of impossibilities. I fired! THWAP!
The spear shaft spit out. My left hand on the butt catching the recoil. Did I hit it? I was sure I missed, but then the shooting line went taut and the float line exploded from my hand. I quickly looked to make sure that I didn’t have a leg wrapped because a big fish can pull you down and drown you like Captain Ahab lashed to
Moby Dick. As the float line whipped through my hand, I slowly tightened my grip. I was careful not to give it too much pressure.
Earlier in the summer, I lost a 40 lb WSB in a similar fight. I had yanked too hard on the 300-pound test shooting line and unbelievably, it broke. The fish, sure to die, swam away with my shaft and custom made spear tip hanging out of its body. It was a sorry waste of both the fish and my equipment and I didn’t want it
to happen again. This time I would be more careful. I could NOT lose this fish. It felt bigger than anything I had ever caught. I struggled to relax and control my shaking body. My breathing was shallow and fast. I had to calm down, and do this right.
My plan was to use the kayak to help stop the fish’s run. Treading water, I looped the float line twice over the stern then put the brakes on. And it worked. The bow of the kayak went up in the air as the stern was pulled down partially under water. The fish was stopped! Next, I climbed up on the kayak and taking care not to
capsize, I balanced myself by straddling the hull and dangling my legs, into the water. Then I slowly began hauling line in. At first it was just a few inches at a time, then a foot, two feet. Each bit of regained line, I secured on the boat cleats. Without Dragos there to help, I wanted to get the fish in as shallow as possible before it inevitably wrapped itself in the thick kelp.
I was quickly exhausted, still nervous, but the shaking was gone. I had to do this right. I couldn’t blow this. Not again. After about fifteen minutes struggling with the rope I began to see a shape below. I pulled it closer, closer, until finally, ripping some kelp out of the way, I got a look. It was almost six feet long, gray and
swimming against the spear shaft that bisected its body. Holy shit! It was a shark! With teeth! I yanked my feet up out of the water.
How the hell did I shoot that? I was sure it was a white sea bass. But then, as I thought about it, the visibility was bad and the shark was the same gray color and moving directly away from me so I couldn’t see its profile. It was an understandable mistake.
But what to do now? Recovering my $200 shaft and slip tip from the still thrashing shark would be dangerous. Taking care to stay clear of its yipping teeth, I put my feet against the back of its pectoral fins and tried to work the shaft out of the body…Uh-uh. It wasn’t coming loose. And wrestling the shark like this was a sure
ticket to the emergency hospital. I’d have to kill it before I could get my shaft back. But, there was no easy way to do that either. I couldn’t get close enough to its head and still snapping teeth to stab it in the brain. I’d have to try something else. I grabbed the shark’s tail and tied it to the side of the kayak. I would paddle the
five hundred yards to shore and by causing water to go over its gills backwards drown it or at least calm it down it somewhat. I had seen this work on powerboats. But on a slow moving kayak?
There was only one way to find out. Twenty minutes later, after a hard paddle against the dead weight
of the shark, I was just outside the surf line. The shark was still alive but quieter now, and I had a new set of problems. How was I going to get my kayak, the shark, and myself through the waist high surf that the long boarders were hot-dogging in front of me?
I’m pretty good at surfing my kayak but the heavy weight of shark meant that I couldn’t get up the necessary speed to paddle in between waves. If a big wave caught me I’d probably capsize. Then I had an idea. I would release the shark but keep one end of my 150 ft float line tied to my kayak. I figured I would have at
least enough slack to get through the surf to where I could stand up then pull the shark, like a dog on a leash, to shore.
I waited for a couple of waves to pass then at just the right moment I started paddling. But, surprisingly, I didn’t move. It was as if I had dropped a huge anchor overboard. Then suddenly, I actually began to move backwards. I realized the shark had come to life and was pulling me away from shore, back out to the kelp
By now, I was not only exhausted to the point of collapse, but I was thoroughly pissed off. I was going through a hell of a lot of trouble for just a few shark steaks. I began thinking that I should just cut the damn thing loose. I’d lose my shaft but then, that would be an excuse to drive to Montebello and visit the genius spear gun maker Masahiro Mori. And as for the shark, it would die anyway, but at least its carcass would be part of its natural food chain.
So decision made, I grabbed my float line and pulled Mr. Shark back to my kayak. And this is where I got a little crazy. The shark had calmed down considerably and as I looked at him, I saw what a profoundly beautiful creature he was; sleek streamlined body, big black eyes, and shiny white teeth. I began to feel truly sorry for what I had done. I had shot him and he would die. It was an unfortunate accident, a case of mistaken identification. Still, as I thought about it, there was something very primal about our relationship. He was the prey and I was the hunter. I was taking his life and I shouldn’t disrespect that life by leaving him out here like
so much trash. I had to take him home and complete the contract…also maybe show him off to the neighborhood kids.
Clearly, there was only one way to get him onto shore. So I did what had to be done. I reached down, put my arms around the middle of his eighty-pound body and hauled him up onto the kayak. He squirmed and snapped. I had to control his movement so I did the best thing I could. I sat on him. And then, with his head
sticking out in front of me like a hood ornament, and my legs spread and feet braced against his pectoral fins, I started paddling towards shore.
As I passed by, the surfers couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing. Here was this lunatic, sitting on a shark, on top a kayak, paddle flying like a windmill while behind him a large wave was beginning to crest! Gnarly!
I tried to out run the wave but with my two hundred pound body weight plus the weight of the shark, there wasn’t a chance. A four foot wave broke directly on me. Immediately, my hull swung violently 90 degrees to the side. I dug my paddle into the whitewater and leaned on it. I had successfully done this maneuver
hundreds of times but now I was sitting on a squirming shark and my center of gravity was six inches higher than normal. When the white water caught edge of the kayak, it was all over. I flipped ass over elbow over shark over kayak.
I came up spewing water but still had hold of my float rope. On the other end, the shark was swimming around like a pissed off pit bull looking for a mailman to chew on. Instantaneously, I knew what I had to do. I swam like I had an Evinrude mounted on my ass.
Three seconds later I was safely up on the beach. Surfers and sunbathers came running up as I pulled the shark up onto shore. A mother with a toddler asked, “My God, are more of those out there?” The surfers were more practical minded, “Dude, what are you going to do with it?” They asked.
Well dude, here’s your answer. I ate it. And, to quote old Papa Hemingway, “It was good”.
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