The Bam Bam Man
Ryan volunteered for the “we probably won’t make any money” fishing trip. He asked for this real-life adventure and I saw no reason to turn him down. He was a smarter-than-average nerd and most of his life experiences came from computer screens. I knew he would find what he was looking for. In spades.
We were going shark fishing. Commercial shark fishing.
The plan was for me to captain my friend Charlie’s boat for the 77-day-long summer season. Reality was: the boat’s engine blew up during sea trials two weeks before the season opened. By the time Charlie got the little 42-foot, longline-rigged vessel ready to go back to work, there were only three days of the season left.
Not enough time to even get started on a decent trip. The first three days of a season with a new crew is always a slapstick circus act. It would take at least that long before I had the deck routine running fast and safe.
But, it didn’t matter. I love what I do for a living. And I knew how to run a slow but safe circus act. Screw the money.
From just across the Florida state line, Ryan and I drove the hour and a half to Charlie’s dock in SE Georgia. It was a week before the boat was ready with its new engine. Time enough to work on the fishing gear and make sure the boat was rigged properly.
Charlie put us up at his home that overlooks the Sapelo River from atop a twenty-foot bluff. At the end of each day’s work we sat in the rocking chairs on his second story screened-in deck and enjoyed a couple of cocktails as we watched the sun set.
Fishing captains have messed with greenhorns for so long, it’s a tradition. All it takes to get it going is a captain, a greenhorn, and some idle time. Charlie and I used to partner fish together before he took over his father’s fish house. Two captains and a greenhorn? We were duty bound. It began during one of those evenings on his deck.
“ I think I understand the longlining principle,” Ryan said. “You hang a bunch of hooks off the miles-long longline, as well as little buoys to keep it afloat. But why do you leave the hooks in the water all night?”
Charlie kept his rocking chair going, and nodded his head to me. “Cap’n Pete?”
I set my drink aside, wiped my mustache on my shirtsleeve and put on my best serious captain face. “Two reasons, Ryan. Most sharks are nocturnal feeders. And, we soak the hooks all night out of consideration for the shark wrangler.”
A few seconds pause to let that wrangler image percolate. “Sharks have to swim to breathe. They can’t flap their gills like other fish. When they get hooked up to the longline, they can still swim around on the end of the two-fathom (12-foot) leader. But after 12 hours of that restriction, they are so oxygen-depleted that you can slap ‘em in the face. They won’t even blink. That’s how we like ‘em.”
Ryan’s face softened as he slid back from the edge of his chair. I could almost see his mental picture of the future turning benign.
“That’s the good news,” I said. “The bad news is that any sharks that just got hooked up will be green. They’ll come aboard fighting. That’s when the shark wrangler earns his pay.”
A frown appeared on Ryan’s face. “I’m the shark wrangler. Right?”
I paused to take a sip of my drink and allow a grin to develop.
“I am, aren’t I?” he said.
Charlie stopped his rocking chair’s lazy motion and swung his feet atop the packing crate that served as a coffee table. “Don’t worry about it, Ryan,” he said. “We haven’t lost a shark fisherman on this coast in over three years.”
Ryan’s expression turned to a smirk. “I know you’re messing with me.”
“No Sir. That’s the truth and nothing but. I’m not sure how many body parts we lost, though.”
The greenhorn shook his head back and forth, got out of his chair, and headed into the house. “I need another beer.”
Charlie brought his feet back to the floor. Leaned forward in his rocking chair, and offered me his open hand. I obligingly slapped the piss out of it. We managed to get control of our grins by the time Ryan was back with his beer.
“Cap’n Pete,” Charlie said, “You got any idea where you’re gonna start?”
“I’ve been thinking the black tips. They’re smaller than the sandbar sharks, but they’re daytime biters and it sounds like they’re pretty thick. They’ve been harassing the shrimpers on the beach, eating holes in their nets.”
Charlie pursed his lips and nodded his head. “I think that’s a good plan. All the bycatch the boats shovel overboard keeps ‘em stirred up. You won’t have to soak the gear at all. Just set it, run back to the beginning, and haul it back.”
“Yeah, I like that part. But we’re going to have some fun on the deck. They’ll all be green as the Jolly Giant.”
I turned to face Ryan with raised eyebrows.
“Did you say the sharks we catch are going to be alive?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “They’re gonna be alive. And fighting to stay that way.”
A raggedy pickup pulled into the parking lot at Charlie’s fish house. The door opened and a hard looking guy got out. His arms wore multiple tattoos, and a doo-rag covered his head. He used both hands to pull a sea bag from the back of his truck and set it on the ground. Reached back with one hand and retrieved an oak club. A six-inch-long stainless steel spike protruded at ninety degrees from the business end. Bag in one hand and club in the other, he started walking toward the fish house. I met him halfway.
“Cap’n Jimmy,” I said. “Glad you could make it.”
He set the sea bag down, and offered me his hand. “You can skip all the captain bullshit. How the hell are ya?”
“Oh, I’m finest kind,” as we shook. I nodded at his medieval-looking weapon. “What the hell is that?”
He held it up and admired the deadly spike. “It’s too big to call a kill stick. I call it Bam-Bam. You know those goddamned sharks been stealing my fish for years. I’m fixin’ to get even.”
I chuckled. “I reckon that’ll do the job. C’mon. We’re tied up at the fuel dock.”
Jimmy picked up his sea bag and we made our way to the boat.
“Go ahead and stow your gear,” I said. “We’re waiting for Charlie to show up so we can blow the ice aboard.”
The boat was too small to have a fish hold deep enough to need a ladder. Instead, the hold stuck above the deck like a big three-foot-high box. It had a door at the back to crawl inside where there was standing room. I positioned Ryan by that open door, hanging on to the end of a 6-inch diameter, semi-flexible hose.
“Ryan, it’s going to take more than two hands on that,” I said. “Put it between your forearm and chest, and wrap your arm around it. Leave enough sticking out so you can aim it with your other hand.”
“Is all this necessary?” he asked.
I took a second to compose myself. “Just do what I tell you. Ask your why questions later. And that goes for the rest of the trip. I might be trying to save your ass from losing a body part or worse.”
Ryan’s eyebrows jumped up and his eyes popped open. This was the first time he heard me wearing my captain’s hat.
“When I tell you to do something, I want to see you moving before the last word’s out of my mouth. You understand what I’m telling you?”
“Yes sir,” he said. “You’re the captain.”
“I’m glad you understand that, but I’m talking about your response to a command. The way you react could be the most important event in your life. This ain’t no game of tiddlywinks we’re about to play.”
“I got it, Cap’n Pete.”
“Cap’n Jimmy,” I said. “Back Ryan up on the hose until you’re sure he’s got it.
“Roger that, Cap.”
Charlie stood on the dock next to the controls for the delivery system. I raised one hand above my head, and gave him a circular motion. He punched a big red button on the wall.
The roots-type blower spooled up and started howling like the giant supercharger it was. The air it blew through the hose carried the chunks of ice to the boat. They came out the end like they were thrown from a pitcher’s mound.
Ryan’s arm muscles tensed when he heard the blower crank up. Most of the noise now came from the end of the hose, and was magnified as it bounced around inside the empty hold.
Seconds later, the end of the hose became quiet. Ryan looked at me, the question on his face.
“That’s the ice coming,” I said. “It blocks the noise. Don’t let that thing get away from you.”
Ice shot out the end of the hose and added even more racket as it slammed into the forward bulkhead. Jimmy’s upper body was punched backward by the initial jolt.
But not the greenhorn. He lost his grip. And just stood there, it happened so fast.
“Ryan,” I said, three of four inches from his ear. “Any questions now?”
A couple of quick negative head shakes.
“Jimmy’s going to let go. From now on, all you gotta do is lean into the hose, hang on and try to aim it from side to side. Are you ready?”
A nod. I turned to Jimmy and waved him off. He eased his grip, and backed away from the hose.
The next morning, we energized the massive hydraulic reel that held miles of almost quarter-inch monofilament longline and began the retrieval process of our first set. Normally, we had a shark every eight or a dozen hooks. We came to a section where they were coming aboard fast. A fish every two or three hooks. There was no time for the services of Bam-Bam. The deck was filling with tail-slapping, jaw-snapping fish. Each with a hook firmly imbedded in its jaw and dragging two fathoms of three-hundred-pound test nylon leader behind.
I kept a third eye on Ryan as Jimmy and I worked the hauling station. He had a small open space at the back of the deck. Just stood there, all eyes. During the last few minutes, his chest started heaving and I knew his heart was racing. This wasn’t quite like the computer game violence he was accustomed to.
The next fish was too big for one man to heave over the rail. I knocked the boat out of gear to drift while Jimmy and I teamed up to bring it aboard. It came over the rail and began its flight to the deck. Pointed right at Ryan, now backed up against the waist-high transom, the back of the boat.
That fish was pissed. Flapped its tail like the devil, trying to swim. Whap. It hit the bulwarks going one direction. Whap. Hit the fish hold going the other. Back and forth. Whap, Whap, Whap. All the time snapping those jaws full of razor blades.
Every time it flapped its tail, the shark moved an inch or two closer to Ryan. Whap, Whap, Whap. Two feet from him. Ryan abandoned the deck. Now sat on top of the transom. Fingers dug into the fiberglass. Knees drawn up to his chest. Three feet of air beneath his deck boots.
The shark now a foot and a half from him. “Jimmy,” he screamed.
Jimmy was closest to him, but our reactions were identical. We just stood there and watched.
“Get this son-of-a-bitch off of me.”
We began to laugh.
“Do something. Please. Somebody stop him.”
Laughed so hard we had to hold each other up.
When the shark was a foot from Ryan, Jimmy grabbed it by the tail and dragged it out of the way.
“Ryan, these things can’t jump,” he said.
He reached over to the hatch cover and took hold of Bam-Bam. Had it by the spike end and almost poked Ryan in the gut with the other.
“Here. Get even,” he said.
My sense was this was going to take some time. I knew the wind would cause us to drift sideways at two or three miles per hour if the boat stopped moving and I also knew the boat would have enough force to drag the longline along with it. That would become a big problem as nylon acts like a rubber band. If it parted, it would snap back to the boat with deadly force. In a practiced motion I cut the longline, attached a buoy to the loose end and threw it overboard. We could go back to the buoy later and pick it up.
Ryan didn’t hold the shark’s tail to control it like Jimmy did. He had both hands on Bam-Bam, like it was an ax.
The shark was in constant motion. So was Ryan. Doing the “you can’t catch me” dance. Bam-Bam ready to nail that son-of-a-bitch to the deck.
Four swings, as fast he could get Bam-Bam re-cocked. Four misses.
A hit. But not in the kill zone. Not even in the head. Now he had a problem. The tail was wagging the dog. But Ryan hung on tight, and the shark solved the problem by freeing itself.
Three more swings, as if he were in one of those Paul Bunyan wood chopping contests. Chips flew through the air. Chips of fiberglass. This kid was out of control.
“Ryan,” I said.
Another maniacal swing. More fiberglass launched into orbit.
I don’t allow screaming on any vessel I command. When you need it for an emergency, it’s not there.
This was one of those times.
The volume penetrated his adrenalin-charged consciousness.
“Enough. You’re gonna chop a hole in Charlie’s deck.”
He backed away from the shark. Stood there gasping for breath. I reached out my hand for Bam-Bam.
Jimmy stood across the deck, the shark between us. It was bleeding from Ryan’s foul shot, and this seemed to make it even angrier. I caught Jimmy’s eye, and sent Bam-Bam to him with an underhand toss.
Ryan was the son of one of my best friends back in the day. I carried him around when he was in diapers. I hooked the crook of my arm around the back of his neck. “Watch how Jimmy does this.”
“Kill it,” I said to Jimmy.
“It’s easy, Ryan,” Jimmy said. “Get him by the tail first. That way, he can’t bite your ass. Then all you have to do is time your swing, wait until he takes a little break.”
Tail in one hand, Bam-Bam in the other, Jimmy began his routine.
“Alright, settle down a little bit.” He spoke to the shark in a soothing tone of voice. “Everything’s going to be OK. All you need is one little tickle from Bam-Bam, and you’ll be fine. Just ease up a litt…” Bam!
The spike was buried in the center of the shark’s head. It quivered once, and that was that. The coup de grâce, administered by a pro.
I removed my arm from Ryan’s neck. “You got that?”
“Uh, I guess so,” he said.
“I want to see you take a practice swing at that fish Jimmy just killed. Pretend it’s still alive, and get the tail first.”
Jimmy handed Bam-Bam to Ryan. He took the shark’s tail in his hand as instructed. Touched the middle of the shark’s head with the spike, the way golfers do before they take their swing. Bam! Buried the spike an inch from Jimmy’s shot.
“Finest kind,” I said. “A little practice and you’ll be able to do that while they’re moving. From now on, you’re in charge of Bam-Bam.”
I surveyed the deck. “Y’all don’t worry about stacking these fish up. We need to get back to that buoy on the end of the longline. No telling how far this damned wind drifted us from it.”
I didn’t know where in the hell it was. My only option was to start a search, steaming (driving) in a circle that got larger each time we went around. The bigger the circle gets, the smaller the odds you’ll find the target.
I was beginning to worry.
“There it is,” Ryan hollered from the foredeck. His arm pointed straight off the port side.
Salt water was all I saw.
“You still see it, Ryan?”
“Yeah. It’s right over there,” pointing again.
I let the autopilot do the driving. Went out onto the deck so I wasn’t peering through a salt sprayed window.
“Show me again,”
“You see it?” I asked Jimmy, who stood next to me.
“The kid’s seeing things,” he said.
“Ryan. I want you to keep pointing. Let me know when I’ve got the boat aimed at it.” I went back into the house to get us on course.
Five minutes later, Jimmy called to me from the deck.
“I see it now. It comes and goes, but it’s dead ahead.”
Back to the deck for another clear look. Nada.
Great. Now I gotta hire a Seeing Eye dog to go fishing.
I parked the boat on the downwind side of the buoy. Knocked on one of the forward windows to get Ryan’s attention
“Come into the house for a minute,” motioning with my hand.
He came through the back door.
“What’s up, Cap?” he said.
“Ryan. You have amazing eyesight.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I see what I see.”
“It’s a damned sight more than I see. You probably just saved Charlie a wad of money. From now on, you’re my lookout. When we go into search mode for these floats, I want you up on the house roof.”
I could see it in the smile that stretched across his face. How he stood a little taller. He was part of the crew. The Goddamned Greenhorn Shark Wrangler. The Bam Bam Man.
“C’mon,” I said. “Let’s get the rest of these fish on the boat,” and headed for the back deck.
Cap’n Pete: Back in the days when there was one computer in the State of Vermont, Pete Caldwell quit his job as a computer programmer/systems analyst, gave his suits and ties to the Good Will and bought a raggedy old shrimp trawler. The life of adventure at sea suited him. The boats got bigger and better as he ventured farther and farther from land. He found his spirituality as a blue water fisherman working and living immersed in the unforgiving power of the Sea. Cap’n Pete writes creative nonfiction about a life at sea and the characters that populate that world, as well as misadventures when not afloat. At the same time, he struggles with his retirement. Fish are dying of old age out there. Recently joining the octogenarians, Cap’n Pete feels it’s time to start sharing his stories, one of which recently not only appeared in the Potato Soup Journal, but in their annual print anthology as well.