It's a steamy August morning, and a few bright rays of dawn light peek through the still palm trees at Canaveral National Seashore near New Smyrna Beach.
Although most people make it a point to stay far away from sharks when at the beach (and I'm usually part of that majority), I've come here today with a group of people who are hoping to get close to some of these fearsome fish. We're here to go shark fishing.
We arrive at the beach with plenty of supplies: fishing tackle, bait, a cooler full of beer and an inflatable raft. We lug armfuls of stuff for half a mile or so down the shoreline, making sure we're far enough away from swimmers. We set up camp and rig our fishing rods with weights and hooks; we also inflate the raft and decide which lucky person among us will paddle out beyond the breakers with the shark bait (dead fish) and position it on the end of the line in shark territory. I volunteer to hold the rod on shore and let someone else have that job.
Once the bait is set, I tighten my line and put the rod in a makeshift PVC holder dug into the sand. Now the waiting begins. A cold beer washes down some of my anxiety, and the anticipation mounts while I wait for a bite.
The odds of catching a shark today should be in our favor: New Smyrna, just up the beach from where we've settled in, is dubbed the shark-bite capital of the world. Nearly half the shark attacks in Florida take place off the beaches of Volusia County, where New Smyrna is located, because the conditions here create the perfect snack bar for predators: The waters of Ponce Inlet on the north end of the beach are nice and murky, and there's an abundance of bait fish living in these waters. Crowds of surfers and swimmers flock to these beaches during nice weather, so you're not supposed to fish for sharks near the more heavily populated public areas (namely, the beaches near Flagler Avenue and Bethune Beach Park). Even though we've set up our gear at a relatively secluded spot, there should still be sharks lurking in the waters nearby.
All of a sudden, the line screams and the fishing pole bends — something is on the hook. Everyone in the group jumps to attention, and one of the guys yells for me to grab the rod. The incredible force behind whatever is on the other end overwhelms me for an instant before the fight ensues. A vigorous and steady tug on the line sets the hook in its mouth, and now it's human vs. fish. My adrenaline soars. The key is to find the precise balance between heaving back on the rod and bending forward to reel in the line.
It's exhausting, but the burn of my tired arm muscles fades as the signature dorsal fin pokes up from the shallow waters. I try to grab the tail fin to pull my catch ashore, but my hand slips from the angry shark as it thrashes on the sand. As I stumble over my own feet in a panicky effort to back away, I get a quick look at my catch. The shark looks like it's just over five feet long (which, coincidentally, is about my height), and judging from the description I heard from a fisherman earlier in the day, I've caught a spinner shark.
My hands shake, and gory shark-victim images flash through my mind when I get an up-close look at the sharp snarl of the shark's teeth. I giggle nervously as I begin to doubt my ability (or willingness) to take the hook out of its mouth. I snap out of it, though, when I see a more courageous companion grab the shark confidently with both hands and calm it before using a pair of pliers to remove the hook.
We don't intend to keep our catch and have just a couple of minutes to take a few photos before releasing it back into the ocean. I sit on the beach and watch as the animal shrugs the hand from its fin and swims for the deeper waters far from shore. My tension eases, and for a moment I marvel at how quickly we were able to subdue a 5-foot-long shark. I imagine things would be rather different if we met again on its territory.
Off in the distance we hear the rumble of a typical Central Florida summer-afternoon thunderstorm and decide it's time to call it a day. I'm exhausted but proud that I didn't completely chicken out when I had to come face-to-face with a shark.