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The Dry Tortugas: Shark Fishing

Harper's New Monthly Magazine


Among the amusements of the reef sharkfishing is prominent. Charley conceived the pleasant notion of making a grand aquarium of the moat around the fort. Great turtles were kept there, why not sharks. Several sharks were caught, but the soldiers were so eager to help that the creature was soon worried to death. The Rosetta being too light, our trio decided to apply to the Engineer Department for one of their large flat-boats, that are like pontoons. Charley wanted the fun of fishing without unnecessary interference. Busby was too nervous, so Fat Charley went along to row. Large "man eater" sharks are very common in the channels during the warmer months, and are particularly attracted by the blood and offal thrown from the slaughter-house on the Key opposite the fort.

So some blood was procured from the butcher, and some ox feet for bait, and with hook, chain, ropes, knife, a dipper to throw water on the rope in case of too mnch friction, and a hatchet to cut it if necessary, they started off toward the Northwest Channel. Busby and the Doctor went np into the balcony look-out to watch. Busby rubbed the useless glasses of his telescope with his sleeve, and announced that all was right so far. After looking for some time steadily into the instrument Busby looked over the top of it and said:

"I believe they are at it, Sir."

"I think so too," says the Doctor.

Suddenly Busby says, almost losing hisbreath, "D’ye mind, Charley’s lettin’ out," and down he trotted to the beach, as if he could render more assistance by being twenty feet nearer.

There was evidently more of a struggle, both on Charley’s part in holding in, and with Fat Charley in keeping the boat in trim, than they had expected.

"He’s running wi’ ‘em, by jingo," says Busby, hopping up and down, and foaming at the mouth. "That boy'll be the death o’ me fr’nent."

They are going off seaward, but they will surely cut the rope before they get too far; the boat is flat, and has good beam; so there is not much danger of upsetting. Still on, toward Loggerhead Light, the water foaming at the bows, Charley and the Fat One standing like statues.

"Will the boy na’er gi’ in ?" exclaimed Busby, in terror. "Cut ! cut! Why dinna ye cut?"

"I think he has cut at last," says the Doctor.

"True, true," says the old man, as with a sigh of relief he brushed the "plaguy cobwebs" from his eyes.

The truth was they had hooked a perfect monster—I am afraid to say how large. The fellow had turned off and run out the length of the line before Charley could get any "slack" on him. So there was nothing for it but to let him run, or cut the line. A sudden jerk when the line was not quite taut snapped it, and the sport was over for that day.

But they were not to be cheated out of their sport, or of getting a pet for the big aquarium. Next day they hooked a fellow in the inner channel; and this time Charley had him up to short commons in quick time, with a bit of cold steel in his jaw, and a three-foot halter of chain. This brought him up partly out of water, with his nose nearly to the stern of the boat. With a couple of soldiers the Doctor took a boat and went to the rescue. Charley called out proudly: "We’ve got him; but we don’t want any help, except the men to spell Fat Charley at the oars."

Charley consented to let his father get in upon the promise that he should be left in full charge. A good deal of rope had been let out, for the shark ran at first; but fortunately he was brought up again, and Charley had him just where he could prevent his exerting his full strength. It was a fearful picture: that big mouth, partly open, showing row upon row of ugly saw teeth, one eye canted up viciously. There seemed to be great danger of the huge fellow springing ahead far enough to catch Charley’s hand, which was not more than two feet from the mouth. But I suppose there was less danger in holding him thus closely than otherwise, for he could not have so much play. It was more of a job than you would think to tow the monster in; for he jerked back and forth, and kept the boat from going ahead.

The soldiers gathered around on the moat wall, and on a temporary wooden bridge that the boat had to go under. An accident occurred here which came near putting an end to life as well as sport. The bridge, on which so many soldiers were standing, gave way just as the monster had passed under, and lots of soldiers were floundering in the water. Fortunately no one was hurt.

Preparations were then made to hoist the shark into his aquarium. Long planks were placed on the wall to form an inclined plane down into the water. it was easy to pull him through the water, but when he came out then he was a dead weight. Large ropes were looped over him in several places; and when all was ready, as many soldiers as could stand around him hauled upon the ropes until he was near the edge of the moat. The great steel hook was then adroitly cut from his lip; and Mr. Shark, tossing his left eye savagely at Charley, and shaking his great sickle-shaped tail in token of disgust, tumbled in, much to the gratification of the crowd, who shouted vociferously. Away he went like a dart to the other end of the moat, and then back again, now making the water boil with threshing, and now stirring the mud angrily with his snout.

As near as we could judge by rough measurement this shark was ten feet in length. His teeth were serrated, or cut like a sawa characteristic of this genus, Carchariasor "Man Eaters," as they are sometimes called. His mouth when open measured twenty inches across. Some sharks are found in Northern waters that are longer than this, but are not so bulky, or so big-mouthed and savage-looking.

A curious fish, the Remora, was found clinging to the side of the shark, and was put into the aquarium with him. This fellow has a sucking-disc on the top of its head, which holds him to the side of the larger fish. The Remora is called "Pilot-Fish" erroneously. Pliny, the ancient naturalist, tells some extremely big stories about this fish, attributing great strength to it. It will, he says, while sucking upon the bottom of a vessel hold it against the power of several hundred men. But such stories are too absurd to repeat. There is an abundance of wonderful truth to tell of the creatures of the deep without resorting to fable. It is a puzzle why the Remora should require such protection, as he is a comely and active fish.

The shark was regarded as equal to several sentinels; for the prisoners, who were quartered in the casemates above the moat, would hardly dare to swim across. Sharkey was dubbed by the soldiers "Provost Marshal." Orders were issued that he should be protected and fed. He was kept without food for a while in view of having a grand show at his first meal. Sundry cats were to be fed out to him.

Fat Charley procured a large cat and some ox-feet for dessert. Crowds collected on the parapet and on the moat wall to witness the feeding. It was expected that a very novel and exciting, if not impressive, ceremony should transpire. The well-known disposition and propensities of the incumbent, his antecedents, every thing, pointed to a reasonable anticipation of coming hilarity. Speculations were indulged in with reference to his manner of eating. Would he turn on his side or back, or would he dart, spring at his prey. No one had any definite notion in the matter, but all were eager to be instructed. At a given signal Fat Charley came forward to the edge of the parapet, some fifty feet above the moat, and depositing his oxfeet dessert, produced the heavier part of the meal, the meat. Shark was majestically passing from one end to the other of the moat, when, at a favorable moment, Pussy was thrown from the top of the parapet directly before the Marshal’s nose. It was no go: Marshal turned tail in great fright, and would not eat a mouthful.

Cries of "put him out," "humbug," "give us our money back," and other pleasant appeals greeted Fat Charley as he went off disgusted, and vowing that the fellow was "ungrateful to refuse a decent meal." The good-humor of the crowd was restored in a moment after, when Pussy, who had bravely swum nearly the whole length of the moat, being quite near to the Marshal several times as he passed back and forth, was seen making quick time for an old rope that some prisoners had let down from the cell-window above. Puss clutched desperately the rope, and with three cheers from the crowd, she was hauled up to find friends among deserters and bounty-jumpers.

This shark lived in the moat about two months, and was an object of interest to many visitors. Like a caged lion, he constantly swayed back and forth near the walls, his head turned so that one eye was toward you, nearly out of water; coursing his "beat," a vigilant, sleepless sentinel, who inspired with a wholesome terror many of the inmates of this great prison.

Excerpt from Holden, J.B. "The Dry Tortugas."
Harper's New Monthly Magazine, July 1868, Vol.37, No.218. pp. 262-264


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