Cue the 'Jaws' theme: Fishermen are catching 8-foot sharks in the Potomac River

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2010; 12:07 AM

Willy Dean was on the Potomac River in a 22-foot skiff Tuesday morning when he realized there was something both abnormal and enormous in his net. It was a deadly 8-foot-1 bull shark, a 300-pound-plus killer that had likely been feasting on cownose rays at Cornfield Harbor, just off the shores of Point Lookout State Park.

Buh bump. Buh bump. Buh bump buhbump buhbump. . . .

"When I first seen it, it was like 'Jaws' -- we need a bigger boat!" Dean said Thursday. "I'm not kidding you. It looked huge. I didn't know how we were gonna get it out. It's my first shark. I've been fishing here a little over 30 years, and it's the first time I've even seen one."

But it wasn't even the only one caught on the river during what has apparently become Shark Week on the Potomac. Thomas Crowder, a commercial fisherman from St. Mary's County, said he and his crew were cutting a net near Tall Timbers on Wednesday when an even bigger bull shark was trapped. "He couldn't swim and breathe, and he drowned," Crowder said. "We kept saying for years that we wanted to catch a shark. . . . And Willy gets one, and then all of the sudden we get one. What are the odds? It's just bizarre."

Crowder measured the shark (8 feet, 3 inches), took a few photos, then dumped it back into the river, its stomach split open to keep it from floating.

Bull sharks -- among the world's most dangerous fish, at least for humans, ranking right up there with great whites and tiger sharks -- are unique in that they can tolerate fresh river water.

But they're almost never spotted in the Potomac or elsewhere around St. Mary's. Ken Kaumeyer, curator of estuarine biology at the Calvert Marine Museum, thinks the last one was in 1973, "when two of them showed up in a town down here in the lower Patuxent."

Kaumeyer was more than a little shocked when he and another biologist went out with Dean on a routine ray-collecting trip and wound up netting a Carcharhinus leucas where the Potomac spills into the Chesapeake Bay.

"Well, that was different," Kaumeyer said, having perfected the science of the understatement. "I've been working on the bay for almost 40 years, and you get these odd things -- like when the whale came by this summer. Uh, what's a humpback whale doing here? You never know what you're going to find," he said.

"The sharks are in the bay. They feed on rays and probably crabs, and they have the ability to migrate into fresher water. But you very, very rarely see them down here."

Dean, a commercial pound-net fisherman from Scotland, Md., spent more than two hours trying to wrestle the somewhat controversial catch onto his boat. "It was a real fight," he said. The shark died soon after being pulled out of the water, but not before Dean's black Lab got a good look at it.

"The hair was standing up on her back; she didn't know what to think of it, either," Dean said Thursday on his cellphone, while fueling up his boat. "She walked up to that shark, sniffed it and yapped at it. We had to keep her back so she didn't get bit."

The shark -- photographed at the marina for posterity (and proof) -- is now in Dean's walk-in freezer, right there with all his bait fish. "We had four, five people bring him in there, whole," he said. "I took a stick and propped open his jaws so people can see how vicious he is."

This weekend, Dean figures he'll fillet the fish, which he named Jody for reasons he will not explain. He plans to get the head mounted. The rest of the rare river catch? It's what's for dinner.

"We're gonna steak him up and try him. Some people say shark is good to eat. We'll see."

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