Jaws it wasn't.
The crew of the Baltimore National Aquarium's 23-foot Sea Ox was tired and disgusted. After several days of shark-hunting off the coast of Delaware, deep tans and a freezer full of food fish were about all they had to show for their efforts.
"Fishing is fishing," said Neil Robinson, at 27 the senior aquarist, "but when we come down here, the pressure's on. We're 'the hot shots from the National Aquarium,' but we're just fishermen with a lack of local knowledge. We're in a time frame and it's rough."
"I don't know what the hell's going on," agreed Jackson Andrews, 35, the aquarium's assistant curator. "I'm not catching anything."
They had done well in July, fishing in the same spots where the sharks summer before traveling southward. Now, with the end of the season near, the tedium and frustration showed in the fishermen's faces as they sped away from the dock at Lewes, an old fishing and resort town at the point where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Delaware Bay.
The crew's first task on a blustery late-summer morning was to bait a 600-yard line with mackeral at 30-foot intervals. They hoped that large sand tiger sharks feeding in deeper waters six miles offshore would be seized by a "big mack attack" only the bait could cure.
"People who come to the aquarium ask where do you get it and how do you do it?" said Andrews. "Right now, I can't answer that question. I know how to, but I don't know where. Everything's chance."
As the Sea Ox bobbed up and down in choppy, 48-foot-deep water, a Coast Guard helicopter surveyed the small open boat and half a dozen frieghters anchored nearby. "This is really a drug run," Robinson joked. "Sharks is just a front."
The aquarium crew baited quickly and quietly for half an hour, leaving the line anchored at the mouth of the bay to catch their prey. Then they pulled the boat ashore and headed for Bowers Beach, 25 miles away. "Who knows? This could be another wild goose chase," said Andrews.
Along with Andrews, a wise-cracking former taxi driver and teacher who calls himself "the admiral," and Robinson, a onetime lobsterman who captained the boat, were Ray Jones, 38, an ichthyologist on loan from the University of Maryland Medical School, and Betsy Ritchie, 25, a tall, athletic-looking woman who had given up horses for fish.
"It's pretty much the same stuff," she said. "Taking care of the animals. Dirty work."
They drove the boat past Broadkill Beach and Slaughter Beach to Bowers, where Andrews once had eaten at the Heartbreak Hotel but never before had fished. "I'll say one thing, Jackson," said Jones, "there are more boats out of here than down where we are. That must mean something."
William (Frenchie) Poulin, of Frenchie's Fresh Fish, agreed with Jones's prediction.
"You could probably set off any one of these banks and catch some sharks," he told them. "They're out there, anywhere up to 8, 9 feet long . Had one Tuesday, 8-feet, 4-inches. There's all kind of junk out there. If you can't do it, we'll surely catch 'em for you."
As they talked, a commercial fisherman nearby was having a five-foot tiger shark cleaned and its magnificant jaw extracted as a souvenir. "If you want to get the big ones," he said, "go right out there in 43-foot holes where they're hanging out, four miles out."
But the team from the National Aquarium were after baby brown sharks that normally stay in shallow waters and are no more than two or three feet long. The sharks would grow, eventually, to eight or ten feet.
"We're after the fish nobody else really wants to deal with," said Andrews. "Brown fish messes up a fisherman's nets. To him, it's trash fish." Added Betsy Ritchie: "People aren't into eating sharks."
"Let's go," said Jones, who could barely contain his excitement. "Let's get 'em!"
In 15 feet of water, they dropped their meshed gill net. "I think this is it," said Robinson. "I do, too," said Andrews. Then came the wait, a time for sunning, snoozing, dipping and sipping. "How many beers do we have?" asked Robinson, who dived in and out of the water. "We never have enough," said his boss.
"We get a little defensive," said Robinson, in charge of a staff of eight back in Baltimore. The aquarium there needs the browns for its shark tank and to trade with other aquariums. "It's hard work and it's a long day. We are on the water and in the sun, but there's always pressure hanging over you gotta catch fish."
Robinson had nearly quit the aquarium business before coming to Baltimore. Politics, he said. "Aquariums deal with the public, therefore, you're under public scruitiny," he explained. "A lot of people, they think of the animals in captivity, and nothing's right from then on."
After about 25 minutes, Ritchie and Jones began pulling the net into the bow of the boat. A sea trout was caught, and a horseshoe crab. And then the sought-after brown shark. "There we go, here we go . . . alright . . . hot----!" exclaimed Andrews. Robinson untangled the shark and Jackson tossed it into an oblong-shaped "live well" in the center of the boat.
The net went down a second time and yielded five more sharks. The fish sometimes skidded vertically up and down the well, doing what Robinson called "a tail walk."
"Damn, we came to the right place," Andrews said. "Thank you, Frenchie Poulin."
The third set brought a bluefish, a sea robbin with winglike fins and six more browns. The jaw of one apparently had been cut out by other fishermen and the fish was tossed back. "Cosmetically imperfect," said Andrews. "Sorry, guy. He'll figure it out . . . he might never figure it out."
When their catch reached 11 sharks, the crew turned back to the shore. It had been their best day of the summer for browns. "We've been in agony for a while," said Andrews. "I'm an ecstasy man myself."
With their hopes buoyed by the afternoon's catch, they returned to Lewes to unload their prizes and returned to the sea, this time to check and rebait the long line. What they found there were three sharks, a four-foot brown and two flat-toothed dogfish but no big sand tigers. The dogfish were thrown back for bait.
As the sun set and the moon rose over Delaware Bay, the crew came to the end of the long line and the end of a long day. Tomorrow would bring more frustration -- the boat's starter would need repair and the long line would fail to yield the desired catch.