OCEAN CITY, MD. -- Far behind the boat and about 20 feet underwater, the shark grabbed both the tuna head and the big steel hook that had been sliced into the tuna's cheek.
Tim Jones clutched the fishing rod as the thick black line spun away and the shark fled for safety, away from the boat and then down and down until the rubber balloon that floated the line on the surface of the water burst and broke away.
Jones, a college student working as an Ocean City charter boat mate for the summer, let the fish have its way for a minute, then yanked the rod back to drive the hook deep into the shark. He began to fight the fish, letting it run a few feet when it struggled hard, and reeling it in a little more when it paused and weakened.
It was the best fight of all. A contest between fish-eating man and man-eating fish, 26 miles off the beach at Ocean City. It was also just a group of friends fishing, and proving along the way that the most plentiful big fish in a city that calls itself the White Marlin Capital of the World are the most feared fish in the world.
"Some years ago, nobody fished for shark out of Ocean City," said mayor Roland (Fish) Powell, a former charter boat captain.
"But ever since the movie 'Jaws,' a lot of people have gone into shark fishing."
No shark attacks have been reported in Ocean City in at least 60 years, Powell said. Sharks do swim near the beaches and even in the shallow bay behind Ocean City, although they generally stay away from people. To get big marlin, one must go 40 to 50 miles offshore; to get the biggest sharks -- more than 100 pounds and five feet in length -- one need only travel 20 miles to an area of the offshore banks called The Fingers.
It was here that Capt. Mark Sampson steered his boat, Fish Finder, one morning last week with a group of friends and Jones in the fishing chair determined to win trophies in the city's annual shark-fishing tournament. "The deal today is no foulups," warned the captain, who takes shark fishing seriously. "No lost fish. Everything we catch is ours."
The shark was near the rear of the boat after 20 minutes, and you could see its thick, gray, six-foot-long body thrashing near the surface, and then, from time to time, diving deep below the boat and out of sight. When it came within reach, its dorsal fin cutting zigzag patterns in the water, Sampson grabbed a long pole and speared its flank to haul it aboard.
But the pain made the shark thrash harder and it tore the hook from the pole and swam away, violently pulling and pounding the water with its tail. Jones had to let the line run out for a minute and begin the battle again.
After 20 more minutes the fish again was alongside the boat. This time, Sampson's hook held and he hoisted the shark's tail above the waves. Jones wrapped a piece of rope around the tail and tied it down. Then the shark's struggling head was lifted out of the water and Jones tied a rope around it.
For the time, the big fish was left dangling in the water to keep it alive and fresh. When it was time to head in, it was cranked up -- tail first and dripping with blood -- from a small crane. Jones and Sampson stretched the fish across the floor of the boat and lashed it down to render it harmless.
Later that day, crowds gathered at Bahia Marina on 22nd Street in the District when the shark boats came in near sunset and the bloodied sharks were hoisted high on the scaffold-like scales. Families ran from a nearby seafood restaurant across the street, men pointed cameras and women and children posed, while fishermen held the shark jaws open. One big shark spat water as its big bloody tongue unfolded from its mouth, and the crowd cried out in disgust and delight.
The sharkers stood back and talked sharks. When the crowd had thinned they examined their catches closely, studying the differences between them -- the sandbar shark, the dusky, the mako and the one great white shark, the type that starred in the "Jaws." Then they carefully cut the fish into steaks and extracted the jaws and razor-sharp teeth to be cleaned, dried and displayed.
Jones' sandbar shark that day was beaten out in the tournament by one 7 1/2 pounds heavier. But the next day he won the mako shark category with a fish that weighed 245 pounds.
The sharkers said it was partly the "Jaws" that inspired the surge in shark fishing in the past few years. "There's a little of that," said Steve Jones, a consultant for an accounting firm who often fishes with Sampson. "The first time you go shark fishing, there's a lot of that. But the main thing is we wanted to catch big fish, and we couldn't run out too far in our little boats."
Steve Jones and Sampson recalled their early days shark fishing together in small boats about a dozen years ago and the wonderful days when they caught 600- and 700-pound sharks that were nearly as long as their boats. Once they had to put all their passengers on another boat so theirs would not sink, and they took eight hours to make the two-hour trip to shore.
The shark is not as prestigious or classy a game fish as the marlin, Jones said, "but they pull just as hard. And they're just as good fighters. And a mako shark will jump higher. The impressive thing is to see a 400-pound mako 15 feet in the air. There's no other fish that will jump so high."
Sampson disdains the blood-spattered, hard-drinking "Jaws" image of shark fishing. He is a soft-spoken, good-humored man of 29, who catches sharks for a living on his charter boat, studies their habits and tags the sharks he does not keep for the NOAA.
And he refuses to shoot the shark, arguing that you can bring them under control with rope.
"Sometimes there's just bullet holes," he said, "but sometimes it blows away half the head where the bullet comes out. It's totally unnecessary."
"It's kind of sad," he added. "The fish are so beautiful."