Earlier this week, Jason Johnston reeled in one of the largest sharks ever caught with a rod-and-reel–a 1,323.5-pound mako that could shatter the 12-year-old International Game Fish Association (IGFA) record of 1,221 pounds. In the few days since he made the catch on June 3, he’s gained both celebrity status–even appearing on CNN’s Piers Morgan Live–and been attacked by animal rights advocates, but so far, he says he wouldn’t change a thing.
Johnston, a resident of Mesquite, Texas, will be the first to tell you he feels more at home in the woods than on the ocean. After a 25-year career in the hunting industry, most of it spent as a big-game guide, the notion of instant fame from a record-setting fish of any kind was completely unexpected.
In fact, when we spoke on the phone, he mentioned that he was sitting outside his hotel, drinking coffee, looking at his picture on the front page of the Los Angeles Times with a Texas-sized grin and a pocketful of quarters, ready to purchase every copy he saw for posterity.
Johnston was in California fishing on an invite from his close friend, Corey Knowlton, while he and a camera crew captured footage for “Jim Shockey’s The Professionals,” a hunting show on the Outdoor Channel.
“I’ve been friends with Corey for over 10 years, and he invited me to just go fishing with him while they filmed one of the episodes,” Johnston says. “I was leery at first because I’m a hunter more than I’m a fisherman, but Corey just wanted me to handle the rod-and-reel, so I figured, how hard can that be?”
Johnston, Knowlton, and the camera crew set out with Matt Potter, owner of Mako Matt’s Marine, on his 37-foot Topaz sportfisher, Breakaway, from Huntington Beach.
“Matt, our captain, said everything was perfect that day. The water temperature, the wind, the tides–it all just lined up,” Johnston says.
Potter says makos tend to stay offshore–they don’t hang near beaches, so he motored into the sea a few miles looking for warm-water breaks before setting up a half-mile chum line.
“A lot of shark fishermen put bait on a balloon, but we sight fish. We don’t put any hooks or bait into the water until we see the fish,” Potter says. “This way we can match our tackle to the fish. We already get a lot of bad press for shark fishing, so we try to be as mindful about what we’re doing as we can. We avoid the small sharks and let them swim around eating chum. If we see a fish we want to catch, we throw out a mackerel or bonita bait. Otherwise, we move on.”
That day, the sharks appeared quickly, though most were small and not what the group was looking for. But then another fish appeared on the scene; one that all the men could tell was much larger.
“I knew this was a big fish as soon as I saw the fin. I didn’t need to see the length or the girth,” Potter says. “We’ve caught a lot of 800- and 900-pound fish, and this thing looked like it could have eaten any of them. I fixed a two-pound bonita to a hook and think I yelled to the guys to get serious because they’d never have a shot at a fish like this ever again.”
Johnston says he was unsure about tangling with such a large fish.
“Even as they were sliding the harness on me and hooking up the rod, I kept saying, ‘eh, I don’t know about this. One of you other guys want to catch this thing?’ Seeing this shark’s dorsal coming at us for the first time is something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life. Then, when it took the bait, I set the hook about 20 times to make sure it set deep, and that’s when all hell broke loose,” Johnston says. “The fact that we caught everything on video is even better. The crew even had time to put a small, waterproof camera on the line and actually got footage of the shark biting the bait.”
Johnston said the fight was like tying the end of the line to a one-ton diesel truck, dropping it in the water, then trying to reel it in while it races across the ocean. Two-and-a-half hours later, he managed to get the fish close enough to the boat for Potter to sink a gaff, turn the fish sideways and lasso a rope around its tail with the other end tied to the boat. When asked how they dispatched the shark, Johnston declined to comment.
The crew decided to head for shore, but with such a large fish in tow, Potter said he couldn’t move faster than 5 knots before steering became difficult. Meanwhile, everyone else frantically made phone calls looking for a certified weigh scale near the docks, eventually connecting with Kent Williams of the New Fishall Bait Co. in Gardena.
“The IGFA rules only state fish must be weighed on a certified scale–which my scale is. But the state of California requires me to be a certified weighmaster because of the product that comes in to my shop, so Jason and his crew really got the best of both worlds,” Williams says.
But to weigh the shark, the men first had to transport it, ultimately deciding Potter’s trailer was the best option. Once the shark was untethered from the boat, the men slid it onto the trailer tail-first, secured it, and quickly got it to the Williams’ scale, hoping it would lose as little weight as possible in the process.
By that time word of Johnston’s catch had already started to spread and people filtered to the New Fishall Bait Co. to watch Williams weigh the fish. Using a forklift to move the mako from the trailer to the scale, he backed away to reveal the official weight: 1,323.5 lbs.
Almost instantly, news and photos of the shark dangling from the scale began circulating on newswires and online bulletin boards and was met with both congratulatory praise and disparaging remarks.
Breakaway at the mako’s weigh-in.
The heart of the issue for many is the sentiment that Johnston should have released the fish–one that’s somewhat fostered by false assumptions the camera crew was only on hand to catch and kill the fish for entertainment. According to Johnston, nothing could be further from the truth.
“I can’t believe the amount of people that hate my guts here in the state of California. On Facebook, and in the media, people are just really coming down on us,” Johnston says. “I’m just a guy that went out with some friends to have a good time and just happened to be behind a fishing rod at the time. We would have had an equally good time had this big mako not appeared. None of this was planned out. We didn’t set our sights on going out and catching a world record–but it happened, and I don’t have any issues with the way we’ve handled things.”
Potter, who has fished for mako sharks since age 15, takes particular offense to some of the public assumptions made during the past few days. In fact, he’d like to see more regulations on mako shark fishing.
“The California limit for makos is two per person, per day with no size restrictions–which I think is high. I release nearly everything clients catch. I try to make sure everything I do is as low-impact on the species as possible. I hook probably only one for every 20 sharks I see, and probably only keep 10 percent of those. Last year we were out almost daily and we only kept 15 to 18 fish,” Potter says.
“I really wish they had lower limit or a tag system–it would be perfect. If they need a closed or restricted season to protect certain sizes of fish, I’m all for it. There’s nobody that needs two mako sharks per day. That’s ridiculous. In fact, this is the first shark charter where I didn’t release a fish so far this year. We’re already six months into 2013, and I’ve only kept one fish. It just happened to be the biggest ever.”
UPDATE as of 6/13/13: Gossip about how the fish was caught and eventually subdued is adding to the controversy. One rumor circulating is that multiple people on the vessel aided Johnston by handling the rod, reel or line during the fight. The IGFA has a long list of rules detailing what anglers can and can’t do. Allowing any other anglers to touch gear while the fight is in progress is a big disqualifier.
“One of the things that people keep assuming is someone else touched Jason’s rod or line while he was fighting the shark, probably because two-and-a-half hours is a long time to fight something that big,” Potter says. “But he did it all on his own. Nobody touched any of his gear, and he was really mindful about things like not resting the rod on the boat. The good news is if we’re ever challenged, we filmed the whole thing, and can back up everything with video evidence.”
In addition, Potter states all his rods, reels, gaffs, etc. are IGFA compliant, and the only issue he’s worried about regarding the submission of the catch to IGFA is that a sample of the line they used will test differently than what the packaging advertised.
The second source of debate on the web has focused on the wound between the shark’s head and dorsal fin clearly visible in photographs. Many have assumed the large gash came from a bangstick, or even bowfishing gear–both disqualifiers under IGFA rules. However, Potter says the assumptions are simply untrue, and the gash is from a knife.
The crew used a flying gaff to control the shark while they tied it to the boat (alive). When the tow-load made it tough for Potter to steer, he decided to try to put the fish in the boat.
Maneuvering alongside the fish, Matt noticed it was still alive, so he took a knife and tried to cut the spinal cord to paralyze it–something he says he’s done many times on smaller fish. He said the knife was new and sharp and the rocking ocean made it tough to keep a steady hand. The wound opened to several inches wide, but was not the result of a bangstick. Whether or not the IGFA will disqualify the catch because of this action remains to be seen.
Lastly, guesses as to why the mako was so large have varied, but earlier this week, scientists were able to put many to rest. Chris Lowe, a professor of biological sciences at Cal State Long Beach performed a necropsy and declared the shark was not pregnant–a popular theory for the fish’s bulging girth. It had pupped recently, he just couldn’t tell how long ago. Moreover, the stomach did contain a large amount of sea water and a sea mammal–possibly a seal or sea lion, which certainly contributed to its overall weight. UPDATE END
To both Johnston and Potter’s credit, no part of the mako will go unused. Potter said his phone has been ringing off the hook with requests from different labs and universities looking for study samples. After a plaster cast is made of the fish, they’ll release the meat and organs, even the skins, to various outlets. Until then, Williams will continue to keep it frozen at the New Fishall Bait Co.
“Typically we donate leftover shark meat to the hungry, and that was our intention here, but once word got out, we got all these emails and phone calls and realized it’s extremely valuable for science, probably because it’s the biggest example of its species,” Potter says. “It’s important for us to work with the people studying makos so we can find other ways to protect them.”
For Johnston, the experience has left him extremely proud of his accomplishment, albeit somewhat conflicted over whether or not he wants to now go through the stress of the IGFA record application process if it means being lambasted by the masses all over again.
“There are no ifs, ands, or buts; it’s the largest mako ever caught. But, to get the IGFA to certify it as a record–that takes a little more bull than I’m probably up for,” Johnston says. “From what little research we’ve done, we think this is one of a small number of fish ever caught with rod-and-reel that weighed over 1,300 pounds. ****We’re 100 percent certain it’s the largest mako ever caught, and that might be enough for me.”
Photos courtesy of Kent Williams.