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The Great Shark of the Noisy Sea

Bernard Venables shark fishingBernard Venables was many things: the creator of Mr. Crabtree, the most popular strip cartoon that started so many angling careers; the creator and editor of Creel Magazine, an astonishing venture that had the misfortune to be published a decade before its time; and the senior figure in British angling for many years; but few people know that he also caught a giant shark, a leviathan that tipped the scales at no less than 1500 pounds.

The idea of Bernard, a gentle man, fighting a fish nearly ten times his own weight in wild seas off Madeira, seems a little far fetched, but nonetheless, that is exactly what happened. He caught his monster in 1959, having been inspired by the Scarborough “tunny” fishery – then in its death throes – and the infant shark fishery off Cornwall. Bernard was in his last few years at the Angling Times, which gave him a bird’s eye view of fishing around the globe and he knew all about the great Pacific shark fisheries, but his dream was to find something as good much closer to home, something that might replace Britain’s dying Bluefin tuna fishery. After pouring over the maps, the place Bernard hit upon was Madeira, which seemed to offer the potentially ideal combination of sub-tropical latitude, with plankton rich waters feeding shoals of bait fish that might just attract the big predators he was after. In the fifties, you couldn’t just board a jet and fly to the far side of the globe in a day, particularly from Britain, where rationing had only just ended and money was tight, but Madeira beckoned, because above all, it was more accessible than anywhere else that might harbor a record shark. Bernard booked a passage with the Bergen Steamship Company and travelled hopefully, armed, as he put it, “with a lot of theory and no practical knowledge of the fishing circumstances I should find.”

He arrived to find that the island and the waters around it were everything he expected, but there was one slight problem – everybody he questioned in Funchal told him there weren’t any big sharks. At this point, most people would have cut their losses and gone after something else, but Bernard hadn’t got where he was without being single-minded almost to the point of pig-headedness and he reasoned that if the place was right, then surely there must be sharks, even if none of the local experts believed they were out there. The problem was that he only had ten days to find one.

Fortunately, there was one angler on the island who believed there might be a chance – Dr. Ribeiro – and he gave enough pointers that Bernard began his search in the right place, fishing the most unromantic of all marks amongst the offal dumped by Madeira’s whaling factory. But decomposing raw meat wasn’t the whole answer, because although there were plenty of small sharks feeding on the effluent, there was no sign of anything bigger. Bernard wasted several days fishing in the surface layers, before he realised that the only hope of getting a record shark was to fish deep, very deep, almost at the limit of the 600 yard line he had packed onto his eight inch Hardy Fortuna reel. The trouble was that offshore, the currents were so fast, particularly over the ocean drop-off the locals knew as ‘the noisy sea’, that using conventional shark weights from the launch resulted in the bait streaming out behind the boat no more than a few feet deep – and Bernard wanted his bait at least 40 fathoms down, bouncing along the bottom.

A rethink was needed, but time was running out very fast indeed. On the last day, Bernard took a gamble, gave up fishing from the launch and dropped his bait from a dinghy, using a lump of basalt to drag the line down into the abyss and a cork to hold the leader clear of the bottom, and this time, this time, he had a bite, only to be broken after three short minutes by a shark that had bitten through his 560 pound trace. There were only a few hours left, so it was a serious setback, but nothing daunted, Bernard baited up with a monstrous ball of squid and sardines again and waited during the long plunge his bait made into the deep; and this time he got lucky and the trace held.

Bernard was not your average shark fisherman: he was small enough to make me look like a giant; and I doubt that he ever worked out, the idea of Bernard pumping iron being vaguely ridiculous, but he was possessed of the most incredible will and this was what ultimately saw him through a fight which would have finished off a less determined man. The first run pulled the rod down so hard on his leg that he couldn’t raise the rod tip and had to fight not only the power of the fish, but excruciating pain – and it was then that his boatman, realizing that the fish was near the end of the line, seized it with both hands, saving a break, but denying Bernard the record he wanted so badly. Other writers would have cursed the man, but Bernard’s attitude was that a lost record was better than a certain smash and decades later, he still remembered the event as the most exciting thing that had ever happened to him.

It took two hours to bring the fish to the gaff, two hours that left Bernard racked with pain and which tested him to the absolute limit, but he hung on like grim death, braking each rush as best he could and pumping the fish back to the surface whenever the slightest chance presented itself. The pressure on the reel was so great that the drum was compressed into a stone-like consistency and it is a testament to Hardy’s manufacturing skills that the spool didn’t bulge and jam the reel, but at long last, a knot showed on the surface and Bernard knew that he had his prize. When the giant shark rolled on its side, they saw that only a few strands of wire still held; the rest had parted one by one against the monster’s serried ranks of teeth.

The best account of the fight was published by Batsford in Morris Wiggin’s spell-binding anthology, The Angler’s Bedside Book, published in 1965 and Bernard almost certainly wrote up the story in the Angling Times, although that is purely speculation, based on the fact that he was an employee of the magazine at the time. When Bernard returned in triumph with his catch, it was the biggest shark landed on rod and line in Madeira and at double the weight of the biggest tuna caught off Scarborough, it was definitely a fish to be reckoned with. The largest shark ever caught on a rod and line was only as quarter as big again, so even if Bernard could never claim a record, because of the hand lining, he came away with an unforgettable story. But there was more to the tale than a big pull and a long fight – Bernard had relatively little experience of shark fishing and yet he went and caught a fish of a size that the local experts believed did not exist. Today we know much more about big game fishing and while the capture of 1500 pounders isn’t exactly routine, hooking up to one is far more of a science than it was that day so long ago in 1959, in a small boat alone in the noisy sea, far away from home. Bernard was a pioneer in so many different ways and we tend to forget that.