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30 YEARS OF THE MONSTER SHARK TOURNAMENT

A look at the history, evolution and future of this monster of a shark tournament as it enters 30 years of competition.
By DJ Stetson with Bill Brown
Tags: offshore

With winter now past, overzealousness and optimism proliferate among anglers, captains, and their crews. Few welcome the demise of winter more than the angling addicts of the North Atlantic after frigid months of boating expos and fishing shows have only succeeded in exacerbating the insatiable craving to get back on the water. We count down the days until finally getting to cast the dock lines aside and head to sea in search of the season’s first catch. While spring fishing definitely quenches the primal desire to return to our oceanic obsessions, it is far from the highlight of the yearly fishing calendar.

The pinnacle of the sport fishing season, as many serious anglers will tell you, is tournament time. Fishermen never have a shortage of angling events to choose from once summer finally arrives. Whether it’s just the local striper or bluefish derby, or an offshore event for bigger gamefish, Atlantic tournament fishing begins, and ends, in New England. But of all the options available, one event stands apart from the rest.

For three decades now Atlantic anglers have reserved the third weekend every July for a tournament that has continued to revolutionize the standards of sport fishing events, a proverbial blue water benchmark. 2016 will commemorate the 30-year anniversary of the Monster Shark Tournament (MST.) Over the years, the passion for, and pursuit of, this particular pelagic pastime has evolved into a perennial phenomenon of prodigious proportions.

As any canyon-crazed charter captain or seasoned and savvy skipper worth his salt will tell you, the MST has been the premiere sport fishing attraction in the region for many years. Anglers from across America gather every summer to challenge one another in this annual competition presented by the Boston Big Game Fishing Club. This always eagerly anticipated, world-class event was aired by ESPN from 2004-2006, and then by Spike TV the following year. During it’s peak, the tournament was the largest offshore fishing contest in the country attended by more than 250 vessels steaming from Florida to Maine just to participate in what many captains have considered the Super Bowl of Sport Fishing. The eclectic event draws a hearty breed yearning for grand seafaring adventures; spirited individuals primed to test their luck and prowess against the will of the North Atlantic.

THE MST IS BORN
Although the illustrious event has withstood the trials and tribulations of time, the intriguing history behind the MST often gets overlooked. The MST had a rather inauspicious beginning, pioneering in the prime of the 1980’s. Clint Allen, along with some friends that included local legends and luminaries such as Bobby Orr, John Havlicek, Curt Gowdy, Rip Cunningham, Spider Andresen, Ed Murray, and many others, formed the Boston Big Game Fishing Club (BBGFC.) The club soon had over 600 members and promoted twelve fishing tournaments throughout the country.

Rick Allen, Clint’s brother, not only founded the MST in 1987, but he also took over the reins as president of the BBGFC in 1988 as well. Rick however credits former Oak Bluffs harbormaster, Capt Arthur Ben David for being instrumental in bringing the fledgling event to Oak Bluffs. According to Rick, “Arthur was always there to offer his time and energy during the initial stages of the tournament; he was truly the driving force that brought the tournament to Oak Bluffs.” The inaugural event in 1987 was a fairly intimate affair with a total of only 24 boats taking part. Over the first decade the tournament enjoyed modest success while quickly doubling in size to a 50 boat competition; the event still had yet to procure the prestige of a premier pelagic powerhouse. Prominence however was on the horizon for the MST.

From it’s inception in ’87, until 1992, Rick Allen ran both the MST and the BBGFC before Bob Jackson picked up the torch and led the way from 1992-1997. It was at this point, when a 37-year-old veteran tournament captain and offshore aficionado named Steven James took the helm of BBGFC. As for MST, Steve James partnered with Nick and Karen Emord to host the event in 1998 and 1999, and then collaborated with Steve Moore from 2000-2003. Attendance numbers seemingly plateaued in the mid 1990’s. However after less than five years under new management, Steve James would have over 100 boats competing in the event. Steve James, already president of the BBGFC, would become the sole proprietor of MST and assume all responsibilities regarding the tournament prior to the 2004 installment.

THE DRIVING FORCE
An avid outdoorsman from an early age, James was a New York native originally hailing from the Adirondack region and the small town of Peru. A graduate of SUNY Oswego, James eventually headed east to a seaside town called Marshfield and settled in the quaint waterfront community known as Green Harbor. Green Harbor remains a glorified fishing village at heart, and Steve soon felt right at home. Quickly becoming a fixture at the marinas in Scituate and Green Harbor, James garnered the respect of other captains almost immediately for his hardworking nature and thalassic tenacity. Whether Steve had hearkened to the siren’s song, or whether he had been hooked since his first offshore charter experience in the 1970’s was a mystery, but one thing was abundantly clear: Steve James had found his calling in life.

Years later, already a charter captain and tournament director, James would dedicate much of his time to take on a more active approach in establishing and maintaining the sustainability of fisheries on both a local and national level. The boss of BBGFC compiled an extensive list of esteemed credentials that would grow to include becoming president of the Stellwagen Bank Charter Boat Association and serving on the board of directors for the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna Association. Steve James was also a member of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Advisory Panel and a member of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna. James was also active on a local level, assisting as a member of the Marshfield Waterways Committee.

Having forged his way to the summit of Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America, with his brother Michael years earlier, the ever-intrepid Steve James was always a hyper-focused and meticulous individual. Now toiling tireless on the tournament or one of his various fishery management projects, Steve’s diligence and industriousness were about to deliver some substantial dividends.

MST GOES NATIONAL
With ESPN providing the coverage for the first time, the 2004 MST drew a festive fleet of over 150 vessels. Finally the lone impetus of the event, Steve James succeeded in establishing the MST as the annual apex predator among Atlantic sport fishermen. The boon of cable coverage, and the modern marvel known as the internet, now exposed the tournament to a much wider audience than ever before as millions of viewers got their first up-close look at the event. The hardcore fishing nature of the MST and the collective comradery of it’s captains and crews appealed to many ESPN viewers who watched as the eventual 2004 MST champion F/V Cookie Too weighed-in a state-record, 548-pound thresher shark, besting the record of 506 pounds set by fishing guru Capt Bill Brown at the MST the previous year. All these fishy factors indicated a potential perfect storm scenario could be building for future of the MST.

The predictions were accurate indeed, the renowned competition continued its rampant expansion and when the MST made landfall in July of 2005, the event not only consumed Oak Bluffs, it engulfed the entire island with over 225 boats. Martha’s Vineyard after all was the perfect venue for the tournament. Amid the surf and sand of the picturesque island beaches lay the backdrop where the original summer blockbuster Jaws was filmed. As the tournament grew steadily during the early 2000’s, so too did the volume of spectators and visitors to Oak Bluffs. Thousands of revelers and shark enthusiasts made the annual pilgrimage to the island to partake in the frenzy of festivities that Oak Bluffs offered during the week of the tournament. The four-day event generated monstrous revenue as local businesses boomed for the duration of the competition, trumping even the 3rd and 4th of July as the single busiest weekend of the summer for restaurants, taverns and shops of Oak Bluffs. During its prime years, the MST spawned an estimated 3-4 million dollars annually for the island economy.

While the overwhelming majority of business owners embraced the event, not everyone shared the same sentiment. The tournament began to polarize island residents including the townspeople of Oak Bluffs. Some had always opposed the event, while others were becoming irritated by the prevailing sharknanigans and the alcohol-induced antics of the larger summer crowds. Overall the tournament was part of island culture and a widely accepted tradition for most of the 4,527 year-round residents of Oak Bluffs.

Meanwhile, the 2005 edition of the tournament concluded with perhaps the most dramatic ending in event history. The F/V Bobby’s Girl claimed the 2005 MST crown with a pair of porbeagle sharks and a two-day total of 756 pounds. Capt Bobby Bennoit and his crew were ultimately victorious; however things would have ended differently in 2005 had Capt. Damon Sacco and his crew on the F/V Castafari been able to make it to port with their titanic, over half-ton tiger shark before the competition deadline. Although the epic fish would not qualify for points, the crew of the Castafari still prevailed in landing the second largest shark ever caught in the MST with an official weigh of 1,191 pounds! The sheer immensity of the tropical behemoth bewildered both onlookers and researchers alike as tiger sharks of such size are somewhat of an anomaly in New England waters.

The zeitgeist of the venue and the fanatical fan base again fueled unprecedented numbers as the magnitude of the crescive contest unfurled to its crescendo in 2006. The 2006 MST remains the largest to date with a total of 268 boats participating. Over 250 boats once again encompassed the Vineyard the following year in 2007, while the 2008 MST marked the fourth consecutive year the event eclipsed 200 entries.

Most of the fishing faithful considered 2003-2008 the golden years of the MST. The interest in the event spiked and annual attendance surged. As the competition escalated, the prospect of an enormously lucrative payout enticed a myriad of newcomers and neophytes into contention for the Monster Shark crown. Some veteran captains feared that the success of the event would eventually result in a “jump the shark” situation; meanwhile the more gentlemanly skippers of yesteryear were less-than-impressed with the influx of “chest-thumping googans” lured by major network broadcasting.

ROUGH WATERS AHEAD
The tournament could have easily strayed off course amid the building chaotic seas had it not been for the steadfast nature of Capt Steve James. Although not the founder of the event, James had become the face of the Monster Shark franchise. His innate intensity and painstaking attention to detail ensured that the integrity of the event would remain intact. Continually refining the contest, James removed the tiger shark and blue shark categories following the 2006 MST. Tiger sharks were removed due to their relative rarity this far north, where as blue sharks, while plentiful in New England waters, were not considered an edible species and thus banned from the tournament.

The inflation of involvement in the event also brought with it an elevated level of scrutiny on multiple levels. Selectmen in Oak Bluffs had become increasingly concerned about the dramatic rise in popularity of the MST. Some officials blamed the event for luring an unsavory army of anglers and revelers hell-bent on debauchery and overindulgence to the island. A few town officials became transfixed on taming the tournament as the sanguine spirit of shark week threatened the prevalent pretentiousness presiding over the upscale island utopia. Meanwhile the voters of Oak Bluffs cast their lines in favor of the MST during a 2007 town ballot (458-386.) Attempts to cull the contest continued regardless as town officials took matters into their own hands denying James the permits required to setup the massive tent on Sunset Lake where the event used to host its captains meeting and annual awards banquet. However, contrary to the claims of elected officials, the veteran class of world-class fishermen had waited all year to compete in this offshore classic and there was far too much loot on the line for a captain to let his crew drink them out of contention. As the deluge of decadence ensued in Oak Bluffs, the stakes and stature of winning the MST was far more appealing to these aquatic adventurers than the agony of a horrific hangover, while 40 miles out to sea, on an ever-pitching deck surrounded by chum buckets and hungry sharks.

The MST was also in the crosshairs of activist organizations like PETA and HSUS. The well-funded groups of professional protestors objected the event by land, sea and air, attempting to use the high-profile nature of the tournament to promote their own agendas. Unfortunately for the activists, for all their funding they still could not face off against the force behind the MST in a factual debate. Steve James was perhaps perceived as somewhat of an iconoclast by contrarians of the contest or by those unable to fathom his innovative vision of perpetually sustainable fisheries. James would entertain those wishing to engage or dispute him about his endeavors, countering back with his quick wit followed by an astounding onslaught of facts and statistics. Activists or other opponents willing to challenge James quickly understood they were clearly overmatched as Steve had debated this very topic thousands of times before. Witnessing the master of the MST interact with a group of protestors was akin to watching a predacious mako eviscerate a school of hapless bluefish.

RECORDS WOULD FALL
After the 2008 MST, the fishing fleet began to decline. As the economy crumbled, and without cable coverage, entry numbers began to drop off fairly precipitously. Still unparalleled among its contemporaries, the MST had developed a devoted following that returned to fish year after year regardless of the circumstances. Although attendance had decreased amid rising fuel costs, the fishing remained outstanding as Monster Shark anglers broke two state records in 2011. The F/V Bushwhacker landed a 630-pound thresher shark—the new standard for the species in Massachusetts—while the F/V The Program did the same for the porbeagle shark with a 495-pound specimen.

Fishermen of the event have an extensive history of rewriting the record books, but not only on a state level, as several IGFA world records have been shattered at the MST. The event established new IGFA all-tackle world records in 1996, and once again in 2001. During the 1996 MST, aboard the F/V Quality Time, a 32-foot Blackfin, Capt Steve James and his crew, including angler Peter Bergin, caught an impressive 454-pound blue shark. (The blue shark world record was since eclipsed by a 528-pounder caught off Montauk in 2001.)

Meanwhile at the 2001 MST, the 24-foot fishing vessel named Dazed and Confused would embark on what would become the most epic of fishing adventures. Capt Chris Peters, angler Luke Sweeney and the rest of the crew would engage in a frantic battle with a massive mako shark. For nearly four hours the battle raged as the mighty fish strained the strength and skill of the crew. Circling the boat, the shark dove and breached several times, angrily attempting to elude the anglers with the series of erratic maneuvers and its amazing agility. The crew estimated the shark was around 12-feet long, as the mako came to the boat an attempt was made to attach the fly gaff. The attempt did not succeed as the toothy leviathan trashed with such force the gaff itself was compromised and the bluewater battle resumed. The crew of the small craft persevered and finally subdued the incredible catch. The unprecedented monstrosity weighed-in at an unbelievable 1,221 pounds, and still stands as the IGFA all-tackle world record for the shortfin mako, as well as being the largest shark ever landed in the 29-year history of the tournament. Shortly after the conclusion of the 2001 MST, the triumphant Capt Chris Peters took the advice of the famed Chief Brody and got a bigger boat.


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