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The Fisherman’s Best Friend

On land, a dog is man’s undisputed best friend. On the water, man’s best friend is the dolphin – the magnificent sea mammal that is one of the smartest animals on the planet. Despite their cute appearance and playful attitude, dolphins can be very aggressive and, if provoked, quite vicious.

My first lasting memory of dolphins dates back to my first year on South Hutchinson Island. I was fishing for ribbonfish on the Indian River. Ribbonfish are really unusual looking and fun to catch. They’re long and skinny. They can grow to about four-feet long, but they’re only three or four inches wide, paper thin, and they sparkle and shine like a piece of chrome. They’ve also got incredibly sharp teeth like a barracuda, so you have to be very careful with them. I was fishing from the shore with a buddy when all of a sudden the water started boiling about twenty yards away. We jumped back not knowing what was going on, and then we spotted a team of dolphins ganging up on a shark. The shark was about four-feet long, either a black tip or a sand shark, and these dolphins were beating the snot out of it. Once they had finished killing the shark, the dolphins decided to have some fun. So for the next fifteen to twenty minutes the dolphins did a pretty good impression of the Harlem Globetrotters’ “Sweet Georgia Brown” routine and passed that shark back and forth. They would toss it a couple of feet in the air, catch it and then flip it along to the next dolphin. It was an amazing thing to watch, and it was my first lesson in the no-love-lost relationship between dolphins and sharks.

It surprises most people to learn that cute little Flipper’s relatives are at the top of the marine food chain with few natural enemies. They are also very social creatures who tend to live in pods of a dozen or more animals. While scientists don’t understand exactly how dolphins communicate, there is no question that they have a relatively complex communications system consisting of a wide variety of clicking and whistling sounds. They are also empathetic beings and have been seen bringing injured members of their pod to the water’s surface to breathe. And there have been many stories – both legendary and documented – of dolphins helping swimmers and fishermen. I probably would have doubted those stories had I not experienced the generous assistance of dolphins for myself.

Fact of the matter is, when I was working as a commercial drift-net fisherman, I counted one particular group of dolphins among my very best and most important friends. These guys (and probably gals since it’s hard to tell the genders apart) were gigantic and I got to know them by sight. I knew them by their distinctive speckles and markings; and while I like to believe they knew me by sight as well, I think it’s more likely they recognized the sound of our motors. Every boat engine has a different tone and dolphins have acute hearing that is many times more sensitive than humans’. And so when we were drift-net fishing for kingfish, the same group of dolphins would accompany us and swim up and down the cork line protecting our nets. I can’t overstate how important this was – as well as the fact that the dolphins knew exactly what they were doing. Keep in mind that we would be drifting a net that was two miles long and 40-feet deep. This huge net is catching tons of kingfish. Well, kingfish look like pieces of chrome when they’re hanging in the net, and they flash like a beacon to any shark within miles. When the sharks arrived they would tear the net to shreds, poking holes you could drive a semi through. But that wouldn’t happen when the dolphins were around. I don't think dolphins are afraid of anything, but they’re certainly not afraid of sharks. It’s actually the opposite. Sharks are afraid of dolphins. Over time dolphins have learned how to ram a shark in the gills and knock him breathless and senseless. Remember that dolphins weigh almost 1000 pounds and can swim in bursts of speed up to 25 miles per hour. Put it all together and it’s a powerful weapon that teaches sharks to keep their distance.

The dolphins helped us survive, and we rewarded them for their help. As we pulled up the net, we’d usually catch a bunch of bonitos that weren’t worth much at the fish markets. So we’d take some of these bonitos, which might weigh 15 to 20 pounds each, and hang them over the side and watch a dolphin swim up and take it right out of our hands. We’d feed the dolphins like that just about every morning. We did it out of respect and appreciation for their help. Whenever you’re out fishing on the open seas, you always feel that your fellow crew members are like family. You depend on each other to succeed. The dolphins were part of our extended family. And they knew they were helping us and they appreciated the way we helped them. There is no mistaking the way a dolphin rolls up on his side and looks at you. He’s not looking at anything but your eyes, and he knows what’s going on. It’s like he’s thinking, “Hey, we’re good friends here. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”

And that’s really how I view my relationship with every animal. All of God’s creatures are here for a reason. We each bring something different to the table and it’s pretty simple for all of us to live in harmony.

And just to make it clear to the anti-hunting PETA types, there is no contradiction in my belief that we need to live in harmony with the animals we hunt and fish. Animals are an important food source for the human race. That’s been true since the dawn of creation and it will be true till the end of time. Hunting and fishing are key parts of the natural balance and the cycle of life. Death is a part of life. Hunters and fishermen like myself believe that animals have a right to live comfortable lives in their natural habitat and, when it comes time to be harvested, to die with dignity and respect. That’s how you define harmony.

Novelist & nonfiction author

Phil Fragasso


A GUIDING LIFE

Part Ernest Hemingway, part Grizzly Adams, and part down-home philosopher, Mark Shepard is 100% American. A Guiding Life tells his story of near-death experiences, hunting adventures, tournament fishing competitions, family bonds, and an overarching love for the outdoors. Mark's career includes stints as a commercial fisherman (beginning at age 14), farmer, steelworker, bartender, bodyguard, professional bass fisherman, lure designer, and master fishing guide. And through it all, his work ethic, sense of humor, love of people, and respect for all of God's creatures shines like a beacon on the America our founding fathers envisioned. (Written With Mark Shepard)