Relatively few experiences in the outdoors quite measure up to heart-pounding, tightline combat with an angry adult tarpon. One scenario that could surpass that fervor? Getting a big tarpon next to the boat with a huge hammerhead in hot pursuit.
“We were in the Tobacco Caye Channel and hooked the fish. It was probably 80 pounds...it was huge,” angler Heather Hodson told MeatEater. “I'm trying to pull it up and I can't get it up, you know? It was almost to my leader and all of a sudden I looked to my right and there's this freaking giant hammerhead that comes up from the depths like right there.”
Heather and her father Bob Hodson were staying at the Blue Horizon Lodge in Southern Belize for a week, fishing with legendary guide Lincoln Westby who is widely considered the patriarch of Belizean permit fishing. Apprentice guide Kevon Cabral is also in the video. When the shark showed up next to his 23-foot panga, Westby estimated the hammer at 16 feet long.
“It was almost the length of the boat," Hodson said. "And he's getting his polling stick ready so he can hit it if he needs to.”
They rapidly debated their choices. They couldn’t exactly lip-grab the tarpon boatside as normal and risk having an arm grabbed by the shark. Plus, if they exhausted the 'poon enough to get it in the boat, it would likely make for easy prey once released. They wanted to cut the leader, but the tarpon was still hot and in no mood for being controlled.
“All of a sudden, that tarpon must've seen the shark," Hodson remembered. "My drag was so tight I couldn't even physically pull it out of the reel, but [the fish] ran, zoomed, jumped, and came off.”
"Somehow, my dad miraculously got all of this on film."
The tarpon was unhooked but still in danger.
“I'm like, OK, that's all right. The universe said this wasn't my fish,” Hodson said. “If I would have caught this fish, who knows what would have happened. Then maybe five seconds later...we see the shark circling around the tarpon, and it appears that [the tarpon] got away. And I'm just going to say that it got away. It swam past and came back around the boat, and then the shark ended up coming back under the boat again too. And this was literally 10 feet from the bow.”
The angling party believed (and hoped) the tarpon escaped unscathed. But they also knew that sometimes nature must take its course. Either way, everyone was in awe of the sight. Westby is 80 years old and has guided that area for more than 40 years but said he’d never seen a hammerhead that big.
“Lincoln was definitely determined that yes, that shark could have done something harmful to us and others,” Hodson said.
This situation may call some angling literature enthusiasts back to John N. Cole’s famous story of a similar scenario, “The Marquesas,” collected in his book “Fishing Came First,” as well as “The Greatest Fishing Stories Ever Told,” alongside Zane Grey, Tom McGuane, Robert Ruark, Ernest Hemingway, and more icons of the piscatorial pen.
“A dark dorsal, curved and blunt, cut the water as I watched and understood I was seeing a shark, not a tarpon. I was stunned by its speed. Peering from pulpits off Montauk, I have watched many sharks move out of harm’s way. There was always a certain languor to their departure, as if they understood the immensity of the depths at their disposal," Cole wrote.
“This hammerhead was a projectile. A roostertail of white water flared from its dorsal as emphatically as it would from a high-speed outboard. The massive shadow shape beneath raced across the bleached flats like a shaft of dark light. I could not absorb the concept; the notion that a submerged creature that large could move so quickly stunned me. There could, I knew, be no defense, no evasion of such startling speed. A new standard of wild behavior had been set. I watched and knew I would judge the flight of every other fish by the mark that shark etched in my memory.”
Video via Bob and Heather Hodson