CORPUS CHRISTI — It's a hardy angler who sleeps on the beach and wrestles

with sharks.

In a way, these are the Coastal Bend's mountain men, who have earned the label

by conquering or at least withstanding the harsh and remote Padre Island National

Seashore, the longest undeveloped stretch of sand in the country.

And this past weekend that 64 miles of drivable shoreline welcomed a unusually

unified group within this independent lot spanning several generations and

representing a worthwhile fishing contest called Sharkathon. It's not what you

might expect.

To call this just another fishing tournament would not only be inaccurate but also

an injustice.

During its brief history, this conservation event has striven to improve the image of

an often misunderstood segment of angling culture. And it's working. Organizers

and Sharkathon faithful have developed and enjoyed a growing and loyal following

along with an honorable reputation. They had much to overcome. Not to take

anything away from these guys, but I should mention that, at least in part,

Sharkathon enjoys its glowing endorsement because some folks measure the

event against another surf-fishing contest that has struggled with a contrasting


But still, Sharkathon carries a refreshing message: play hard; kill only what you

eat; pack out at least as much as you bring in; and leave a legacy that honors the

resource. This message might surprise many folks unfamiliar with the group,

which has been characterized mostly for the unpolished image of some of its

members. But by careful and sincere design, this contest does not kill sharks and

oversized reds, or at least they go to great lengths to release them unharmed. As

an institution, Sharkathon promotes this same ethic for any fish not intended for


Dissenters are not welcomed.

This concept was born on the beach, as you might expect. One evening about five

years ago several future Sharkathon founders sat around their Padre Island

campsite after a day of surf fishing. This was about the time of day I would have

been headed north toward home. But not these guys.

Talk of dead sharks, sustainable fisheries and maintaining their way of life evolved

into a planning session for what would become a non-profit conversation

movement that has gone from about 50 contestants in 2004 to nearly 400 this past


It was the fourth annual Sharkathon and my first. Actually I didn't fish it.

A smiling Sharon Mason -- one of the most outgoing and friendly ambassadors at

the park -- greeted me at the PINS gate house. She asked if I was there for

Sharkathon and then launched into a lengthy gush of praise about the event and

its organizers.

My plan was to stop by Sharkathon headquarters at dawn near the four-wheel drive

sign and then head south to visit with some of the 370 contestants. Hopefully

there would be fish. I had no delusions about this task because of the

tournament's format.

While tournament rules do not forbid killing a fish, they expressly prohibit entering

a fish that has not been successfully released alive and swimming. And there are

no live wells. If you'd like to keep a few fillets, this is OK.

But the rules clearly state Sharkathon is a catch, photograph and release contest.

They encourage the use of circle hooks to boost chances of survival and anyone

caught or reported wasting game would be disqualified.

Each contestant is provided an official ruler and a log sheet to record the size and

species of their catches for research purposes. Contestants are responsible for

their own digital cameras. And just to say thanks, each year tournament

organizers give the park about $1,000 toward an enforcement program that

encourages folks to report poaching and other seashore violations.

The rules are carefully crafted to prohibit the use of motorboats or personal

watercraft either as a fishing vessel or as a means of carrying baits. Surfboards,

paddle-craft, swimming or casting would all be acceptable means of transporting

baits into the gulf.

All fish must be caught from the beach. But they don't say anything about hooking

fish while standing 12 feet above the sand on a platform attached to a vehicle that

resembles the offspring of a monster truck and some creation from the Mad Max

movie series.

Water clarity was good with light weed along the north end of the island and the

wind was calm. They enjoyed good fishing conditions overall and easy driving

conditions above and below the high banks where sand got deep in sections.

Baitfish were about as abundant as anyone would want, but few game fish

seemed willing to play. I spoke with a handful of anglers who had caught a few

overnight, including a couple redfish and a shark.

Everyone I spoke with was puzzled but also was hopeful that nightfall would

change their luck. And then I hooked up with Billy Sandifer, who said before hello

that fishes in the surf were feeding on menhaden and that nearly everyone on the

beach was using mullet for bait. He showed me a large silver spoon with a

menacing eye glued to it and a small pink tail attached.

But Sandifer and his two lure anglers weren't catching much either. I followed him

anyway and generally stopped wherever they stopped. We caught a mess of

ladyfish under birds and a few whiting among dense schools of baitfish. I broke

out a fly rod and a plastic spoon to make it more interesting. Ladyfish love that

little Boone Spoone fly.

We bounced our way all the way to the Mansfield Jetty, where I caught six small

trout on a Bass Assassin Slurp off the rocks. By the way, the rocks were off limits

for Sharkathon anglers. The contest boundary ended on the beach just north of

the jetty.

Along the way I continued visiting with Sharkathon contestants. Most greeted me

with a nod, a smile or a wave and a little conversation, the way it should be on the

beach. Below Big Shell, Ralph Wade cradling his new puppy flagged me down.

The 83-year-old angler won the Sharkathon trout division in 2006 and was

determined to repeat. By late Saturday, though, all he'd caught was a redfish that

he thought might be a contender. He was planning to spend a second night and

fish until the end. I think weigh-in was scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday.

Again I checked in at Sharkathon headquarters and got pretty much the same

report that had taken me all day to compile. But the day had produced more than

a sketchy fishing report and a floorboard full of Padre Island sand. It had

reinforced my perception that conservation comes in many forms and can be

found in some unlikely places.

Outdoors writer David Sikes' columns run each Thursday and Sunday. Contact

him at 886-3616 or