Catching 'Big Boy'

The Overlook

By Tom Clavin

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            Thirty-five years ago this month, Frank Mundus, then 60 years old, was busy in Washington D.C. giving a series of interviews about a shark he and Donnie Braddick had just caught off Montauk. One of those interviews was with The Washington Post, conducted by Ewen MacAskill at the Sheraton Grand, where the fisherman was staying on a TV show’s dime.

          The reporter later wrote about Mundus, “He is a shark-hunter, believed by many -- particularly Mundus -- to be the inspiration for Quint, the shark-obsessed waterman played by Robert Shaw in the movie ‘Jaws.’ Mundus says Peter Benchley, the author of the book, has not acknowledged his inspiration. Like Quint, Mundus does not court popularity (‘Nine out of 10 people, especially in the business, hate my guts,’ he says), but he has been basking in publicity since helping to catch a great white shark off Montauk, Long Island, earlier this month.

“That shark was 17 feet, 3 inches long and weighed 3,427 pounds, and was thought to be the biggest ever taken on a rod and reel. Mundus kept the shark's head in a walk-in freezer at his home in Montauk. He had offered to bring it onto a talk show last week, but the host declined, Mundus says. "He didn't fancy all that blood."

Mundus, who first came to Montauk in 1951, had been in the record books before. He harpooned a 4,500-pound great white shark in 1964, the largest ever caught off the East Coast. Twenty-two years later, he was again making headlines (and overshadowing the less-quotable Braddick). How “Big Boy,” as it came to be called, was caught in the summer of ’86 is a rather convoluted tale, and I have MacAskill’s reporting to thank for making sense of it – which, of course, is mostly from Mundus’s point of view.

One afternoon, he was making his way back to port after taking a charter party fishing. Braddick, also a Montauk charter captain, met them at sea and told Mundus about a dead whale floating nearby. There, about 30 miles south of Montauk, they found not one but more than half a dozen of the elusive great white sharks. This creature predates man on this planet by about 400 million years and has not significantly changed in that time. It had become one of the most feared creatures in the world resulting from the release of the film Jaws 11 years earlier.

Mundus arrived at the whale carcass about 4 p.m. Two other boats were present. Two attempts were made to harpoon a shark but both failed. Then the sharks disappeared. The other two boats left, taking Mundus's party with them. Mundus stayed but not before telling Braddick, "Come back if you can and we'll all play games together." Apparently unable to resist such a siren call, Braddick returned at midnight.

The boats drifted along with the whale in the darkness. "At 2 in the morning, the first white showed up and started chewing on the carcass," Mundus told MacAskill, but "it is just about short of suicide playing with one of those things at night.” In darkness, the fishermen risk getting entangled in the gear and dragged overboard.

At daylight, they hooked a shark but "he rolled up, got the leader in his mouth and bit the one-eighth stainless steel cable in half." Mundus got another six sharks to take the bait but all shook or bit free. In the middle of the afternoon, Mundus baited another. Braddick, in the angler's chair, hooked him and Mundus took the wheel.

Mundus recalled: "We were chasing him around with the boat, waiting for the right time to take him, because you have to play cat-and-mouse with them fish, any fish over 1,000 pounds. You have to know when to chase him, when not to chase him. Then you have to know when to take him. Because if you take him too soon, he'll just beat you up. And if you wait too long and he figures out what is going on, he's going down to the bottom," where it would be impossible to lift him to the boat.

"After one and a half hours, I start to get nervous. I figure time is ticking away. So after an hour and 50 minutes he made a mistake and came up to the surface. I bumped up alongside him on the boat."

One of the crew "put the first flying gaff in between the head and the dorsal, which is not the best place to gaff him but he didn't have much choice in the matter." A second flying gaff went in toward his tail, a cable round his head and a rope round his tail. "Everything worked," Mundus says. They had their fish.

That catch 35 years ago topped the existing record of 2,664 pounds caught off Australia in 1959. Mundus and Braddick had to send the tackle to the International Game Fish Association to certify that they had qualified for the record.

How dangerous, MacAskill wondered, was the expedition? "It's always dangerous,” Mundus told him. “We had a 700-pound mako on our first trip this spring, in June, and the mate got a broken finger, and we all got scratched and bruised and banged up. When you get a fish like that alongside the boat, it's like grabbing a pussycat by the tail and picking him up."

Some readers may recall that Mundus’s boat was called the Cricket II and it was 42 feet long. "Cricket" was Mundus's nickname at school in Point Pleasant, N.J., where his schoolmates thought he looked like Jiminy Cricket from Walt Disney's Pinocchio. After leaving school, he crewed on various boats until he had enough cash to buy his own boat. He worked out of Brielle, N.J., until moving to Montauk in 1951.

Hope readers won’t mind a plug: More details about Frank Mundus’s first summer in Montauk can be found in my book Dark Noon. I mention this now because September 1, 2021 is the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the fishing boat Pelican off Montauk. On the actual anniversary – a Wednesday – I’ll be giving a talk about the tragic event at the Montauk Lighthouse. It is free and copies of Dark Noon will be available. Check montauklighthouse.com for updated information. Hope to see you there.

Before finishing, I want to include the clever ending to MacAskill’s Washington Post article from August 1986: “For the television program, [Mundus] brought a shark's jaw, complete with teeth. The airline was not too sure what to do with it but eventually agreed to put it in a vacant seat next to him, he said. He chuckled at the thought of how the hotel staff might react if they walked in and found the jaws facing them.

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the hotel room.”

Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including this latest collaboration with Bob Drury, Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier, published by St. Martin’s Press. Please go to your local bookstore or to Bookshop.org, Amazon.com, or BN.com to purchase a copy.