In March this year, Captain Chip Michalove caught a 2,500 lbs great white shark. On rod and reel. Rod. And. Reel! That was enough for every local news outlet to pay attention and land him in places like People, South Carolina Sportsman, Saltwater Sportsman, and now here.
The real story is less about Michalove reeling in a single monster shark and more about the road to this feat. And his contribution to science. We spent some time with Chip, getting to the bottom of just how he managed to not only catch one monster, but fulfill a childhood dream of catching great white after great white just a few miles from Hilton Head.
There are a few things you should know. First, Michalove has all of the proper documentation and permitting to be catching sharks. Including great white. Second, Al Stokes, the Waddell Mariculture Center Manager best described the value of these efforts to science when he said, “it’s like Chip is opening up a brand new book to the scientific community.” Third, Shark Week has taken notice, and scientists like South Carolina Department of Natural Resource’s Bryan Frazier and Greg Skomal, a preeminent shark researcher from Massachusetts. Finally, it’s pretty stinking cool. Don’t believe me, read on.
Chip’s fascination with sharks and fishing is well documented at this point. He was born in Kentucky and his family wasn’t into outdoors things, but young Chip loved it. “My drive to figure out the fishery. I was just obsessed.”
During just about every interview, Michalove has paid homage to his mentors and the fishermen who gave him the bug. Captain Fuzzy Davis is always named. “We vacationed here when I was 4. We caught a six-foot shark. I was scared. It was amazing. I was crying. [Captain Davis] started the bug.” That’s when it started – while other kids were making lemonade stands, Chip became the kid next to the lake handing out pamphlets: “Fishing Guide. Call me.”
His obsession grew when Michalove felt he was an island unto himself, saying that there must be big great whites in our area. Large great whites. Chip’s family relocated to the Lowcountry and he shared: “I saw turtles with bites out of them, and I knew. People would say they were tiger sharks, but their bites are more squared. These were more rounded. I knew. I knew there were big whites here.”
When he felt it was time, Michalove started a business captaining charter fishing trips, a business he still owns. How was he going to be unique? A Flyer. “Monster Shark Guaranteed,” it said. “I put it on a flyer: ‘Catch an 8 foot shark, or I will give your money back.’ I actually got an ulcer from it, but I never had to refund a single person. That monster shark guarantee got me going. I did it for 3 years. I wasn’t the best fisherman. I was just trying something different.”
All the while, Chip knew that he wanted something more. His obsession was to fulfill a childhood dream of catching a colossal shark. He likened his passion to a fighter named Connor McGregor. “There’s no talent here; this is hard work,” McGregor said in a documentary. “This is an obsession. Talent does not exist; we are all equals as human beings. You could be anyone if you put in the time. You will reach the top, and that’s that. I am not talented – I am obsessed.”
“It took me 12 years of fishing every style, every location, every water type to get the first [great white]. I just kept going and going and going. I had so many hours that I put in.”
Cracking the Code
“Last year was location and tactics. This year was tackle,” said Michalove. I cannot claim expert fisherman status, let alone what frankly feels like the stuff of legends. Some of the recipe included where they were. Tide. Time. Seasonality. Tackle to land one.
Of the process, the captain said, “How do you land a great white on rod and reel? A lot of trial and error. It’s not like there was anyone to call when I got started. Now, I feel I can go out any day in the winter and hook up.” Why does he feel that way? In 2015, Chip hooked 4 great white in 8 trips. All juveniles. In the 2016 season, he managed 5 in 6 trips, including the last one that was named “Wildcat.” A 2,500-pound monster.
Chip also did something unheard of: he hooked the same great white twice. He caught a 7 footer last March that he caught again in December this season. Michalove boasts that his focus on humane angling, keeping the boat moving, using live bait hooks (and never, he stressed, J hooks), and a few other tricks of his trade keep the stress on his quarry to a minimum.
Sharks like Oysters
Why might these great whites love our area? “There is something out there that is holding these fish. I think it’s the food source. They are like wealthy people: they summer in Cape Cod and winter in the South. I think they live somewhere between here and St Simons.”
Maybe it’s because they like our oysters. That makes sense to me.
Sharks love our area. The Port Royal Sound is unique. From what I can gather, the waters off our Lowcountry shores have the deepest natural channels on the East Coast. There are corals, ledges, and a robust and complete ecosystem – all parts of the food chain are represented. Chip explained that beyond all this, the Sound has structure. “You know how when you hear about all the life around shipwrecks? They say 95% of fish are in 10% of the water. Port Royal Sound is amazing. The Sound is like 100 sunken ships.”
Frazier commented, “We used to think that after the winter the white sharks spend up north. What we are seeing is that some are moving out to open water, going 100 and 200 miles offshore and not going north. We have a much better picture than 5-10 years ago.” To this Dr. Skomal added that records go back as early as the 1800’s of great white sharks being caught by fisherman. Migration patterns were assumed to be all north-south, but new behaviors have emerged, a subset of the great white population going as far as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge – with soe even crossing it.
“Every single great white we have come in contact with has been female” said Chip. Why, I asked? “The coolest thing about the great whites is we know nothing about them. We don’t know where they are breeding. We don’t know where they are dropping their pups. Just now we are starting to figure out their migration patterns. Never did we think a great white would swim through the middle of the Florida Keys in the summertime.”
Frazier told me that before these shark the only area where people were predictably catching great white in the Atlantic was off New York. “Analyzing genetic data allows us to see how white shark are related. Are the ones here connected to the ones in South Africa? We can do whole population studies and see effective population size and historical population size.” Beyond studying shark heredity and connectivity, DNR and scientists can examine behavioral patterns.
To this, Skomal adds a piece of the puzzle. “A lot of people find it hard to believe that we are just starting to scratch the surface with one of the most charismatic sharks on earth. Arguably one of the most charismatic of all animals. We are just starting to drill deeper. It’s through the efforts of folks we collaborate with. We are lagging behind. Our research has only really been being conducted the past six years.”
And the Story . . .
In early March Chip and a client-friend Troy Bowman went out for redfish and monster sharks. Chip explained that catching a true monster is a waiting game most people are only interested in once. After 5 or 6 hours biding their time landing other fish, Michalove turned to Bowman and told him if the tide switched, he believed they would get a great white. And then it switched.
A short while later. “Just like Jaws. Tick tick tick tick tick tick. After another 30 seconds, it took off. Great whites are like a torpedo.” Chip opined that he had caught tiger sharks weighing in at 1,800-1,900 lbs, but when he caught a glimpse he could not believe his eyes. “My god,” he said to Troy, “did you see that?” It’s not the length of the shark – though it was 14 feet – but the width, which is nothing short of unbelievable in a small vessel. Pointing to features on his boat, the captain identified that side by side the shark would have taken up 60% of the space.
Then, Wildcat jumps out of the water. And she starts heading right for the boat. Since no one has been catching great whites on rod and reel, there is no playbook. There are no specials on animal channels. There is no knowing what to expect, and Chip added, “This is by far the most intelligent animal I’ve ever hooked. There is a thought process after he is hooked.” Joking, or mostly joking, he recalled Jaws and said that in his mind’s eye he concluded, “I know how this ends. I know how this is going to end. Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh.”
So he reeled in slack, put no pressure on the fish, and it swam under his boat and took off like a train. Later in the fight, Michalove noted that Wildcat poked her head out of the water near the boat, surveying the scene. “Like a killer whale does on the Discovery Channel, in all seriousness. Then she just turns back and starts trucking again.” Apparently, the fish wasn’t convinced that Chip and Troy were formidable enough adversaries. The fight persisted until Chip called in a close friend – another skipper and photographer – to come help him finish the fight.
His first call was to someone who couldn’t make it out. “How big is it?” his friend said. “You’re not going to believe it. It’s huge,” countered Chip. And so it was. To his friend that came out, he prepared him, saying, “This is going to scare you how big this shark is. It’s not real long; it’s only 14 feet, but it’s how wide it is. It’s a submarine. It’s a clydesdale underwater.”
In pitch black, zero-visibility they finally brought her next to the vessel after declaring, “This is Old Man and the Sea right here. We’re leaving everything on the table.” After landing the fish, Chip’s reaction was, “I felt like I was dreaming. Here is something we have watched in movies, seen on the Discovery Channel, and here I have my hand on its nose.” (Editor’s Note: He put a hand on its nose. We do not recommend you try this at home.)
After collecting samples, they sent her on her way, and just layed down on the floor in exhaustion. In summary, Michalove added that he believes our area holds one of the biggest great white nest eggs in the Atlantic. “Osearch was in Jacksonville for 18 days. They’re using all types of strategies. For me to go out on a little fishing boat and catch [the sharks] is unbelievable. The last thing I want to do is exploit this. Whatever we find, we blow it up and destroy it. I believe if you really put the screws on a fish, they learn. I think they associate trauma with an area.”
To those that would call to question Chip’s motivation and who may be frustrated he won’t take them to catch a great white, I can only share one final anecdote. When discussing the preservation of the ecosystem where the great white sharks are, Mr. Michalove said he would support the Department of Natural Resources if they ever decided to make it a sanctuary. “I’m ok with not being able to fish there ever again if it means the sharks are safe,” he said. “These sharks pay my bills. These sharks pay my mortgage. I want to make sure every shark swims away happy.”
Written by Joe Nehila.
Dying to know more? Read more of the exclusive interviews with Dr. Greg Skomal and SCDNR’s Bryan Frazier about these white sharks on our website.