While some are cowering from beaches amid reports of sharks “amassing” in record-setting numbers off East Coast shores, Tom LaCognata is braving the waters like a real-life Captain Quint from “Jaws.”
Captain LaCognata of Rockaway Fishing Charters took The Post fishing this week — three miles off Long Island’s Jones Beach on the Atlantic Ocean — to see if these man-eaters really live up to the deadliest catch hype.
Mates Gene Rudd and Tom Laible took turns fighting a thresher shark that weighs more than Shaquille O’Neal. Each time one of these sharkers tires out, they pass the fishing rod to the other angler, so they can sip water and towel off like Jake LaMotta between bouts. After a backbreaking, hour-long tug of war, the team finally reels an approximately 16-foot, 400-pound sea monster close enough to the boat to harpoon. That’s the dramatic — heart-sinking — moment when the muscular sea beast drags the line hundreds of yards back out into open water, forcing these shark bosses to begin the battle all over again.
“It’s a pretty interesting, fun game,” LaCognata, who charges $1,400 for seven-hour sharking excursions, told The Post. “You get the bite, then the chaos begins.”
It’s prime time to pursue apex predators: The East Coast has experienced a veritable sharknado of late, with more sightings — including one great white blood feast in May — in the last two years than the previous decade. A record-setting 26 were spotted last summer in Nassau County alone. Overall, the US leads the world in “unprovoked” shark attacks after a three-year decline, while the number of fatalities peaked in 2021 at 11 — topping 2020’s former high of 10.
Alarm over the 2022 season started growing in December, when a viral tweet revealed that the Ocearch Global Shark Trackers had mapped 100 tagged sharks gathering in the Atlantic Ocean near the East Coast of the US.
LaCognata, 54, told The Post he has indeed noticed a lot “more sharks” and that they’ve been “closer to shore” than ever before.
In turn, authorities are beefing up security across the region’s beaches. Earlier this month, Long Island implemented the Hempstead Town Shark Patrol, featuring lifeguards on Jet Skis that scour the water for sharks, after a fisherman spotted a 10-foot mako shark on the Long Beach Barrier Island.
“People will not want to hear this, but I often see sharks either right in the waves or just beyond the waves,” conservation biologist and Shark Week host Craig O’Connell told LI’s local news outlet after the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation added three predator-tracking drones to its fleet.
In his 15-plus years of tournament-winning sharking, LaCognata has landed a murderer’s row of these toothy predators: From small dusky sharks to a 438-pound thresher shark — his biggest ever. He’s also hooked a monster 323-pound shortfin mako shark — a classified “man-eater” and the world’s fastest species, clocked at up to 46 miles per hour.
Scientists attribute the shark spike to warming waters. “Climate change is definitely playing a role […] especially in the sightings we’re seeing this year and last year,” said Chris Paparo, of the South Fork Natural History Museum’s shark research team. “As sea temperatures are rising due to climate change, a lot of fish populations are shifting north.”
In 2020, Manhasset resident TJ Minutillo landed a nearly 8-foot-long bull shark, a normally warm water species, which is responsible for the most attacks in the US alongside the great white and the tiger shark.
This news may be unnerving to beach-goers, but not for LaCognata, whose goal is to get a “shark bite.” While he mainly targets makos and threshers, once in a while, the shark czar hooks up with something even badder.
“We’ve hooked up great whites [accidentally], probably 6 to 7 feet,” said LaCognata, who had to release them as the “vulnerable” species is protected under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. “We were able to get [them] close to the boat and just cut the line. You don’t want to get too close to their teeth.”
“I’ve seen two great whites swim under the boat that were humongous,” LaCognata added of another encounter, which evoked the iconic breaching scene in “Jaws.” “I was back there chumming and just looked over the stern of the boat and I see this massive great white go by and then another one go by right after that.”
The inadvertent great white hunter added, “Luckily they didn’t take our baits or they would’ve just spooled the whole line,” referring to when fish takes all the line off the reel.
What’s the allure of pursuing these ferocious hunters? “It’s the thrill of the game,” LaCognata said. “Getting them hooked up is a very difficult thing to do. And getting them in is even more difficult. And if you wanna release them, that’s pretty difficult as well.”
One of his favorite sharks to catch is the mako as they’re “fierce” and “fast” and “do a lot of jumps.”
A typical shark fishing excursion entails taking a boat between 3 and 45 miles offshore, often in tumultuous waters. When it arrives at its destination — usually “a wreck or rubble,” per LaCognata — the crew begins creating a “chum slick” by throwing a hole-riddled yellow bag stuffed with ground bunker over the side of the moving boat to entice the creature’s unparalleled sense of smell.
The 130-pound test lines baited with mackerel and bunker are set out at different depths, and the waiting begins. “People call sharking a beer-drinking sport,” said LaCognata. “Sometimes we wait all day for a bite, sometimes you get it right away. Sometimes you don’t get it at all.”
If they do get lucky, the crew — which generally comprises at least two guys besides the captain due to the grueling nature of the gig — scrambles to their positions like a predator-pursuing pit crew. The angler jams their massive 80-class Penn International rod into their belt holder and starts fighting, LaCognata steers the boat to keep the sharker on top of the fish, and when close enough, two other mates harpoon, gaffe and finally tail-rope the beast. After the fish is secured, gaffes are used to haul it through a door in the boat.
Even then, the battle’s not over. “You gotta tie off the head and tail,” cautioned LaCognata. “Sometimes when you think they’re dead they’re not even dead. They just come back to life and start thrashing around.” As such, LaCognata advises against putting one’s head in a shark’s mouth for Instagram likes.
Wrestling threshers is especially tricky due to their whip-like tail — used for stunning fish — which measures half the length of their body, sometimes up to 9 feet long. LaCognata’s mate, who goes by Nick the Greek, claims that a 400-lb thresher could “break your leg” with one slap of its rudder. During The Post’s October tuna trip, the mate pulled up his shirt to reveal large purple welts across his torso where a thresher had flogged him on a previous outing.
What’s the reward for winning this maritime heavyweight match? In the case of landing a mako or thresher, it’s the succulent, swordfish-like flesh, which is generally “chopped into steaks” to eat, according to LaCognata. “Depends how the customer likes [it],” he added. “My favorite way to cook it would be barbecue, some teriyaki sauce and some sesame seeds. Cut them up into little chunks, put them on skewers and grill them, they’re delicious.”
Of course, “a lot of people don’t like sharks to be killed,” LaCognata admitted. “People want to do catch and release. We’re fine with that. I’d rather not kill any sharks.”
Should you really be afraid NYC shark season?
Despite their fearsome reputations, many believe the NYC shark scare of 2022 is overblown. Most of the species identified in Nassau County last year were common sand sharks or thresher sharks, which are not known to attack humans.
“They don’t really have to be afraid of the threshers, they don’t bite,” said LaCognata. “They’re just hunting the schools of fish.”
Meanwhile, Long Island fisherman Luke Alter, 25, believes there is the same number of sharks there have always been. “We’ve been living with these fish in the ecosystem forever,” the prospective lawyer, who’s been fishing NY waters all his life, told The Post. “People are just now starting to become aware of it because of social media.”
“They forget we live on an island — where do you think the sharks are?” Alter added.
Nonetheless, the public fear doesn’t seem to be dying down anytime soon. LaCognata recounted one humorous instance that occurred while his crew was bringing in a 202-pound thresher shark that won him the 2016 Stella Maris Shark Tournament.
“On our way in, right before we got into the inlet, the Coast Guard pulled us over and stopped us for a routine check,” LaCognata recalled. “We told them we had a shark on board, we had to weigh him in. They said, ‘We don’t care, we’re the Coast Guard. We’re here to check you out and that’s it.’”
The captain continued, “The Coast Guard guy said, ‘I’m not going to come on the boat, because you got that big ass shark in the back so we’ll do it right from here.’”
Ultimately LaCognata tells prospective sharkers that they “shouldn’t be afraid” of fishing for the critters. “We take care of everything,” says the seasoned sea dog, who claims that no one has gotten so much as a hook in the hand during his sharking trips.
“I had a husband and wife do it, a father and daughter. They all caught,” said LaCognata. “I have six girls that wanna come out. They came out striper [striped bass] fishing and liked it so much they wanna try shark fishing.”
Like scaling a climbing wall to prepare for Mount Everest, LaCognata said some anglers might want to “work their way up” before tackling Jaws.