I was 13 years old. We were fishing 30 miles south of Long Island, New York, and I was on the reel. Fresh off my freshman wrestling season, I was strong and cocky in a way only high school boys can be. I cranked for all I was worth, but it was obvious to the rest of the team in the cockpit that I was competing outside my weight class.
We assumed I was hooked up to a modest blue shark, as that’s what we had been tangling with all morning. Then it happened. Far off our port quarter, the shark blasted a hole in the sea and launched itself 6 feet in the air before completing a quarter twist and plunging back into the Atlantic. “Whoa, mako, whoa!” my dad yelled from the flybridge as he climbed down and snatched the rod from my hands like I was a pouty kid whose lollipop had just landed in the sandbox.
The action had been slow, and this fish was a potential tournament-winner. I was forced to ride the bench as a stronger crewmember tagged in. The mighty mako jumped once more before diving deep and digging in for a fight. For the ensuing two hours, I watched as man and fish battled in a primal tug of war. Paulie — a friend from the dock — fought the fish the longest. A former college baseball player and marathon runner, he had the cardio. He was fit. He got his butt kicked. Watching a grown man battle that fish helped me realize I was in over my head and eased the sting of being pulled off the reel, at least a little.
Our goal that day, aside from a winning fish, was to raise money for a friend’s niece who was battling cancer. I didn’t fully appreciate the poetic symbolism until I sat down to write this almost two decades later: Paulie was a leukemia survivor. In every way, his battle with that mako on a warm day in May was much easier than his fight with cancer. It was simpler. It was fair. Man vs. fish. Lose line and gain it back. Will vs. will. Muscle vs. muscle. On this day, man conquered mako.
Back at the dock, we hoisted the fish and weighed it. I would have guessed the shark went more than 400 pounds, but it tipped the scale at a mere 211 pounds, the size of the average adult male.
I’m not sure which is stronger, my memory of that day — of friends coming together to chase fish for a worthy cause — or the shark. It takes some power to launch out of the water and perform a somersault. Muscle isn’t the mako’s sole weapon, however. Last year, a shortfin mako in New Zealand set a record when it exerted a bite force of 3,000 pounds per square inch. The mako also boasts one of the largest brain-to-body ratios. Smart and strong is a powerful combination.
I looked into several studies to support my argument that the mako is the pound-for-pound strongest gamefish, but the data seems so antiquated these days. Until you feel the rod-bending power — as if you’re hooked up to a sunken John Deere diesel — and witness a mako do a double axle in the air like champion figure skater Michelle Kwan, you’ll never understand.
I have three photos around my office desk. One is of my brother and me as boatyard kids dressed as pirates; another is the first family photo with my son, Connor; and the other is our crew from that day, smiling beside the strung-up mako. Like the promotional image from the movie The Sandlot, it transports me back to that time.
You can tell me about a stronger fish in the sea; I’ll smile politely and listen. But if you try to tell me there is a fish capable of producing more powerful memories, I’ll look you in the eye and call you a liar.
Read about the other fish in our "Who's the Toughest?" survey here (updated as fish are added):