Golf's shark hunters: On Mississippi Gulf Coast, shark fishing's an off-course thrill

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

BILOXI, Miss. - Coming face to fin with a shark probably isn't on the agenda for your golf vacation.

Tiger Shark Fishing - Mississippi Gulf Coast
Just your average golf souvenir - a tiger shark in your hands.
Tiger Shark Fishing - Mississippi Gulf CoastMississippi Gulf Coast - Fishing ChartersGrand Bear Golf CourseKiva Dunes Golf Club
If you go

Getting freaked out by a dozing alligator is about as much creature adventure as most golfers have in a lifetime of trips. More likely, you'll just be sitting at a bar telling the same lies you've told on 20 other golf escapes in those off-course hours.

Come to think of it, maybe a little shark time would be just the ticket. Boredom does have a way of flying out the window when a shark's flashing its sharp teeth in your direction.

On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, you can get your shark stalking on in-between going for birdies. This area has more than a dozen golf courses and more than 300 holes from designers like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Davis Love III and Tom Fazio. But it's hardly just your ordinary golf destination.

Not when you can go shark fishing.

That's only one of the off-course activities that help set the Mississippi Gulf Coast and its neighboring - but another world away in vibe - Alabama Gulf Shores apart from other golf vacation spots. Of course, it's also the one that tends to raise tourist temperatures.

"Sometimes you'll get people asking if shark fishing is safe," Tom Becker, president of the Mississippi Charter Boat Captain's Association, said. "It is a little different. It's not something they've seen on TV."

A picture on the best big screen high-def Plasma cannot approximate the feeling of having a real-live shark in your boat, anyways. Sometimes, the real freaking out happens after the shark's been caught.

"They don't want to touch the thing," Becker said, laughing. "They think it's going to jump up and bite them or something. We've got it very secure. Go ahead and touch it. Run your hand down its body, and see how smooth it is. Most people have no idea.

"Just touch it."

Hey, you said you wanted a hands-on golf vacation.

There's bound to be a natural letdown after the thrills of taking on Arnold Palmer's twisting marshland course, The Bridges Golf Club, or Jack Nicklaus' nature secluded tree wonderland, Grand Bear Golf Club. Why not fill it by pursing a hammerhead shark (they grow up to 20 feet long) or a tiger shark (second only to bull sharks in the number of attacks on humans and known as the "the bane of Hawaiian surfers")?

Hammerheads and tiger sharks can both be found in the waters of the Gulf Coast.

You might be a little surprised where they're often found, too. Becker laughs when asked if the boat needs to journey a long distance from the dock for shark fishing.

"Actually, with the sharks, we often don't have to go far out at all," he said. "But we don't tell the swimmers that."

They're honest on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. When you ask a local what the best golf courses are, they won't hesitate to tell you. (The Preserve Golf Club gets a lot of votes.) Just like if you ask an experienced charter boat captain the fishing skill level of many of the tourists, he skims on any bull.

"We get some folks who couldn't catch a cold in an ice storm," Becker said. "But we'll teach them, too."

With shark fishing, the learning curve can be steeper than the entrance requirements for Harvard. Hooking a shark is often just the start of a battle that can last hours. Strangely, that tiger shark's not so eager to jump into the boat and become a picture souvenir - or dinner.

Yes, the captain will show you how to eat shark, too. No one will even tell you that it tastes like chicken either.

Even if you are one.

"I think I'll stay away from the shark fishing," first-time Gulf Coast visitor Jake Cornelius said. "I came here for a relaxing vacation."

Gulf Coast's great fishing, too

On the Gulf Coast, you're not limited to casting lines for fish that could eat you. The waters of both the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the Alabama Gulf Shores make for great fish habitats. Becker's charters routinely catch red drum, king mackerel, red snapper and many more coastal varieties.

Plan to spend a full day on the water. A basic eight-hour trip costs six passengers $900. It's usually 10 percent additional for any extra passengers, in this case, another $90 for a seventh or eighth recreational fisherman.

All of the Mississippi Gulf Coast vessels are charter boats, meaning as Becker notes, "You rent the whole boat." The Alabama Gulf Shores does offer what's known as party boats - boats where one or two guys can go fish for a set individual person price with other vacationers they don't know.

You don't exactly have to be Crocodile Hunter hearty to enjoy a Gulf Coast fishing trip either. Becker's boat has air conditioning and an indoor bathroom. Things a golfer who's been spoiled by the service at a course like Alabama's Peninsula Golf & Racquet Club might appreciate.

These aren't all trips where guys are guzzling Buds from a cooler either. The Gulf Coast and Gulf Shores can make for good family escapes, and that carries over onto the water as well.

"The best thing is seeing that kid catch his first big fish," Becker said.

Sometimes it's a big kid.

"We had an 80-year-old grandmother in the boat the other day, smiling the biggest smile you've ever seen at getting her fish," Becker said.

Grandma wasn't going shark hunting. That's for your adventurous types. You know, golfers who sometimes play without a high-powered cart.

"I think they'd enjoy it," Becker said. "One time, we had this huge 30-foot ling white shark right along the side of the boat. I looked down and saw his big eyeball staring up at me."

Do you want a story that goes beyond that wicked lie on the signature par 5 or not?

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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