Chris Stefanou was spread out on a beach towel when he heard the whirring of his reel being led out to sea. The top of his 15-foot fishing rod, which he had staked deep into the sand at Tobay Beach, was swaying back and forth.
“We’re on baby,” he said Sunday, as he raced to the rod and furiously started reeling in his catch — a sandbar shark about 4 feet, 8 inches long.
It’s the fifth shark Stefanou, who calls himself the Long Island Shark Man, would hook over the weekend. The fisherman has been reeling in sharks for the past three years and has become a popular attraction at Tobay.
“The adrenaline rush is unreal,” said Stefanou, 22, of Massapequa. “We’ll set the hook and when you hit a big one, it can be like wrestling a car.”
Stefanou remembers reeling in his first shark, feeling a little “freaked out” looking at its jagged teeth but also in awe of the creature.
His friend urged him to cut the line and let the shark go, but Stefanou was determined to retrieve the hook from its mouth before sending it back out to open water.
He’s been obsessed since that first encounter, both with the thrill of being so close to the animals and with helping researchers better understand them, he said.
For the past two years, Stefanou said he's been tagging Atlantic sharks and taking down some basic information about them — like their gender, length and physical condition — for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He’s one of thousands of fishermen registered in the National Marine Fisheries Service Cooperative Shark Tagging Program, said Katherine Brogan, a spokeswoman for NOAA.
The program provides vital information to scientists on the migratory patterns of sharks, their behavior and the size of species populations, Brogan said.
Tagging these fish and retrieving those tags are important to NOAA's research, as many species frequently cross national borders and are exploited by multinational fisheries, she said.
So far Stefanou said he’s tagged about 40 sharks for the program.
Stefanou, who works as a comfort care provider at St. Francis Hospital in Flower Hill, said his family and friends were initially wary of his new hobby. But the worst injury he’s received while tagging a shark is a rash on the legs caused by the animal’s sandpaper-like skin.
“They think I’m crazy to go into the water and handle these predators,” Stefanou said. “But I think everyone has a desire to see these creatures.”
During the summer, Stefanou fishes at Tobay Beach four or five days a week, mostly with Paul Parkas, 21, of Dix Hills.
Parkas said he’d see photos of Stefanou with the sharks on social media and thought to himself: “I’ve gotta get in on this.”
They’ve been fishing together ever since. The two assemble three massive fishing rods, slipping chunks of bunker for bait onto circle hooks. Stefanou grabs each rod and casts each line about 40 yards out, near a sandbar where he believes the sharks congregate. They then stab the rods into the sand and wait.
Before long, he said, the regulars at the beach started calling him the “shark man.” Stefanou thought it made for a cool nickname, so he had plastic bracelets made with "LISharkman" printed on them which he gives to the children who watch him fish.
In January he also created an Instagram account, where he posts photos of his catch. It has about 4,700 followers.
On Saturday, Stefanou caught two sharks, including a 10-foot-long sand tiger shark — the largest he's caught to date, he said.
The following afternoon, Stefanou and Parkas waited for about an hour on the beach, occasionally piercing new pieces of flesh onto their hooks and hurling the lines back out before they hooked one.
After a short struggle, the pale brown dorsal fin of the sandbar shark was visible in the surf. Stefanou seized it by the tail and led it to the sand before a crowd of about two dozen people who had wandered over to watch.
He held it down as Parkas ran a tape-measure along its length, and with the help of a bystander Stefanou stuck a small tag near the base of the shark’s dorsal fin.
He then used pliers to remove the hook from the shark’s mouth and hauled it back out to sea to the applause of the beachgoers.
“I like getting other people involved and informing people about what I’m doing,” Stefanou said. “It’s nice to put a show on for people.”