“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats,” Curly McGruff says, repeating the H.L. Mencken quote adorning his Montauk Hand Fishin’ T-shirts—few of which have survived since his legendarily dangerous shark charters were shut down in 1978. Forty years later, the lifelong Montauker and storied fishing captain has just agreed to tell his story—summers taking tourists out to hunt sharks with only a knife and the sea between them and the deadly predators—to be told in a new film.
“It was a crazy time, that’s for sure,” McGruff recalls while cleaning the bowl of his pipe with a small pocket knife. “Folks can say what they want about the city people coming out here in summer, but my customers were some truly hard men—and a few ladies, if you can believe it.”
McGruff hatched the Montauk Hand Fishin’ concept in 1974 after he famously dove off the side of his boat and slew a 16-foot great white shark using just a nine-inch Bowie knife. The story spread throughout the taverns of Montauk and eventually traveled to the offices on Wall Street and Madison Avenue. “Before long, I had these ballsy fellas from New York askin’ me about the story, wantin’ to see the knife—all that stuff,” McGruff says. “After a while I started tellin’ the guys they could dive in my chum slick any time,” he continued. “I was joking, mind you, but a few of ’em really wanted to do it, so I finally said, ‘To hell with it, why not let ’em?’
And so it began. Using the name Montauk Hand Fishin’, McGruff began taking select clients on special adventure charters for massive sums of money. The customers who actually managed to come back with a hard-fought prize—typically blue sharks, mako and a few hammerheads and threshers—spoke of reinvigoration, soaring confidence and even finding a new lease on life. They also took home a very cool Montauk Hand Fishin’ T-shirt complete with the Mencken quote and Jolly Roger emblazoned across the back.
But accidents were inevitable. “Diving into the slick is not for the weak,” McGruff said. “Getting in that bloody water, knife between your teeth and facing down even a six-footer, will test a man’s mettle—no doubt about it.”
Customers returned home with bite scars, missing fingers and worse. By Labor Day 1977, McGruff lost three would-be shark hunters, and both local and state officials called for an immediate ban of the violent new sport.
“I spent that fall and winter fightin’ to save my business,” McGruff recalls ruefully. “But in the end, the bastards won.”
Though McGruff admits to running a few “under the radar” charters the following summer, in 1978, another close call convinced him it was time to stop. “I took a few wealthy guys out that season, but on my third trip, which was already a stressful affair, my customer slipped and hit his head while diving down to the slick,” he says. “For some reason, the fella sunk like a stone, his head bleedin’ and about five sharks following into the deep—we were incredibly lucky to pull him out alive.”
Now 68 years old, McGruff has slowed down, but he still enjoys a nostalgic dive into the slick from time to time, to the shock, horror and delight of his rod-and-reel charter guests. His son Rory has also landed a few sharks of his own, McGruff says, noting they recently “showed them filmmakers how its done” while negotiating the rights to his story.
“It’s a tradition for me and mine, and we won’t let any government tell us how to live.”
The Montauk Hand Fishin’ film has been assigned to a screenwriter, but it will be some time before it goes into production.