Old Chum

A shark does what it does. This particular fish, a 4,500-lb great white racing through the murky depths off Montauk, had a meal on its mind. Or rather, in its nose. Sharks, it’s said, can smell one drop of blood in a million drops of water. It might have takenas few as ten minutes for this great white to catch up to the rapidly expanding chum slick. Coming closer and closer, the menacing dorsal fin breaking the surface of the water, it would greedily lap up the chunks of oily meat, never making use of the several rows of razor-sharp teeth. Little by little there’d be more meat, more fish guts and more blood, driving the shark, now gnashing at the water, closer and closer to the boat the slick trailed. The shark, its head lifting from the water as its frenzy increased, might even have caught a glimpse of the man who, just as surely as you are reading this, was hunting it.

The man sat on the aft of his boat, the Cricket II, dipping a handmade ladle (little more than an old tin can attached to a piece of metal) repeatedly into a bucket, and tossing all that blood and guts into the water. The shark might even have seen him, smiling, the sun glinting off his hoop earring, his aviator sunglasses shielding his eyes and his hat pulled low. As the shark lifted and flung its body through the wake of the boat it would have been close enough to see the shark hunter when the first harpoon (attached to a beer keg barrel to slow it down) pierced its side.

When the fisherman, Frank Mundus, the supposed inspiration for Quint in Jaws, hauled that fish onto a Montauk dock on June 6, 1964, it was among the largest sharks anyone had ever caught and it cemented Mundus’ place in both Montauk’s history and the lore of sport fishing.

Mundus presented the head of the shark to Pete Chimpouckchis, the proprietor of the dockside bar Salivar’s, who had it mounted and preserved for posterity by a taxidermist. In fact, Chimpouckchis even raised the roof of Salivar’s in the space where the head was to be displayed, giving it a place of honor and in the process, creating something of a shrine—one where people came in recent years to pay their respects to both the now-departed Mundus and a rapidly-changing Montauk…

A recent wave of development is washing out to sea the stuff that made Montauk different from its glitzier Hamptons neighbors. Salivar’s—built in 1947, largely unchanged and stuffed to the gills with fishing mementos—held the line as one of the last bastions against the eastward invasion. Even the giant Tiki head at Ronjo Resort, which has long welcomed visitors to town, was painted gold this year by new owners. If there’s one thing you can learn from the current state of Montauk real estate (or a night at the Sloppy Tuna), it’s that, like chumming, you don’t argue with a hungry beast when there’s blood in the water.

If, as has been said, men like Frank Mundus put Montauk on the map, then Salivar’s stood as a temple to the Montauk they created. The grinning shark head was the crucifix hung behind the altar of a very particular kind of church—the kind with Genesee Cream Ale on tap.

When Salivar’s sold this past winter, locals feared that yet another piece of history would be lost. The bar remains closed and its new owners say they plan to keep the feel of the place intact and Mundus’ shark in place. Though for now, Salivar’s remains sealed, lost in time, the shark’s long-dead black eyes looking out over decades of other artifacts, including the many snapshots of patrons tacked to the walls.

Since Salivar’s closed, calls have come in at a furious pace inquiring about Mundus’ shark, according to Jo-Ann Obergfell who, along with her husband Brian, purchased the property this winter. The callers come from as far away as Australia and ask about everything from purchasing the shark to just getting a picture with it. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the Mundus mystique. So too, did I once.

For a moment we thought the line had snapped and the big one had gotten away. I stood at the Star Island Marina in Montauk toe-to-toe with an agitated Frank Mundus. The surly old shark hunter, despite previous assertions to the contrary, seemed to be reluctant about participating in our photo shoot. His face, already leathered by years spent on the decks of fishing boats, had turned to beef jerky in Hawaii, where he retired to a pineapple plantation, of all things. He’s acting gruff and I’m not sure if he’s just playing to type—doing what’s expected of him—or if I’ve really pissed him off. Then I see.

“What’s in it for me?” he asks, the gleam in his eye matching the one reflected off the pirate hoop dangling from his ear.

My crew and I were endeavoring to mark the 25th anniversary of the movie Jaws with, among other things, an all-out, daylong swimsuit-model photo shoot recreating some of the more iconic scenes from the movie. We shot the famous shark’s-eye view of kicking legs that morning in a swimming pool in Bridgehampton and dragged an entourage that included the photographer, stylist, hair and makeup, and editors on a Manhattan-to-Montauk melee with stops at Flying Point (to shoot a bloody raft washing up on the shore), King Kullen (to get more red food dye) and the docks of Gosman’s, where we snapped the models wearing $3,000 swimsuits amid workers hauling lines.

The coup de grâce was to be a long-in-the-making setup with Frank Mundus onboard his boat the Cricket II, posing as the Montauk legend he was; the same vessel on which the book’s author Peter Benchley went shark hunting with Mundus. Mundus had readily agreed in advance, but when the day came and we showed up at Star Island at the appointed time, the fisherman and the boat were nowhere to be found. We waited, mostly drinking from cases of Budweiser, sitting in the shadow of a fiberglass shark hanging from the dock—a replica of a 3,427-lb great white Mundus caught in 1986, the largest ever hooked by rod-and-reel (and the bookend to the real prize hanging at Salivar’s). Time ticked away. An hour passed. The stylist, already high strung when we picked him up in Manhattan early that morning, became increasingly unhinged. More time slipped by. No response to telephone calls or text messages. We got the stylist another margarita.

“Maybe he’s having boat trouble,” the photographer reasoned. It made sense. It’s what happens in the movie and what happened to the Cricket II during fishing trips in the past. One such breakdown—during his harpooning of the 4,500-lb great white now collecting dust at Salivar’s—served as the basis for Quint’s engine trouble. After all, the Cricket II, a dead ringer for the boat piloted by Robert Shaw in the movie, had seen better days. Years later, when it was up for auction after Mundus’ death in 2008 and the town of Montauk was attempting to purchase it, one old fisherman remembered it as “a very slow boat.” Another called it a “piece of shit,” and suggested the town might want to make a planter out of it should officials be successful in their bid.

Finally we watched as the boat chugged into the marina, the sun sinking slowly behind it. When Frank walked onto the dock, I reminded him of our arrangement, gesturing at the models and the anxious crew. He looked momentarily stunned, as if maybe he’d forgotten. Or maybe the memory of too many times when he felt he’d been ripped off in the past came flooding back. Perhaps his mind flashed to too many interviews given, free advice parceled out, lessons taught, Benchley on his boat. That’s when he asked, sinking his hands deep into the pockets of his worn chinos, “What’s in it for me?” He was a charter boat captain, after all, and even if it was no longer his boat, we were chartering him. “Will a couple hundred do it?” I asked. He brightened and nodded, and I headed for the ATM, thinking of the awkward expense report I’d have to submit later.

For most of the day all the capital we needed for permission to shoot or to get somebody to pose was a couple of cold cans of beer and the lure of barely-dressed bikini models. The eventual expense report ended up including the deli receipts for a couple cases of Budweiser, the stylist’s calming margaritas, the $200 for Frank and $50 for the prop man (who contributed the harpoon gun, the chum bucket and some barrels used in the original production of Jaws that just happened to be on the boat with Frank). The first mate worked for the customary couple of cans of beer and the suggestion that he might catch a glimpse of the models changing.

His shark fishing exploits had made a legend out of Frank Mundus but, in his view, they’d made very rich men out of other people. Mention of Peter Benchley especially drove Mundus to distraction. The writer fished with him for a Newsweek article in the 60s after Mundus pulled a 4,500-lb great white (the one at Salivar’s) out of the Atlantic using barrels and harpoons. Later, after the movie based on Benchley’s book became a blockbuster, Mundus appeared on Late Night with David Letterman and the host asked him about Benchley. As Mundus told it: “That nut [Letterman] says to me, ‘You know he made a lot more money than you with the movie?’” Mundus responded that all he ever wanted from Benchley was one word—thanks—but he never got it.

imageMundus’ great innovation wasn’t shark fishing (though he was a pioneer where that was concerned), it was branding. In another world we might talk about him in the same breath as golden-era ad men like Jerry Della Femina and George Lois. But there is a similarity between Mundus and the MadMen: He sold tourists on a product they didn’t even know they wanted. And they bought it by the boatload. The rough-hewn and foul-mouthed Lois might well have heralded from the same neighborhood as Mundus, they just took different turns out of it—Lois headed north to Madison Avenue and Mundus eventually went east. It’s probably not strictly accurate to say Mundus was the basis for Quint, but more so that he created him. And Benchley dutifully wrote it all down.

Brooklyn-born and Jersey-bred, Mundus came to Long Island in the early 50s to fish for bluefish commercially off the coast of Montauk, but “found out there was nothing there but sharks,” he told me. There was no market for the meat and nobody had ever heard of chartering a boat to catch the toothy predators for fun. As Mundus put the thinking at the time, “Who the hell wants to go and catch sharks?”

He reinvented himself as a serpent-slaying-pirate-superhero, called the activity “Monster Fishing” and became a genuine Montauk sensation—a family attraction who goofed around on the boat and always sent everyone home with a catch. His method of chumming, which he’d learned fishing for bluefish off the Jersey coast, brought sharks to the boat like, well, a bucket of blood dumped into shark-infested waters. Playing to the crowds, he began wearing the hoop and squinting, parlayed a childhood arm injury into a tall tale about wrestling with sea monsters, painted a huge dragon on the Cricket II’s drift sail and generally hammed it up. The writhing beasts flopping on the deck may have been the payoff, but Mundus was the attraction, his boat a floating carnival. Hemingway was nowhere to be found.

It was dirty work. To keep the sharks coming, Mundus had to continuously ladle chum over the deck (using the old ladle was a garish touch he added and Quint’s use of the same is his exhibit A in his case against Benchley). And you couldn’t mail order chum frozen by the pound back then. He’d harpoon a pilot whale (whale meat makes the best chum, according to Mundus) and grind it up by hand, until the practice was outlawed. Then he’d get oily baitfish from the commercial fishing boats shoveled onto the deck of the Cricket II and grind it up at an old mink farm in East Hampton.

Of course, if you drop a hook anywhere near the shores of Montauk these days you won’t catch any monsters or even any very big sharks. The combination of Mundus’ “invention” of shark fishing and a fever pitch brought on by the phenomenal success of Jaws wiped the coast near clean.

But just as Mundus might have been bitter toward Benchley (though much of his irritation was surely feigned), his success never sat right with some old-line Montauk fishermen, less skilled at the art of self-promotion. While Mundus is unequivocally a legend in sport fishing, there’s an air of resentment you hear in the voices of a few fishermen who were around in the old days. Some thought he took a little too much credit for catching those scale-tipping, record-breaking sharks. There were other men on those boats after all. And men both there at the time and those who’d only heard tales of Mundus’ exploits thought him a bit of a showboat.

They were no less resentful when Mundus began to work toward shark preservation and endorsed the use of circle hooks (the kind that won’t give sharks “a pe’manent belly ache” as he put it in his Brooklynese) and championed the practice of catch and release. He advocated for shark tagging and research, working with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in Narragansett, Rhode Island and in appearances at Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead on his trips back to the East End the last few years of his life. He even wrote an illustrated children’s book with his wife Jenny in 2005 called White Shark Sam Meets the Monster Man, which, according to its description, is “a children’s story about trust, friendship and conservation” and features cartoon versions of both Mundus and the shark on its cover.

A cynic might say that the tide had turned, and if old seamen are good at one thing, it’s reading the tide. Mundus, they might argue, enjoying the good life in Hawaii—with a wife 30 years his junior—(another couple of reasons for them to envy him) had little to lose by riding the cresting wave of conservation.

His transition from hardened shark hunter to cuddly caricature was not as abrupt as it may sound. He may have been a proud man, but Mundus was nothing if not opportunistic. His 1950s reinvention—as American as Gatsby’s or, perhaps more relevantly, Don Draper’s—as a grizzled guide to the Montauk depths suited weekend tourists and mythmakers alike.

But still, by the 1990s Mundus’ era had ended. The playfulness with which he approached fishing didn’t jibe with the times. He became wistful when he told me about an ad he saw for a new sonar system used for tracking fish. His voice cracked when he related the copy under the ad, which read, “The fish don’t stand a chance.” He deflated—as if the sport had gone out of sport fishing.
A few years ago, when some of the old-time haters had been posting negative comments about Mundus online, he sniffed “Let ‘em. It’s just more advertisement for me.” The attention, he reasoned, might bring people close enough so that he could capture their imaginations again.

Frank Mundus made his last trip to Montauk in the summer of 2008, going on some fishing charters, but was along to provide “aggravation” (his words) as much as anything else. He sold an array of memorabilia and books (including his self-published memoir 50 Years a Hooker) on these trips and through his website. Before he left for Montauk that summer he’d begun the project of making custom straight gaffs in Hawaii (basically a pole with a hook on the end that fisherman use to pull things out of the water and up into the boat), which he planned to finish and sell when he returned home. Each ash wood-handled gaff was to have the words “Made by Frank Mundus” branded onto the wood, and would go for $125 a piece. But in September, upon his return to Hawaii, Mundus collapsed from a heart attack and died at the age of 82. The last image of him on his website is of him pointing one of his handmade gaffs at the camera.

You can learn everything you need to know about chumming, Mundus once told me, by watching an old man feeding pigeons in the park. “Chumming is chumming, regardless,” he said. “You take and you throw a few peanuts down on the ground way out and the pigeons start to eat them. Then you throw some down a little closer, and a little closer, and a little closer, just a few at a time, the next thing you know is—you got pigeons eating out of your hand.

“That’s the correct way to chum.”

And Frank Mundus, whether he was fishing for sharks, tourist dollars or publicity, used this same method. Chumming is chumming, regardless.