Not too many years ago, Pete Douvarjo — Captain Pete to clients and friends — was in a groove. Striped bass were plentiful up and down the Maine coast, and Douvarjo’s business, Sedgwick-based Eggemoggin Guide Service, was thriving.
“We’d fish for three hours and then head back, and we’d catch, on an incoming tide, 20, 30, 40, 50 stripers,” Douvarjo said. “It was easy. It was simple. Everybody had a good time, and that was great.”
Farther south on the coast of Maine, times were so good that charter captains were supremely confident that they could put their “sports” onto big fish.
“I remember the guys down there guaranteeing you a 36-inch fish or you didn’t have to pay,” Douvarjo said. “And they would catch them every single time out. It was that good.”
And then, seemingly overnight, it wasn’t. The striper population along the East Coast “contracted,” and Maine, the state on the northern edge of the fish’s migratory range, saw the biggest decline, from about 3.5 million fish caught annually to fewer than 300,000, Douvarjo said.
Some charter captains left the business. Douvarjo was close to doing the same. Then he had a talk with his wife.
“I started thinking. I know we’ve got sharks out there,” Douvarjo said.
To get to the sharks, though, Douvarjo would have to go offshore 20 miles or more, while he’d been able to catch stripers within three miles of shore.
“My wife said, ‘Well, buy a bigger boat,’” Douvarjo said. “I said, ‘With what money?’ She said, ‘Eh. Whatever. Just go buy a bigger boat.’ So I did, instead of giving it up like a lot of my colleagues.”
Now, several years later, Douvarjo often takes clients to the Penobscot River, which he calls a world-class smallmouth bass fishery. He takes other groups on mackerel-fishing jaunts he calls “Captain Pete’s Family Trip.”
And beginning in August, he’s just as likely to be loading up that bigger boat — a sturdy 21-foot Parker named “Reel Life,” and head for Mount Desert Rock.
There he might find whales to watch. He might find tuna to stalk. And he’ll find a way to hook his clients up with a hard-fighting blue shark or five. If they’ve got the urge, he’ll even help them catch one on a fly rod.
And Douvarjo isn’t alone: Many charter captains to the south have also responded to the demise of Maine’s plentiful striped bass by offering shark-fishing excursions.
“If you’re in an area where there are sharks within a couple, three, four miles, it’s not rocket science,” Douvarjo said. “I use fish oil in an IV drip bag, and I use ground up fish [for chum].”
Then he sits and waits.
Finding those sharks has been a bit of a mystery, but Douvarjo knows what he’s looking for, and has technology on his side.
“I’ve discovered over the past couple of years, with these guys it’s all about temperature,” he said. “[With clients last summer the water was] 58, 59, 60 degrees and I said, ‘I’m gonna keep going.’ I went anotehr 10 miles and it was almost 70-degree water.”
The sharks were waiting. And those clients — a pair of women in their 70s — hooked up four or five times.
“They called up and said, ‘It’s on our bucket list. We want to go offshore and catch a shark.’ I said, ‘Well, I can do that for you, dear.’”
Douvarjo said that people are increasingly fascinated by sharks. The movie “Jaws” probably doesn’t hurt. Neither does the annual “Shark Week” broadcasts that are aired by the Discovery Channel.
“They’re very cool animals,” Douvarjo said. “People love sharks. They’re just an incredibly aggressive, beautiful wild animal. They’re all teeth and jaws. And I get to reach down there, close to their mouths, to try to get the hooks out.”
Douvarjo releases the sharks alive, and said clients have a great time battling sharks that are sometimes eight feet long.
“They scare people. It’s a thrill,” he said. “How many times are you going to have an animal that can take a bite out of you, right there?”
A more recent development is fly fishing for sharks. Douvarjo has a 14-weight TRO rod and clients cast huge, gaudy “meat flies” toward the sharks when they appear near the boat.
“It’s a hoot,” Douvarjo said. “It’s an easy way to catch a gigantic fish. And it’s not all blue sharks. Every once in awhile we run into a thresher or a porbeagle and those things are huge. Huge-huge. The threshers can get up to 1,000 pounds. Not often. But that’s a huge fish.”
Douvarjo is an active proponent of the Penobscot River Restoration Project, which will open up 1,000 miles of previously blocked habitat by removing two dams and installing fish passage at a third. He said the fish he targets will be among those that benefit when sea-run fish are able to access more of the watershed.
“Stripers, codfish, sharks, tuna,” Douvarjo said, listing the fish that will prey on increasing populations of smaller fish that travel up and down the river.
Douvarjo said he’d love to be able to take anglers fishing for stripers again, but has discovered a number of niches that are working out well. Some days, he’s fishing for mackerel with happy families. Other days he’s way out there, looking for warmer water and sharks.
And even if the sharks don’t show up, there’s rarely a dull day on the ocean.
“I took a father and two teenage boys out and we just got set up, got the chum going, and we were sitting down to wait,” Douvarjo said, describing just such a day. “We looked the the side, and about [20 feet] away, these two great big humpback whales came up, right next to the boat, and they blew.
“All this whale snot [was everywhere],” Douvarjo said with a chuckle. “I went, ‘Wow. That was kind of cool.’ The father said, ‘I don’t care if we don’t catch nothing all day. This was worth it, just for that.’”