She had caught the rare Golden Shark.
That’s what the charter-boat crew told novice angler Elaine Shure as she reeled in a line off Miami Beach. This, the crew insisted, was a prized specimen.
She had every reason to believe it. The Golden Shark gleamed in the sun like fine chain armor when it leaped above the blue waves. And the crew members were pumped. They broke open whiskey, hoisted a game-fish flag, and told Elaine and her husband they were calling photographers to meet them at the dock.
An animal lover, she wanted to free the fish, but she gave in to the moment and agreed to have the Golden Shark preserved for posterity.
And so, since that day in the mid-1970s, a handsome mounted shark that Elaine would nickname Oscar has proudly hung wherever the Shures moved in South Florida. But with her 80th birthday approaching, Elaine recently began looking for a fitting future home for Oscar, perhaps a natural-history museum.
“I want him to be honored,” said Shure, who called the Miami Herald for help in finding a worthy spot for Oscar. “I want him to go to some place that would appreciate his beauty.”
That’s when the legend of the Golden Shark turned into another kind of Florida fish story.
Oscar, it turned out, is not a Golden Shark. The only species of that name is a couple of inches long and typically found prowling fresh-water aquariums.
Elaine and her late husband had swallowed hook, line, and sinker an old and once-common hard-sell from charter crews that cut deals with taxidermists to push the pricey mounts on naive anglers and tourists.
Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, said the mounted fish is almost certainly a silky shark, a common species that can be found across the world.
“We get them all the time,” Naylor said after reviewing photos of Oscar. “They’re certainly rare if you’re fishing in the Florida Keys close to land, but once you get three to four miles offshore, there are plenty of them. They’re in the Gulfstream all the time.”
The only part of Oscar that is not made of fiberglass is his jaw. Naylor, someone who once measured about 25,000 sets of shark teeth for a study, said this jaw was key in Oscar’s identification.
“The upper teeth are serrated and the cusps are oblique,” Naylor said. “That’s very characteristic of a silky shark.”
Selling fish mounts
The charter-fishing industry in South Florida has come a long way in the 40 years since the Shures hooked Oscar on a boat out of the old Castaways Marina in North Miami-Dade.
Some crews will still pitch the purchase of mounts, but it’s no longer necessary to kill a fish to get a replica, you just need measurements and photos. Demand also has declined, with dead fish on the wall no longer quite as fashionable as they once were. To that end, some of the taxidermy companies that once paid crews and captains commissions on sales are no longer in business, including the one that handled Oscar.
Still, complaints about crews and taxidermist sales are plentiful online and now and then the sales pitches cross the legal line.
In 2008, the crews of two Miami Beach charter boats were prosecuted in a taxidermy scheme in Miami federal court. The four men had tricked customers into catching, then mounting, undersized fish.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald, who deals with environmental criminal enforcement in the district, remembers how the crews operated: People not very familiar with marine life would get on a boat. If they managed to catch something, the crew would convince them that it wasn’t an everyday catch. It was stuff of legends — maybe even a Golden Shark.
“These enterprises, the charter-boat operation and the shore-side operation, made a lot of money on this,” Watts-Fitzgerald said. “The crew would split the money, which is why they had a vested interest in making this an Academy Award-winning performance.”
If an angler balked, the crew would push harder: The fish would die if it was let go, they would say, or they weren’t allowed to release it once it was hooked. Crews would call a taxidermist while still on the boat, urging people to provide credit-card information.
They promised to take care of everything, and in a few months, the novice angler would receive the fish in the mail, with extra charges for crating, handling, and delivery added on unexpectedly. The crew made a cut of the money.
After spending hundreds or thousands of dollars, the person would receive a fiberglass fish often containing no remnants of the original. The crew would often turn the actual fish into fish dip, Watts-Fitzgerald said.
While the Miami Beach crews could have been punished for wire fraud, or other crimes, the District Court decided to instead charge them with keeping illegal undersized fish.
“There’s really no defense to that,” Watts-Fitzgerald said. “Because they’d take anything regardless of size and claim it was the leviathan, it was a very easy way to proceed under the case.”
A golden memory
The name of the boat and crew that guided the Shures to the catch have been lost to memory, as well as whatever they paid for the mount of the 55-inch long shark.
For her part, Shure looks back on it as well worth the cost — preserving not just a fish but a treasured memory and family story.
She was the only woman on the boat that day, someone with no disposition toward fishing. Her husband, Alfred, an avid fisherman, had caught nothing, but there was no way he was going home without a trophy of his wife’s unlikely catch.
“It was one of the best times of my life,” Shure said.
He passed away unexpectedly just a few years later.
Shure took the findings that Oscar was a common shark, which was supported by Naylor and two other experts who were contacted by the Herald, with good humor.
Over the decades, Oscar had become part of the family, hanging in a place of honor everywhere they went. “I lived in many places,” Shure said. “He went to Coral Gables, Boca, Hillsboro Mile. Oh, God, he’s been everywhere. ”
Now, Oscar has a room to himself in Shure’s Boynton Beach condo. He hangs on the wall to the left of the no-longer-used bed of her adult daughter, Eva. The shark, which cannot be reached without a ladder, has collected dust. He has a glass eye, some missing teeth, and a small crack under his left fin.
Eva Shure said Oscar had inspired her high-school shark obsession. When she was a teenager, she even created a “Save the Sharks” campaign. When she and her two older siblings talked about Oscar, some people thought they were talking about their brother. No, it was their stuffed shark.
“When we were moving, it was like, ‘I’ll take this room. I’ll take this room. Where’s Oscar gonna be?’ ” Eva Shure said. “He needs his place of honor.”
So, no, Oscar is not a rare fish, not technically. But he has been a golden family memory.
“I may have caught him,” Elaine Shure said. “But he caught me. I love the guy.”