Evolution of a shark

KEY WEST, Fla. —

It's a storyline that's been used before.

Steven Spielberg milked it in "Jaws," which was followed by Jaws 2, 3 and the most anticipated, "Jaws: The Revenge."

Just the fact there was a screenplay and budget for "Jaws: The Revenge" is a testament to what the shark brings to the table, in terms of human interest.

"When we were all kids, we'd look at sharks and think, 'Wow, they are cool, but they are dangerous,' " said Tim Schick, coordinating producer of the Quiznos Madfin Shark Series on ESPN2. "There's something mystic about the shark, and rightly so. It's the apex predator."

ESPN previously documented the Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament in Massachusetts, but decided it was time to advance the sport and create a shark tournament that was catch-and-release.

In 2005, ESPN contacted JM Associates, a company in Little Rock, Ark., that was producing BASS tournament trail shows, and asked if it were even possible to catch and release sharks in a tournament format. The first Madfin Shark Series tournament was held in Key West in early March, 2006.

"The first year was several of us drinking coffee and drawing it out on a napkin," Schick said. "We set some basic rules, found the best talent and got them on the water."

The format: a tournament in which two-man teams are given a set amount of points for each shark caught, which would double if they removed the hook. There were no weigh-ins and no sharks on shore — just points.

It turned out the catch-and-release format was not only popular with conservation organizations, but also with the fans. Anglers couldn't just gaff the shark and pull it into the boat. They had to slide each shark alongside the boat, measure it, then stick their hand near the mouth of a thrashing, angry shark and remove the hook.

"A lot of people watch NASCAR for the big wreck," Schick said about the danger involved. "I think in this game a lot of people don't necessarily want to see it, but it can happen — and that's why they watch.

"We're dealing with a wild animal. It could bite you and bite you severely enough that it could kill you. The American audience likes that danger."

The evolution of the shark … tournament

The Madfin Shark Series has come a long way since its genesis on the napkin in 2005. When the 14 anglers took off Wednesday, there were three camera boats and a helicopter following them.

Each team also has an ESPN cameraman on its boat, and when they hook up with a shark, they radio Schick, who sends in the helicopter to capture the catch from the air. The tournament is three days long and will be shown as six episodes on ESPN2.

"The first two years were extremely successful in both audience and ratings," Schick said. "But we modified a few of the rules this year, because we felt like we needed to change it up a little."

In years past, anglers could hook up on one species all day and keep accumulating points. This year, teams are limited to four sharks per species (for example: four lemon sharks, four hammerhead, etc.) if they want full points.

If they catch a fifth of any given type and are able to get the hook out and release it, they only get a quarter of the points.

"The last two years, it became a brute strength contest of how many can you actually get to the boat, measure and release," Schick said. "Now they have to make a decision, once they get their limit of lemons. Do they go deep and try to get a mako or a tiger?"

Schick also adjusted the points system to encourage teams to take a shot at the hammerheads and tiger shark, which have been scarce in years past.

"Those sharks are farther offshore chasing tuna," he said. "It's more of a gamble and it's harder on the fishermen, but it's a home run if they can get one. One exotic species is equivalent to an entire day's worth of lemon shark."

To make the chances of hooking up with a hammerhead even more likely, the tournament was moved back two weeks. It had been held in Key West all three years, but the first two were fished in early March.

"What we learned about Key West in early March is you get a lot of lemon sharks, some bull sharks, and some blacktips ... that's about it," Schick said. "Those are the only sharks on the flats that early in the year.

"Later in March or early in April, the more migratory species — like tarpon — move through. Some of the more exotic sharks — like hammerhead — eat tarpon."

And the early signs indicate the plan is working. Some of the anglers saw hammerhead during practice, and with a possibility of 1,000 points swimming around, Schick thinks at least a couple teams are going to spend the day chasing them.

"It's a giant carrot hanging out in front of them, saying, 'Bring us a hammerhead — bring us a tiger shark," he said. "It's so attractive that no doubt someone will have to try it."

The anglers will pull into the docks around 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday and report their day's catch. One team will be eliminated and the rest will hit the water again Thursday in search of another Jaws. And that, Schick said — the Jaws factor — is what keeps both the anglers and the viewers coming back.

"What other competition is there where you're dealing with a wild animal and there's a possibility of getting severely injured? There's not many," he said. "That's what makes this unique. It's not man against man — that's a sub-story really — it's man against nature. It's two guys against one shark."

The six episodes of the 2008 Quiznos Madfin Shark Series will air on ESPN2, beginning April 6 at 9:30 a.m. ET. For a complete TV schedule and more information on the series, log on to QuiznosMadfin.com