Monster Man

THE LATE FRANK MUNDUS BECAME FAMOUS AS THE MODEL FOR QUINT, THE TOUGH-AS-NAIL SEA CAPTAIN IN JAWS. BUT DID HE BEAR A RESEMBLANCE TO HIS FICTIONAL ALTER EGO? AND WHAT TURNS A PERSON INTO A SHARK-HUNTER, ANYWAY? PAT MUNDUS REMEMBERS HER ONE-OF-A-KIND FATHER, WHOSE CHARACTER LOOMED EVEN LARGER IN LIFE THAN ON THE SILVER SCREEN 

 

Scrawled into the concrete walkway at our house were three simple words that summed it up perfectly: Nut House Mundus. My father, Captain Frank Mundus, was an outrageous, larger-than-life Montauk character with a jumbo, booming personality and exuberant energy, and the memory of his antics still lingers even though he died in 2008. As a legendary charter boat captain, entrepreneur, and saltwater pioneer he was dead serious about fishing, and his shark-hunting exploits thrilled the public. You might know him as the real-life inspiration for the tough shark-hunter Quint in Peter Benchley’s novel and the blockbuster movie Jaws. He was also the father of three daughters.

He was born not in Montauk but in New Jersey, in 1925, and his fate, in many ways, was laid out for him by a daredevil leap from one rooftop to another when he was a boy, when the family moved to Brooklyn. He fell to the pavement below, fracturing his left arm. The fracture became seriously infected with a bone disease called osteomyelitis. Although he managed to escape amputation, and even the threat of death, he was bedridden for much of his childhood, deprived of normal socialization and schooling. He was 17 when he graduated from eighth grade, having lost four years to the sickbed.

For lack of a better solution, doctors suggested to my grandparents that moving out of the city might bolster his will to live, and that swimming could build strength in his arm. The family moved to Point Pleasant, New Jersey, and the ocean’s magic worked. Although he was left with a slightly stunted arm, dotted with numerous crater-like surgical scars, he had a real affinity for the sea. He also had unflappable nerve, derived from the knowledge that he had won the right to be alive. He was convinced that he would never do anything more difficult in his life. “I ain’t afraid of nothing and I’m not going to kiss anyone’s ass” became his lifelong mantra.

My father started fishing as a young mate on open boats, where he earned the nickname Cricket, because of his Roman nose and strange, wise demeanor, like Pinocchio’s companion. Eventually he bought a boat to start a Jersey charter business and called it Cricket, as well. He met my mother, Janet, and they rode off on his hard-tail motorcycle to get married in 1946. He then commissioned a new, bigger boat, a 42-footer custom-designed and built to his own specifications. He named it Cricket II. In 1947 they christened both a new boat and a new baby, my older sister, Barbara. 

In 1950, a recruiter from Montauk convinced my father that fishermen “could walk across the backs of the fish in Montauk” — those were the words he recalled — and there were more fishermen than boats to take them, guaranteeing plenty of customers. My parents seized the opportunity and moved to Montauk in 1951. 

Back then, Montauk Harbor as we know it today hadn’t yet been developed. The fishing fleet docked at Fishangri-La in Fort Pond Bay. It was adjacent to the train depot, with hordes of fishermen arriving from the city early in the morning. With limited housing stock, my parents and my sister had no choice at first but to live on the boat. Each day my mom would pack up my sister and their things for their day ashore, while my father took out the Cricket II. Then, at day’s end, after the fishermen left and the boat had been cleaned, they came back aboard to make dinner and spend the night. Day after day. By the time I was born in 1957, they were settled in a tiny house on the Old Montauk Highway. Montauk in the 1950s and 1960s was a seasonal, scruffy little town at the end of the line, but surrounded by pristine open space and long, empty beaches. My mother (who has also now died) loved to remember those days. “We didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” she would say, “but we had it all.”

I don’t really remember a first boating trip, but I do remember my father teaching me about surf, since we lived right on the ocean. Jump over or dive under each approaching wave? Letting the roaring chaos crash safety overhead while hugging the bottom is a hard concept for a kid. I remember him saying, “Fear is just you not understanding something,” and, proving it, he said, “Lock your arms around my neck — don’t let go — and we’ll do it together.” He believed in learning by doing; competence was his answer to overcoming fear.

At first my father fished for stripers and bluefish, like the rest of the Montauk fleet. But he discovered that chumming (attracting fish with ground bait) also attracted sharks. His charter customers got excited about catching sharks, and he encouraged them. In the beginning, it was simply good for business. A natural-born marketer, he managed to chum the public, too. He was a hard worker, with a unique knack for showmanship, and he became dedicated to an idea: transforming sharks from the “trash of the sea” to big-game treasure. A master of self-promotion, he played on people’s fear of sharks, which already had an evil reputation, and created publicity stunts to drum up interest in his shark-catching trips. 

He called it Monster Fishing. The day’s catch was hung from the side of the boat, and it was like a runway show when the Cricket II came strutting into the inlet with his monsters hanging in full view.

CROWDS GATHERERED TO INSPECT THE TEETH, WITNESS THE WEIGH-INS, THE WHOLE BLOODY MESS. OCCASIONALLY FRANK PLANTED A DOLL OR A LICENSE PLATE IN A SHARK’S BELLY — WHICH SPILLED OUT ON THE DOCK AT THE CROWD’S FEET.  HE HAD A KNACK FOR SHOWMANSHIP.

My younger sister, Tammy, and I routinely posed for him with the catch. He was fully aware of the juxtaposition of little girls and big nasty shark jaws. He allowed people to assume the scars on his left arm were shark bites, when they were really from his bone surgeries. “The charter business is 90 percent show and 10 percent go,” he said. Through the years, he honed his Monster Man persona, beckoning more customers to come Monster Fishing for sharks. I loved going offshore with a charter, and he often put me on a rod and reel just to demonstrate that even a kid (and a girl at that!) could catch a big shark with the right coaching. He was a man’s man, for sure, and he loved to be the provocateur. “Women are always better anglers,” he would say. “They take direction better and they use their heads instead of their backs.” I was proof. But, honestly, as much as I adored going out on the boat, I detested sportfishing. I just wasn’t old enough to appreciate that he was providing the family income by doing it.

The author’s sister Tammy illustrates the chomping capacity of the famous 4,500-pounder, 1964. All photographs from the Pat Mundus collection.

 

Despite all the outrageous shenanigans, my father was really dedicated to the sport, guiding his anglers to numerous light-tackle world records. He had an uncanny hunter’s instinct and he was never afraid to try new things. Precisely because he wasn’t molded in school, he thought outside of the box, developing his own gear, techniques, and equipment (some of which now are standard). There was always a sense of honor in a good fight. He believed that a fish that gets away deserves to escape. He nicknamed his monster white sharks Big Daddy. In his book, “Sportfishing for Sharks,” he wrote, “Fishing for sharks is pitting your knowledge of your opponent — your superior reasoning power and skill — against the wits, canniness, and instinctive trickery of a wild creature.” 

He certainly adopted that philosophy in his parenting style as well. It was impossible to get away with anything when I was a teenager! “You can’t bullshit an old bullshitter,” he reminded me.

He harpooned a 3,000-pound white shark in 1961 in 60 feet of water off Amagansett, and a 17-foot-long 4,500-pound white shark near shore in 1964. These were the genesis of the Jaws plot. I remember one night at the dinner table my father said, “Funny thing about my charter party today. It wasn’t a party at all. It was just one guy on the boat and he didn’t even want to fish. He just wanted to motor around all day and talk about fishing.” That was Peter Benchley. 

THE MOVIE "JAWS" CAME DOWN AROUND FRANK MUNDUS LIKE A GREEK TRAGEDY IN 1975. HE FUMED ABOUT IT. "I THOUGHT IT WAS FUNNY. A STUPID MOVIE — THERE'S NO WAY THAT COULD'VE HAPPENED LIKE THAT. FICTION IS LIES, IT'S MADE-UP BULLSHIT!"

Having honed his brand of fishing and marketing his promotional image for decades, he was astounded that someone could lift his whole identity, add some fictional resentment to it, and make hundreds of millions of dollars without even a nod to the real person, a character of his own creation. Unlike his fictional representation, my father never served in the Navy and had no particular hostility toward sharks. He certainly held no grudge against them; they were not evil, and he was not out for revenge. He was simply an astute hunter and colorful character who managed to make a living doing what he loved. 

My father grouped fools, city folks, and “book learners” all in the same category. After Jaws, he extended his contempt for fiction writers and intellectuals in general to a complete disdain for weekend fishermen with expensive boats. “Talk!” he would rant. “It’s all talk! Don’t brag about fishing, just throw the fish on the dock.” He relentlessly hazed his customers and the general public. He hung a facsimile of a giant magnet in the rigging, with the words “idiot magnet” blazoned on it. If someone asked about the purpose of something on the boat, he would point up to it and say, “Yeah, its purpose is to make idiots like you ask questions.” It was all part of the shtick.

His final famous fish came in 1986, a 3,427-pound 17-foot-long white shark caught on 150-pound test line while the Cricket II was tied to a dead whale offshore. The International Game Fish Association eventually decided against letting that catch stand as an official record, because my father walked bare-foot on the whale to bait the shark. International rules of whale protection state that it is illegal to approach — never mind walk on — whales, dead or alive. When asked about it, my father said with a shrug, “I know it’s a record and you know it’s a record, right? The shark seemed to like Oreo cookies, too.” 

Frank and Janet Mundus clown around with a friend on Frank’s motorcycle in 1947, before the family moved to Montauk.
 

Since the mid-1960s, my father had been at the forefront of shark tag-and-release conservation, in cooperation with the National Marine Fisheries Service. But as the human population nearly doubled over the course of his 40-year career, he began to realize the impact of his livelihood on the industry.

“AFTER JAWS, EVERYBODY AND HIS BROTHER WANTED TO CATCH SHARKS. I FEEL RESPONSIBLE FOR THAT,” HE SAID. HE DIDN’T EXACTLY BECOME A SOFTY IN HIS LATER YEARS, BUT HE DID ACTIVELY PROMOTE CONSERVATION MEASURES. 

(Such as the use of circle hooks, which increase the chances of a shark’s recovery when released.)

My father insisted on one thing: “If the customers have more fun on the boat than I do, I’ll quit.” And that’s just what he did. In 1991 he retired and moved to Hawaii to try his hand at growing organic fruits and vegetables. The harshness of his voice and jokes evaporated. Instead, I began getting letters expressing his joy in the buds on his fruit trees and his baby fruit, his thousand pineapple plants, and his curious efforts to naturally control fruit flies. I think he finally felt free to be himself instead of the man everyone expected him to be. It was probably a lot of work to live up to the hyperbole. Occasionally, he would return to Montauk for short guest-fishing excursions or public appearances, and it was traveling back to Hawaii from one of these that his heart gave out. But I think he was happy. “It sure is fun in the sun,” he wrote to me once, “and I don’t care if I ever see fish again.” • 

 

Top: Barbara Mundus holding her sister Pat in 1958. Their father understood the marketing impact of little girls posing with his toothsome beasts.
 
Pat Mundus

Pat Mundus is a retired career merchant ship officer who lives in Greenport. She contributes to boating magazines while cruising her 50-foot ketch, Surprise, in the Bahamas and the western Caribbean. During the summer season she arranges crewed classic yacht charters through East End Charters (eastendcharters.com) Pat has a 1,600-ton captain's license and is currently working on a memoir.