That is, until a giant mako shark swooped in and grabbed the bait attached to Winters' hook.
So began an epic fight, during which Winters was nearly pulled overboard as the great predator fled toward the horizon, then leapt once in the distance. It sounded deeply for an extended period then leapt again just before the struggle concluded—four long hours after the hookup.
"I'll tell you, for a 53-year-old that was a real chore," said Winters, who was visiting from Albany, Texas.
Winters and Cope fished for three days on a 37-foot yacht out of Mako Matt's Marine in Huntington Beach. They were chumming off South Orange County.
Cope had caught a couple of small blue sharks and during one of the days a huge great white shark followed their chum line to the corner of their stern.
"Matt told me how privileged we were because there are only about 6,000 of these sharks in the world," Winter said. "But on the flip side, we're not going to see any other sharks as long as he was here."
Great white sharks are protected off California. Winters had come specifically to target large makos, and the group almost passed on an estimated 400-pounder but eventually tried to bait the smaller mako.
"We were going to hook the 400-pounder but then the big one came in and just took it," Winters said. I don't even know where he came from. He just took it, and went."
The shark was too heavy to be hauled onto the boat so it was towed back to port and weighed late Wednesday night on a certified scale at a Los Angeles meat processing plant.
Winters will keep the jaws but he left the meat with the plant, to be donated to local homeless shelters.
At 917 pounds, it's one of the largest makos ever caught and far heavier than the 200- to 300-pound average, but well shy of the world record: a 1,221-pound mako caught off Chatham, Mass., in 2001.
It's one of three giant makos to have been caught off Southern California, and the catch comes just before the beginning of the last major beach weekend of the summer.
--Image showing Craig Winters with the 917-pound shark is courtesy of Winters