They call it “presence.” An aura that defies description yet defines a memorable performer. Musicians, actors, motivational speakers; the good ones—the ones that stand out in a yawning sea of sameness—all have it.
Blacktip sharks have such presence—that special something that sets them apart from Florida’s other coastal sharks. Watch them in the water and their style is unmistakable. Unlike the lazy, ribbonlike saunter of a nurse shark, or the frantic bottom scavenging of the bonnethead, blacktips swim with authority. They have a Sean Connery kind of thing happening and they know it.
On a shark outing last year in lower Tampa Bay, Capt. Art Paiva and I had ample opportunity to observe the blacktip persona at close range. For one thing, the dark accents on the dorsal, pectoral and caudal (tail) fins show clearly even at a distance. Moreover, a blacktip’s caramel brown skin tone is much darker than the soft gray coloration of its common neighbor with the funny shaped head.
First behavioral difference we noticed is that we had barely dropped anchor and we were hip deep in bonnetheads. When conditions and location favor their presence, the sharks known also as shovelnose are shameless in their pursuit of an easy meal.
Blacktips, though, always arrive fashionably late. They’ll patrol your perimeter just within eyesight before suddenly rushing in for a closer look. Despite a highly aggressive nature, these guys are cautious, calculating and very perceptive. It goes along with the whole “presence” deal.
Okay, I can hear the rumbling. “What about the bull shark?” Granted, bulls are the undisputed heavyweight champs when it comes to a legitimately dangerous, give-you-nightmares kind of critter. But when’s the last time you saw a bull shark leaping and spinning like an Olympic gymnast? That’s all part of the blacktip package: attitude, agility and, oh yes, appetite.
Theirs is an indiscriminate voracity, which often interferes with other fishing operations. Kingfish anglers hate to find their favorite reef covered up with blacktips, while grouper diggers lament the presence of mid-depth interlopers.
Even bonefish anglers in the Keys have their unintentional run-ins with blacktips who find a fresh shrimp too tasty to pass up. (Reviewing the techniques employed in each scenario yields clues to effective blacktip techniques.)
Now, if you’re trying to catch blacktip sharks, Paiva suggests playing upon the blacktip’s preference for baitfish. Watch for scenarios in which tides and structure congregate forage and blacktips won’t be far away.
During the summer, when Paiva starts his snook trips by netting scaled sardines (“whitebait”) and threadfin herring (“greenbacks”) at the range markers near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, he generally makes time for some shark action. Moving out to the edge of the Egmont ship channel, he’ll chunk threadfins to draw up Spanish mackerel. After catching one of the spotted raiders, he’ll cut the mackerel in half, hook it on a shark rig, fling it upcurrent and wait for the signal.
“I’ll put the rod in a holder and let it sit until I hear drag smoking off the reel,” Paiva said.
Offshore, you’ll find blacktips patrolling natural and artificial reefs and any other bottom structure that holds baitfish. Here, your best bet is to anchor upcurrent of the structure and set out a spread of live baitfish. Stagger your spread with half freelined and half fished with just enough weight to keep them down in the water column. Once you spot a few sharks finning, try floating a couple of baits for those cruising topside.
In lesser depths, look for blacktips anywhere a shallow feeding zone like a grassflat borders deep water. Channel edges, cuts and passes all offer likely scenarios in which the shark can rise out of deep water to hunt exposed prey on the flats.
Paiva favors the first half of the incoming tide, when forage species move over the white sandy bars to reach grassflats. Profiled against the lighter bottom, smaller fish make easy targets. Float live sardines to keep them from hiding in the grass and it won’t take long for the shark to find its mark.
Now, when the mercury plummets, the warm water outflow of coastal power plants attracts a potpourri of sportfish, including blacktip sharks. During winter, when baitfish are harder to come by, Paiva uses live shrimp. One bait floats beneath a popping cork or a rattling cork rig, another drifts freelined, while a third is threaded tail-first onto a 1⁄4-ounce jighead for a bottom presentation. Blacktips usually go for the higher baits, but if you hop the jig bait you’ll sometimes catch an interested eye.
However you fish for blacktips, you’ll get more shots if you season the water with chum. Everyone knows the toothy ones have well-developed sniffers and when they pick up the scent of something edible, they’ll beat a path to its origin.
Any fresh cuttings will do, but Paiva prefers the dark, oily meat of threadfins for a lasting scent trail. Also effective is a frozen chumblock in a mesh bag hung from a cleat. Complement the solid stuff with menhaden oil dispensed a couple of ounces at a time or through a dripper bag.
When chumming cranks up their appetite, or when sharks are actively feeding on a bait school, their aggression often extends to a well-presented artificial. Bucktail jigs, crankbaits, even streamer flies will all fool a fired-up shark. Topwaters, especially, can really kick off a memorable show of blacktip zeal.
“If the sharks are excited because you’ve got them chummed up, you can toss a plug near their head, jerk it a few times and they’ll slam it,” Paiva said. “When they’re homing in on a scent trail, their heads are going left and right, right and left as they look for something to eat. I’ve had them turn totally around and come back to get a plug.”
Sharks have decent eyesight, but they hunt more by smell, feel and sensitivity to subtle electrical fields. Numerous scent receptors cover their snout, while their highly tuned lateral line picks up the slightest movements. Therefore, tasteless, odorless plugs must catch their eye with a close cast and plenty of action. Still, if you toss a plug right on the shark’s nose, he’s history.
While the summer birthing season sees a strong influx of larger blacktips up to six feet, smaller sharks inhabit the inshore shallows year-round. Abundant food sources and fewer large predators than in their parents’ deepwater abode suits the little guys nicely.
For juvenile sharks under four feet, Paiva uses medium-action spinning outfits with 20-pound braided line, 3-foot fluorocarbon leaders and 3/0 circle hooks, which yield optimal connections.
“When they hit that bait and take off, the circle hook rolls right into the corner of their mouth,” he said. “They’re usually hooked so good I have a hard time getting the hook out and I just end up cutting the leader.”
Look for blacktips anywhere a grassflat borders deeper water.
When targeting larger sharks, Paiva employs heavy spinning gear loaded with 30-pound mono or 50-pound braided line. The latter allows more running room when a big blacktip hits the jets. Longer fluorocarbon leaders and 7/0 to 9/0 hooks complete the setup.
When your connection holds, you’ll find a lot of power packed into the blacktip’s sleek form. Expect a couple of zippy runs right off the bat, then a stubborn tug of war that you’ll only win with a high rod and a firm resolve.
Once the little chewing machine commits and your line comes tight, set the hook immediately. With a hyped-up shark, a moment’s delay allows the bait to slide too far into the danger zone and those highly efficient choppers quickly end the relationship.
When too many cutoffs frustrate him, Paiva crimps a hook to a length of black, coated, multi-strand wire leader. Another option is to connect No. 3 singlestrand wire to your main line with an Albright knot or a swivel. Tie the mainline to one end of the swivel and use a haywire twist to connect the wire to the opposite end.
This performer makes a fine encore at the dinner table. High in food value, the fillets are superb when grilled, smoked or sautéed. When keeping a shark, it’s best to gut and bleed them before icing, as this yields optimal meat quality. A well-placed billy club ensures a safe and humane ending.
For catch-and-release fishing, Paiva advises: “Be very careful—never underestimate a blacktip. They are a very aggressive and powerful fish. Even a little 3-footer will beat the tar out of you with its tail.”
And that’s the easy end. Make no mistake, a shark’s teeth work just as well out of the water as in. Even when snipping leader, keep your fingers well away from the mouth. And remember, sharks have cartilage where other fish have bones, and that gives them remarkable flexibility that can cause serious issues at close range.
Avoid such mishaps from the start by firmly gripping the shark behind the head, just over the gills. This provides a good control point while keeping your fingers well away from the meat grinder. Even a good tail lashing beats a deep laceration or lost fingers.
With big specimens, best to cut the leader close or shake the hook out with pliers or a gaff while the fish is still in the water.
Blacktips: Still in the Red
Theirs is a case of bad, but could be worse. Like many sharks, blacktips have suffered greatly from commercial overfishing (recreational kills—the old “Jaws” mentality—largely disappeared years ago).
Sharks are especially vulnerable to overfishing because they’re slow growing and slow to reach sexual maturity, they have long gestation periods (10 to 12 months for blacktips), and they typically bear low numbers of offspring (1 to 10 for blacktips). Essentially, once their numbers decline, it takes a long time to catch up.
However, hope is not lost for the blacktip. According to Dr. Robert Hueter, Director of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Center for Shark Research (CSR) in Sarasota, blacktip sharks in the Gulf of Mexico are depleted but rebuilding under federal and state fisheries management. Citing National Marine Fisheries Service estimates, Hueter said blacktips are not currently overfished in the Gulf, but so much damage was done during the latter two decades of the 20th century, that the overall complex
of large coastal sharks—in which blacktips are included—was depleted by as much as 75 percent.
Hueter points to the upside: “The good news is that blacktip sharks are, as sharks go, a relatively fast-growing species that reach maturity at about 4 to 6 years of age, unlike many other large coastal species that don’t mature until 10 to 12 years or older. So, if any of our large coastal shark species is going to be able to respond to fisheries management and a stock rebuilding program, it will be the blacktip.
“Even though their populations are rebounding, they should still be treated as a species vulnerable to exploitation,” Hueter added.
Since 1991, the CSR program has tagged over 11,000 sharks of 16 species, including blacktips. Anglers are encouraged to check captured sharks for the yellow or orange plastic tags, located near the first dorsal fin. When keeping a tagged shark, cut off the tag and mail it to Mote’s Center for Shark Research at 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, FL 34236. If you plan to release the fish, take any measurements possible and record the tag number, date, time and location of the catch and call Mote’s tag reporting hotline at (941) 388-4441 (or toll-free 800-691-MOTE).
Providing shark tag information gets you a recognition letter with facts about the shark, an official shark-tagger’s hat and entry into an annual cash drawing. Not to mention the satisfaction of helping maintain this valuable fishery.
In state waters, the shark bag limit is 1 per person or two per vessel per day, whichever is less. No size or season restrictions. In federal waters (beyond 9 miles from shore on the Gulf Coast, 3 miles on the Atlantic), the limit is one shark with a minimum fork length of 54 inches per vessel per trip. Although sharks may be bled and gutted at sea, they must have heads, fins and tails attached through landing. (This facilitates species identification.)