A battle for any angler, sharks are worthy of protection
Though some anglers talk contemptuously about sharks, they sure can be tough to catch. A mix of muscle and sharp-edged teeth, coupled with a demeanor similar to a pitbull—why can’t all fish species have such tenacity? Add hundreds, even thousands of pounds of weight, and be careful.
But because of their insatiable appetites and slow maturation, large coastal shark species are highly susceptible to overfishing. Yes, it’s that dreaded term again, but in this case it’s dead on.
“It’s their life history pattern,” says Dr. Bob Hueter, Director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine in Sarasota. “That’s what makes sharks so susceptible to overfishing when compared to other fish species. It’s a mixture of slow growth rates coupled with late maturation—sometimes up to a dozen or more years.” Seatrout, mackerel, pompano and many other inshore gamefish can broadcast spawn millions of eggs; most sharks give birth to single-digit numbers of live young.
The number one threat to sharks is commercial fishing in U.S. federal and international waters, most often in the form of longlining. Nearshore waters have much stricter regulations. Last year, Florida state regulators added silky, lemon and sandbar sharks to the prohibited species list. In total, that’s 23 shark species protected from harvest in Florida waters. For others, there’s a 1-per-person, 2-fish boat limit for recreational fishermen, along with a 54-inch fork-length minimum (except for Atlantic sharpnose, blacknose, bonnethead, finetooth, smooth dogfish and blacktip sharks).
Some species, such as mako and blacktip, are delicious if handled properly. Keep in mind, however, that new state regulations passed in 2010 dictate that sharks may be landed only as whole fish, heads and tails included. That means you may no longer “bleed-out” a shark on the boat by cutting off its head. Slitting the throat and gills is still legal, however, as is removing the entrails. Bleeding out a catch or, later, soaking steaks in milk helps reduce the uric smell of shark meat.
EAST COAST SHOWDOWN
South Florida makes a strong case for being the epicenter for nearshore shark fishing. “Near shore” is a relative term since anglers target coastal migratory species in 300-plus feet of water. I joined Capt. Manny Sivina on the sportfisher Spellbound out of Haulover Marina in North Miami to experience South Florida sharkin’. Most of the species he catches are migratory and illegal to keep. Common catches include lemon sharks, as well as Cuban night and hammerhead sharks.
Lemon sharks were put on the do-not-harvest list in 2010 after “consistent and distinct” aggregations were recorded off Jupiter. “The biological vulnerability of these tight aggregations makes them prime to overfishing,” asserts Dr. Bob Hueter. Area divers and fishermen can tell you that the lemons begin showing in late December and hang around until early April. Lemons are immediately distinguished from other Florida sharks by their primary and secondary dorsal fins of short and nearly equivalent lengths.
Samuel Gruber, a shark biologist at the University of Miami and Bimini Biological Field Station, is a leader in tagging efforts to study the lemons.
“Most of the lemon sharks go to Georgia and South Carolina for the summer, passing close by Cape Canaveral,” says Gruber. “Some go south to the Keys and even out to the Dry Tortugas. At least two were satellite-tracked to The Bahamas.
“Our data suggest ecological factors such as warm water and abundant food drive the social lemon sharks down to the Palm Beach-Jupiter area to join up. There may be a slight sexual motivation, but courtship and mating come later in the season after the aggregation breaks up and the sharks head north.”
The scalloped hammerhead is one of the few species Sivina targets daily that’s still open to harvest, as long as it measures greater than 54 inches. It’s particularly important to beef up tackle and shorten the fight time if you plan to release the T-head.
Sivina uses bonito or Spanish mackerel as baits when they’re available. The oily macks are abundant, particularly in the fall months when they smash through schools of herrings and pilchards off the beach. Then, it’s a short ride out past the wrecks to 350 to 375 feet of water to drift-fish. Since Sivina doesn’t anchor, he’s at the mercy of the wind and current—and that means constantly maneuvering the boat into position. Winds were out of the southwest when I joined him, so the kite went off the starboard ‘rigger. Manny used two rigs when I fished with him—a bottom rig and a kite rig.
For the kite rig, he starts with a Penn International 80 conventional that handles at least 600 yards of 250-pound braid. At the bitter end, there’s a 30-foot, 500-pound leader attached to a No.19 wire rig with two 12/0 J-hooks. New state regulations prohibit the use of treble hooks when fishing with natural baits for sharks, says Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Aaron Podey. J-hooks and circle hooks are okay.
He sets the mackerel back about 50 yards on a kite that’s controlled from an outrigger. He hangs a second live baitfish, such as a pilchard, off the same kite for sailfish, kingfish and tuna. Each line is watched closely to make sure the baits stay at the water’s surface, and do not hover above it.
Sivina’s bottom rig looks like something straight out of Pittsburgh—there’s lots of metal involved. He uses a 130 Penn International that can handle wire line. “Gauge how much wire to put on the reel by poundage,” says Sivina. “Usually it ends up around 400 or 500 yards.” At the terminal end there’s an “elbow rig” that holds a 5-pound weight and bait to the bottom. The rig is his creation, and he made me swear not to take a photo of it. I can only describe it as an industrial strength “hanger” that separates the weight and the line from getting tangled.
Once the rods were rigged and deployed it didn’t take long. Sivina usually catches most sharks on the deep rig. “Make sure to bounce the deep rod’s bait against the bottom,” Manny says to his mate. “I think the wire gives off an electric current from the interaction with salt water to attract sharks.”
For whatever reason, both hammerheads hit the top bait. The first attack was straight out of a galeophobic’s nightmare. The 56-inch hammerhead smashed full-tilt out of the water after the mackerel—just like Super Jaws on the Discovery Channel. Everyone on the boat looked out, stunned at what was happening.
Sivina slammed the throttle and yelled, “Fish, fish!” to break up the daze. A tourist from Russia hopped into the fighting chair with the rod, and then it was a matter of making sure the hook didn’t pull. Manny kept the boat in motion to keep the line tight.
“After solidly hooking a shark, it’s like walking a dog on a leash,” maintains Sivina. “They’ll growl and fight, but you can get them in and control them.”
We pulled in two fish that day, and I let each customer know if they wanted to have their catch mounted, they didn’t have to kill it, just take a picture and measurement. King Sailfish Mounts and other taxidermy companies offer fiberglass replicas that look absolutely authentic when compared to traditional fish mounts.
The deep waters off Southeast Florida are not the only place to catch behemoth sharks. Bull, tiger, spinner and hammerhead sharks inhabit state waters along both coasts and throughout the Keys. (Bull sharks occasionally creep into fresh waters, too—here’s looking at you, St. Johns River.)
“In general, most sharks migrate north in the spring, following a food source and favorable water temperatures,” says Hueter, of Mote. “Then they head south for the winter. Shortfin makos migrate all the way from New England to the Keys for winter.”
There’s also a movement of large coastal sharks toward the beaches and estuaries in late spring, says Neil Hammerschlag, a shark biologist at the University of Miami. Large female sharks such as lemons, bulls and tigers come inshore to mate and give birth to pups. During the spring tarpon migrations at Boca Grande, the world’s largest hammerhead sharks are present hunting the tarpon.
Scaled down, but much more plentiful, are the blacktip, spinner, sharpnose and bonnethead sharks. They’re just as fun to catch. The blacktips and spinners hunt just outside the surf breaks along most of Florida’s coastline. On the east coast, TV cameras mounted from helicopters capture the massive spring-time packs of blacktips and spinners in glassy waters, migrating north along the shoreline. It happens every year, and it’ll happen next year.
Rick De Paiva, a light-tackle guide and photographer, fishes for blacktips off the beaches near Fort Myers. He targets the rough-skins near Spanish mackerel schools during the spring and fall runs. The best action happens in the fall, as waters start to cool.
“In the spring, it’s mostly tarpon migrating north along the coast with blacktips mixed in,” he says. “During the fall, blacktips make up the majority of the southern migration with less tarpon mixed in.”
De Paiva likes to target the blacktips for the sight-fishing opportunities they offer. “Most exciting is when they are tearing, cutting through a school of mackerel,” he says. “Blacktips will do a complete 180 looking for any leftovers, literally mouthing at the surface. Put that fly or bait right in front of them. That’s when anything gets grabbed.”
If the Spanish mackerel schools aren’t concentrated, he cuts up a bonito, barracuda or other fish and gets a chumslick going. He likes an east wind at about 5 to 10 on the west coast. It flattens the surf and your chum slick flows offshore. Any shark migrating south runs through the slick.
For natural baits, he keeps the rigs simple and light. “My basic spinning setup is a 20-pound outfit with a medium-to-heavy, 7-to 8-foot rod coupled with a reel like a Daiwa 2600 or Cabo 60,” says De Paiva. “Connect the main line to the leader with a swivel. For a leader, tie single-strand, 90-pound wire to 6/0 circle hook.”
Baits can be live threadfins, or chunks of mullet, ladyfish, mackerel or bonito. Even flies will work. “Get in those fishes’ faces,” warns Rick. ”Cast at their face; sharks are looking for that easy meal. Otherwise, the Spanish and bonito will get the fly or baitfish first.”
One tip, when using a whole fish as bait, is patience, Rick explains. “Sometimes the reel’s drag will start screaming after a take, but then suddenly stop. Usually, it’s not a ‘cut-off.’ The shark likely cut the bait in half. Wait; don’t reel in line. Most of the time that shark circles around and grabs the second portion, this time with the hook.”