Shark fishing often conjures images of big sportfishermen cruising blue water searching for man-eating mammoths. But here on Tampa Bay in West Central Florida, shark fishing is on a much smaller scale, in much skinnier water, and it happens in the winter months. The two species I target, blacktip and bonnethead, are here all year, but concentrate in shallow water when it gets cold. Of course cold water is relative in Florida; low 60s, high 50s is very cold for Tampa Bay.
Both fish are game—a 15-pound blacktip is roughly equal in acrobatic strength to a snook, and a 3-foot bonnethead fights exactly like a redfish. And the best thing about both sharks is that they will readily take a piece of frozen squid—a good thing, because live bait can be so hard to come by in the winter months. Another good thing is that either fish is absolutely great on the table if you know what to do with them once they’re in the boat.
The two species range widely around the Florida peninsula. Tampa Bay hosts good winter concentrations, as do southern bays such as Florida Bay and Biscayne Bay.
My interest in shark fishing began 12 years ago while fishing cutbait around the power plant in Apollo Beach. I was using chunks of frozen ladyfish for bait and targeting cobia, but I was getting cut off with annoying regularity. I finally rigged some 5/0 circle hooks on wire leaders one morning in early December and anchored up on the edge of the flats with my wife. I cast and handed her the rod and went to rig another. Before I could cut another piece of bait, it was “Fish on!”
Twenty minutes later a 3-foot blacktip came to the boat. I used my dehooking tool to save my rig, and quickly cast out another bait. As soon as it hit the water, my wife was hooked up again with another 3-foot blacktip. That continued all morning. We must have hooked 30 fish before finally running out of bait and wire leaders.
I have been fishing for these sharks every winter since. On days when the water is clear enough to sight fish, a blacktip will take an artificial if you can put the lure in his face. But cutbait is still the best ticket to hook big fish, and I have seen blacktips caught in two feet of water up to five feet long—very formidable fish.
The flats outside the power plant in Apollo Beach hold both kinds of shark in the winter months, and a host of other fish, including jack crevalle, ladyfish, catfish and cobia. The water is a good deal warmer here on a falling tide, and clarity is never all that good. But there is no grass here either, and sometimes you can see plenty of sharks cruising in two feet of water over bare sand. I like to fish where I can see them, because they are not there every day. Some days the bag is equally divided between the both species, but more often it is one or the other.
A 3-foot blacktip is a powerful fish. It’s aggressive enough to strike an artificial, but the lure better be rigged to a stout wire leader. Blacktips are toothy, and those inexpensive braided wire leaders rigged with swivels are simply not up to snuff. I rig my own leaders on 40-pound single-strand coffee-colored stainless steel, which is minimal, even for inshore sharks. If you are going to fish for blacktips, you need to know how to rig hooks and barrel swivels with a haywire twist.
As for live baits, my first choice would be big pinfish. I like to gut hook them just ahead of the tail with a 3/0 to 5/0 circle hook—depending upon the size of the bait. In shallow water I also employ floats often, especially when fishing with several anglers on the boat— it’s easier to keep track of where the baits are. Small mullet and big scaled sardines will also catch ’em.
Cutbait is easier. Blacktips love frozen squid, with a chunk of fresh-killed ladyfish coming in a close second. I usually carry a long spinning rod rigged with a pompano jig and fish for ladyfish while leaving a baited shark rod in a holder. Ladyfish like the warm water, too.
You don’t have to worry about setting the hook on a blacktip. It won’t peck at a bait, it hits it with a head of steam. These are really impressive gamefish, and a big one can take you to the bottom of the spool on a spinning reel faster than you can pull the anchor and start the motor. I target blacktips with extra-heavy spinning rods, 30-pound polyethylene braid and wire leaders.
The average bonnethead is not as rambunctious, and they are smaller on average. They fight much the same as redfish—nothing spectacular, but they do pull drag, and just when you think it’s all over they get a look at the boat and take off again. I have only caught one bonnethead on an artificial, and it was little, though many fish will follow the lure all the way back to the boat. Again, I fish for bonnetheads where I can see them, and in the winter months they are often on the flats in the hundreds, if not thousands. They are not terribly boat shy, but seem to be very careful about what they will put in their mouths.
When targeting bonnetheads on the flats, I use the same long rods I use for sight casting to redfish. The rods have a limber tip and cast well the 3⁄8-ounce jighead that I like to rig the squid on. I usually anchor the boat, or stake out with the Power-Pole and fish from the poling platform. If I can see some sharks milling about, I drop a piece of squid close enough so they can smell it, but far enough away so as not to spook them. They seem to prefer the bait to sit still. The jighead is merely a casting aid, and I just let it sit on the bottom and wait for a pickup. When fishing with live shrimp, I usually rig it under a float on three feet of 30-pound-test monofilament with a 2/0 circle hook. You don’t need wire for the bonnethead—they are bottom-feeders and the location of their mouths makes cutoffs exceptional rather than routine. These sharks also seem to see pretty well, and generally take a good look at a bait before eating it. I’ve seen them circle a live shrimp under a float three or four times before finally deciding to strike.
As mentioned earlier, that either shark relishes frozen squid is a great thing in the winter months when live bait is often scarce. I like the treated squid wing because it’s tougher and stays on the hook well. It’s inexpensive, and a pound or two will last all day, even when the bite is hot.
On my last outing I caught a big bonnethead shark that was intended for the charcoal grill. When I gutted the fish, I garnered new respect for this miniature hammerhead. In its gut was a saucer-sized horseshoe crab, mostly digested except for claws and gills, and a 3-inch blue crab—hard as a rock. That’s a pretty impressive appetite for a 3-foot fish.
Fishing inshore for blacktip and bonnethead sharks? These are easy to identify, and the regulations are a cinch. The two species are included within the Florida bag limit of one shark (of any legal species) per person, but no more than 2 per boat.
Offshore, shark fishermen have a bit more to consider.
Federal waters, more than 9 miles from shore on the Gulf Coast, 3 miles on the Atlantic: One shark per boat, 54-inch minimum; plus one Atlantic sharpnose shark per person per trip, no minimum size. Vessel Highly Migratory Species (HMS) permit required for recreational landings of sharks captured in federal waters. Consult National Marine Fisheries Service HMS Division; www.hmspermits.gov or 888-872-8862.
No retention of the following shark species (mostly open-ocean roamers, rarely seen within Florida bays): Atlantic angel, bigeye sixgill, bigeye thresher shark, bignose, Caribbean reef, dusky, Galapagos, longfin mako, narrowtooth, night, sandbar, sevengill, sixgill, smalltail, basking, whale, white, sand tiger, bigeye sand tiger and spiny dogfish.
Special note for offshore anglers: NMFS now prohibits the recreational retention of silky sharks. Juvenile members of this pelagic species are often hooked by Florida anglers fishing for dolphin and sailfish, and they are occasionally misidentified as sharpnose sharks.
Silkys are uniformly dark gray or brownish on top, white below, and the skin is very smooth. Silkys are aggressive surface feeders, willing to chase trolling baits. Reel in a “little brown shark” near a bluewater weedline? Very likely a silky.
Sharpnose sharks, also commonly encountered at sea, are light gray, frequently with white spots or splotches on their side; the snout is longer than the width of the mouth. Sharpnose are typically bottom- or mid-water feeders, sluggish, often making a nuisance of themselves when you’re snapper fishing. They are good to eat, and the bag limit for HMS permit-holders is one per person, any size.
Charcoal-Grilled Shark Steaks
If I am going to kill a shark for the table, I want a large cooler on board, well-iced. Immersing a shark in such cold water causes it to draw its blood into its internal organs; the same effect as bleeding them. As soon as the fish is dead, I gut it and return it to the ice. When I get back to the dock, I cut the fish into steaks, remove the skin from each steak and return it to a fresh bath of iced salt water. This will draw any remaining blood from the steaks and eliminate the unpleasant odor often associated with shark. Then I marinate the steaks with this recipe for two hours in the refrigerator.
I found this marinade recipe on the Internet and it is fantastic:
1⁄3 cup soy sauce
1 tsp. grated lemon peel
1⁄4 cup fresh lemon juice
1-2 cloves minced garlic
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1⁄2 cup olive oil
I like to soak the skinned steaks in a brine of one cup salt, one quart water for a couple of hours. Then I give it a thorough rinse in fresh water, then marinate it for a couple of hours. Heat the grill up and cook the steaks for about three minutes a side—depending upon how hot the coals are. Then prepare yourself for a delectable treat.
First published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, December 2008.