Summer is slipping through our fingers. Yes, I know it’s fall according to the calendar, but go stand outside for 10 minutes around noon and tell me what season it really is. But it won’t last for too much longer. Shorter days, the end of the rains and cooler mornings are unmistakable heralds that winter is going to be here soon. So if you want to enjoy our summer sharks, now’s the time to make it happen.
Now, sharks can be caught year-round in Southwest Florida, but that’s mostly because our estuaries are nurseries for their young. If you like playing with the babies, or with the smaller species such as bonnetheads that live in the Harbor all the time, then you’re set. But most adult sharks spend their winters in warmer climates, and for those of us who prefer to take on a full-size gamefish, time’s almost up.
As predators that never stop swimming, you could say that sharks are always following a food source. Right now, we have food for them in abundance. Big schools of baitfish have been seen along the Intracoastal areas, the passes, and out in the Gulf of Mexico. The sharks do eat these small fish, but they’re really more interested in the ladyfish, jacks and Spanish mackerel that the bait draws in.
Now, we’re long past the monster sharks of spring. The 400-pound bulls and 1,000-plus-pound hammerheads that come in to give birth in our shallows and then feed on tarpon have mostly vacated our waters. But what we are seeing are bull sharks big enough to scare most people (up to 6 feet and about 150 pounds) and lots of blacktips in the 4-foot range. These are great sport fish that can be handled with tackle many anglers already have.
For the bull sharks, standard tarpon tackle will do the job. That means a rod with a 15-25 or higher rating (a 20-40 will let you whip them fast) and a 6000 or larger spinning reel spooled with 50- or 65-pound braid. Medium-heavy conventional tackle (30- or 50-pound class) will also do just fine.
Blacktips, being smaller, are more fun to catch on lighter gear. A 10-20 rod and a 4000 series spinner is enough. Just be sure you have plenty of line — these things run far (and sometimes jump high).
For any shark, you need a wire leader. You can use cable or single-strand wire. Cable is more flexible, but making a leader requires crimps and a crimping tool — plus since it’s made of many fine strands, sometimes a shark’s teeth can cut it one strand at a time. Single-strand (aka piano wire) can be worked using just your own fingers, but it takes some practice to make a usable leader — and if it gets kinked, it can snap suddenly.
Don’t tie your leader directly to braid. Remember that braid and wire both have zero stretch, and braid is lousy for abrasion resistance (if you don’t believe that, stop in at the shop and I’ll prove it to you). Five to 10 feet of heavy mono (80 to 130) should go between the braid and the wire.
And don’t forget that the law now requires inline (non-offset) circle hooks when you’re fishing for sharks. I suggest going a step further and flattening the barb on that hook. It will make it much easier to remove from the fish (and from your flesh, if it should end up there).
If you saw “Jaws,” you learned that sharks like to eat raw holiday roasts. Well, forget that. That’s how Hollywood sharks act. Charlotte Harbor sharks like fresh fish — the fresher, the better. So feed them that. Fresh-caught mullet, jack or ladyfish is excellent bait. If it’s cut so the scent leaks out, even better. I always bring frozen bait just in case fresh can’t be caught for some reason. Call it bait insurance.
Once you’re all rigged and have bait ready to go, find a school of shark food (let the birds help you with this task), and then drift the area. You can freeline your bait, put in under a balloon, or add a sinker. If one way isn’t working, try another. Once the rod is in the holder, chances are it won’t be long before you get whacked. Let the shark run for 10 or 20 seconds with the bait, then pick up the rod and the fight is on.
Fighting a shark is a lot like fighting any big, powerful gamefish. It runs, you haul it back in. Keep a lot of pressure on them fish and the fight will be over quicker. The shorter the fight, the healthier the fish will be at release.
Handling should be kept to a bare minimum. The only good reason to bring a shark into the boat is to harvest it. Picking them up for photos is dangerous. The business end of any shark is no joke, and they are amazingly strong and flexible. Scars make for good stories, I guess, but at the end of the day I want to be able to count to 10 without having to take my shoes off.
If you don’t have shark-handling experience, it would be a good idea to acquire some by dealing with bonnethead sharks. I mean, you learn to ride a bicycle before you get on a Harley, right?
Anyway, the best thing for any angler to do is simply cut the hook, or the wire as close to the hook as possible. By law, you have to carry a tool capable of doing so anyway, so you might as well use it. Don’t get bit.
Sharks are one of my favorite fish to see, to catch, to be near, or just to think about. They might become one of your favorites, too. Or, you might think it’s no big deal. Only one way to find out — so why not give our shark fishing a shot before the chilly season sets in?
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.