Bonnethead sharks deserve more respect than they get. Maybe it’s the name. I guess it is kind of girly. Would they seem more like real sharks if we called them shovelnose sharks? It certainly sounds much tougher. Let’s give it a shot and see how it goes.
Shovelnose sharks are the smallest members of the hammerhead clan. The world record, caught in Daytona Beach in 2012, is only 28 pounds. Compare that to the world record great hammerhead at 1,280 pounds — more than 45 times larger.
Like their bigger cousins, shovelnoses have a wide, flattened head (technically called a “cephalic foil,” which I think is also the name of a Norwegian death metal band). You can actually tell an adult male shovelnose from a female by the shape of the foil. A female’s is much more rounded — almost dome-shaped. A male’s is more pointed. Of course, you can also look for the claspers, which all male sharks have.
When it comes to sharks, we respect the bigger ones more. Since the average shovelnose weighs 8 to 12 pounds, it’s hard to take them seriously — as sharks, that is. Even so, they’re still a super-fun light-tackle gamefish. If you catch them on trout tackle, you’ll have a real battle on your hands — just as much of a fight as you would get from a comparably sized redfish or snook. Actually, pound for pound, they probably pull a bit harder than either. Of course, when we talk about gamefish on a pound-for-pound basis, jacks beat almost anything out there — but I digress.
Like any other gamefish, you’ll get the most sport from a shovelnose when you catch it on light tackle. Heavier gear takes the fun right out of the fight. If you’re using 20-pound class gear trying for big snook, you’re overmatched for the average shovelnose. Tackle in the 8- or 12-pound range is about right. You’ll also have a lot more fun with the other fish you’ll hook into.
As with any other toothy fish, you’ll land more of the shovelnoses you hook if you use a bit of wire leader. However, you’ll also hook fewer fish, so whether to actually use wire is a judgment call you’ll have to make. Remember that non-offset circle hooks are now required for shark fishing. Flatten down the barb; it will make the hook much easier to get out.
Shovelnoses are mainly sharks of open, shallow water. If you spend much time fishing the flats, you’ve probably seen these guys cruising around, showing off their dorsal fins like they think they’re tough. They’ll swim along the edges of the mangroves, or patrol the sandbars, or just wander around over the grass. The reason they spend most of their time in such shallow water is what they eat.
A shovelnose shark’s diet is not like that of most other sharks. Most (but not all) of the time, shovelnoses focus on eating shrimp and crabs. This makes fishing for them very different from most other shark fishing. You don’t generally go out and chum them up with oily or bloody fish pulp.
So what do you use for bait? If you said, “Shrimp or crabs,” go to the head of the class. The biologists say that blue crabs are the single most important food item for these sharks, but I prefer shrimp for a couple reasons. First, if I don’t come across any shovelnoses, I can target almost any other species with shrimp for bait. Second, crabs are always much more expensive than shrimp. And they don’t even have to be live — dead or even frozen shrimp will work just fine.
They will occasionally hit artificial lures. In the Florida Keys, shovelnoses will regularly go after suspending twitchbaits on the flats. Here, they have a greater abundance of food which is also easier to catch, so they’re a bit pickier. You might get one to chase a lure, and I’ve actually heard of one being caught on a sabiki rig, but generally natural bait is going to be far more productive.
Fishing for shovelnoses gets a little different in spring, around the time when schools of baitfish begin to show up in the middle of the Harbor. At that time of year, shovelnoses will abandon the flats and move into the deeper waters of the open Harbor, where they join blacknose, sharpnose and blacktip sharks chasing baitfish around. When they’re tuned in on whitebait or threadfins, they’re just as likely to show up in a chum slick as any other shark. And they’re just as likely to take an appropriately sized chunk of fish, or even a live baitfish.
Although most sharks are good to eat, shovelnoses in particular make excellent table fish. That’s because of their diet. Any fish that eats mostly crustaceans is good to eat (sheepshead, hogfish, tripletail, etc.). As with other sharks, preparation is key. A shovelnose needs to be gutted and iced as soon as possible after capture — preferably immediately. Otherwise, the flesh will have a sour and unpleasant taste.
Shovelnoses are probably the shark most often sighted in Florida, and they’re also probably the most easily identified. The most important thing to remember is that despite their small size, they’re still sharks — they still have very sharp teeth, and they can still take a chunk off you. So have fun, but be sure to handle them with care. Treating them without respect might turn out to be a very bad thing.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor and at 14531 N. Cleveland Ave. in North Fort Myers. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.