Fishing for sharks on the flats is a thrilling experience. Learn about the tactics and tackle you'll need to catch these shallow-water hunters.
There are so many exciting grails to capture the imagination of shallow-water marine anglers. Many become consumed by pursuit of the flat's "Big Three" — Silver King (tarpon), Gray Ghost (bonefish) and Quicksilver (permit) — yet one of the most astonishing adventures is flats fishing for any of the shark species.
|When posing with a small shark, be sure the fish is subdued, its mouth away from you, and placed where it can easily be shoved back in the water.
Pursuing "the Man in the Gray Suit" is a special kind of hunting, more often done by having them come to you. It hearkens back to the Indian tiger hunts of old where you lure your majestic adversary out of the bush through the braying and scent of a live sheep or goat tethered to a tree. The adrenaline rush of first sighting a watery beast coming at you that dwarfs your biggest tarpon provides a moment that is etched in your mind forever.
Unlike the "Big Three," there are many different kinds of sharks, each built with tackle-testing muscle and cartilage. The size range of sharks on the flats runs from the five-pound bonnethead shark to the half-ton hammerhead. Though some sharks such as nurse sharks might be considered docile, anglers should treat all these creatures as capable of inflicting a lethal bite, much like an inshore barracuda or an offshore wahoo that comes snapping into the cockpit as it is gaffed. Shark fishing on the flats is therefore done by a skiff or bay boat — safety, being an obvious reason, but also to reach all the fruitful shallows a wader could never reach.
The most established shallow-water shark fishery in the United States is on the deeper flats that run from Miami to Key West. The depth of the water always determines the flats fish that roam these locales. A minimum of five feet of water allows the larger shark species to be encountered, where they can be lured in by chumming and cast to with natural bait, lures or flies. You can expect to encounter nurse sharks, lemons, blacktips, spinners, bulls, sandbars and even hammerheads.
Unlike bonefish, sharks hunt on the flats but are not residents there, so they can often be found along flats edges and drop-offs. These are areas that facilitate easy entrance and egress for fish that grow to sizes that can be huge. One additional factor to consider in your plans is water temperature. Sharks feed more aggressively in warmer water, so plan your shallow-water shark adventure in spring, summer or fall.
Flats fishing for sharks in any deliberate and effective way involves chum. To paraphrase Henry Ford, any fish can be used for chum -- as long as it's barracuda. Certainly, other fish can attract sharks, but the scent of a butterflied barracuda carried along the shallows by current or wind is what sharks find irresistible. Furthermore, barracuda abound along the very shallows where sharks are often found, so anglers can catch a dozen 'cudas first, and then go about their shark fishing.
Top guides like Captain Ken Collette go straight to rocky outcroppings on an incoming tide to catch barracuda. Ken blind casts either free-swimming live shrimp pegged to a long shank hook or a tube lure all along the entire area where experience has taught him 'cuda congregate. He also finds barracuda near shallow water wrecks, sandy runs, rock piles, or baitfish aggregations. Barracuda can be caught all along the water column and often grab a slowly retrieved live shrimp or tube lure raced across the surface.
|"Butterflied" barracuda tied to a ring and hung off the side of the skiff create a scent that sharks are sure to investigate.|
Ken's shark chumming device is four 'cuda strung on a metal divers ring tethered to a strong rope with a large float attached in case the rig falls overboard. Ken found the metal ring to be essential as many large sharks will attack the overboard chum when they are in a feeding frenzy. The chum rope is affixed to the center console to allow for a centered chum flow, while keeping the vessel's bow and stern free for fishing. As stated before, Ken (as should you) cuts fillets off each side of the barracuda, but lets them hang from the body for sustained scent. Periodically whack the bared bones to release scent from the bones and viscera. Remember: the more hanging slices from the barracuda, the more scent.
Try to position the skiff on a drift across the customarily deep flats crowns or drop-offs averaging at least five feet deep. Ideally, the tide will oppose the wind. In Miami's Biscayne Bay, anglers seek an outgoing tide, which flows toward the ocean, but is opposed by a good onshore wind from the east. Both the chum ring and baits (which we'll get to shortly) are fished on the windward side. However, when the wind and tide are aligned, sharks can be caught as well, but with more funneled scent dispersal. Ken also controls his skiff's drift angle by the position of his outboard in the water, which in essence is a de facto rudder.
On windless days, when tidal current is the only thing to move the chum scent, it is necessary to stake out the skiff from the stern uptide from where the sharks are expected to approach. The incoming tide provides the freedom to experimentally fish the entire flat, while the outgoing tide will necessitate positioning along the flats edge and drop-off.
Tackle and Fighting Technique
The size range of the shark species and the arousal status of any given shark coming through the chum scent are the two factors that determine the size and type of tackle to grab. A 50-pound spinner shark requires different tackle than a 500-pound hammerhead for a sporting experience. At the ready, I recommend having two different sets of conventional gear (one medium 30-pound outfit and one heavy 50-pound outfit), the same format for spinning outfits (one 15-pound outfit and one 30-pound outfit), one heavy plug rod for tossing plugs, and the heaviest fly rod possible. This means that you should have six rods fully rigged and ready for employment, for one never can predict the size, species and attack status of any shark coming toward the boat. This does not count the two outfits needed to catch barracuda for chum and bait.
|The vicious, powerful and dangerous jaws and teeth of a shark must be kept away from anglers at all costs.|
Terminal tackle always involves a very long shock leader of 60-pound fluorocarbon material to cope with the inevitable abrasion caused by scrapes along the rough hide of the shark's surging, gyrating body. As for the fearsome teeth, a 2- to 3-foot length of heavy number seven (at minimum) coffee-colored wire leader is essential. The business end of the leader requires an extra-strength hook and the other end demands a high quality ball bearing swivel to cope with the shark's twisting erratic fighting style.
Cautious window shopping shark species like nurse sharks and lemon sharks might do better taking a 'cuda fillet bait. Blacktip, spinners, bull sharks and hammerheads have more built-in aggression and might be more likely to strike flies and/or artificials after smelling heavy plumes of chum and perhaps teased ever so quickly with a 'cuda strip. All huge sharks demand heavy conventional gear so the fish can be beaten fast enough to survive the release process.
It may surprise anglers to see a big "window shopping" shark spook at a splattering close cast, but consider even huge life forms are not used to being attacked by their food. It's also good strategy to consider the first encounter with an aroused shark to be the most important one when presenting a fly or lure. More casual sharks may circle back to the chum, only to be hooked on natural bait after their tenth pass to the skiff. For maximum sight fishing pleasure so that you can see the "take", fish with a float about four feet above the hook.
Boat Side Handling
It's good practice to release all sharks, but it's likely you'll want to record that moment of triumph with an image. There are more and more reasons to capture this in a digital recording or video. Even the simplest point and shoot cameras have a "movie" feature. Because sharks are so strong, it's quite hard to get them to sit still and "pose" for a still image, although fast shutter speeds, motor drives and "motion stabilizers" can mitigate that problem. Unless the angler is with a trained guide, never bring a shark aboard — even a small one — unless there are trained hands with the proper gloves, ropes and control implements.
Sharks have a modest reproductive dynamic and there is no reason to kill one for the table. Leave your savoring to your memory, not your taste buds.