By David A. Brown
Drifting cut bait over the edges of deep grass flats, sending steel leader rigs into the warm surf, sight-casting artificial lures — you can catch the bull, lemon, blacktip and tiger sharks of southwest Florida many different ways, but each method yields the same result: an action-packed battle with the sea’s fiercest predators.
Shark fishing is a lot like skydiving — it’s a cool deal, but you really need to know what you’re doing. Anyone with a Florida saltwater fishing license can certainly give it a go, but success and safety depend on a handful of key points.
Find the Fish: Flats along the edges of navigational channels, deep grassy edges in bays and harbors, even the surf: Coastal sharks favor areas where they can run down their prey while maintaining quick access to deep water.
Best Baits: It’s not pretty, but it’s a fact — bloody and oily bait is your best bet for appealing to the shark’s keen sense of smell. Options for larger sharks include chunks of bonito, mackerel, mullet, barracuda or large menhaden (aka shad). For the sporty little guys of 2 to 3 feet, cut pilchards, threadfin herring and live shrimp do the trick.
Jump-start the Bite: Sharks will quickly locate your bait once they lock onto the scent, but you can hasten the process by drawing in sharks from afar by establishing a scent trail (chumming). Basic is a frozen chum block in a mesh bag hung from a boat cleat. Waves and warm water melt the chum block to release the oils and ground fish bits. Tossing freshly cut pilchards or threadfins down current and hanging sliced bonito or barracuda carcasses from the transom bolsters the chum effort.
Artificial Approach: Sharks that are actively feeding, or those stimulated by your chum line, will often snap at shallow running lures, soft plastic jerk baits and baitfish-pattern flies. The challenging part is getting them to notice the imposter, so lead your target a good 3 feet, cast to the shark’s side and then quickly bring the lure right past his face for a reaction bite.
Rigging Right: From juvenile sharks to the bruisers of 8-plus feet; if you fish for these toothy critters without some form of metal leader you will donate your tackle. No. 3-5 single-strand wire will handle small sharks, while anglers seeking the big ones used specialized braided steel leaders.
Handle with Care: A shark’s cartilaginous frame affords it ultimate flexibility, and even the really big ones can turn and bite their own tails. Never underestimate a shark’s power or endurance. Always control both ends of the fish, and handle large sharks with teamwork—one person fights the fish, at least one other boats or beaches the fish, and another individual removes the hook or cuts the leader.
Safe Release: Small sharks are easily subdued and therefore fully charged upon release. Bigger sharks put up bigger fights, so support your catch at boatside by holding the tail and the tip of the dorsal fin until the fish is strong enough to swim away in good health. You’ll know when the shark is “ready,” and simply releasing your grip keeps fingers safe from any parting sentiments.
David A. Brown splits his professional efforts between traditional journalism and marketing communications, and is a frequent contributor to Sport Fishing.