They are the top of the food chain, apex predators, denizens of the deep – and great fun to catch. True, many (or most) hardcore salt water anglers consider sharks a “trash fish.” But for some, especially those of us who rarely venture onto saltwater, sharks are outstanding angling targets. They are typically easy to catch, grow very large and provide a battle most anglers may never experience otherwise. Here’s a taste:
Previously we shared some ‘Do It Yourself Saltwater’ tips to fish St. Joe Bay, Florida for seatrout and other inshore species. As with any fishing, you can always hire a guide to take you out for a variety of species, including sharks. They know the local water and have the equipment to handle the toothy beasts.
But, if you have your own boat & gear, “Do It Yourself” shark fishing in St. Joe Bay is pretty simple. Here’s a step-by-step guide to some fishing fun like you will never experience on the Tennessee River.
First Step – pay a visit to Bluewater Outriggers in Port St. Joe. In the back of the store you’ll find a freezer. Buy a five-pound block of sardine chum and a five-pound box of cigar minnows. Obviously, with the right know-how, a cast net and a little sweat equity you can catch your own bait fish to make your chum or fish with. But if you want to do it the easy, quick way, just hand over a few bucks to Bluewater Outriggers. You’ll also need a nylon mesh bag to hold your chum.
You’ll also want to buy heavy steel leader. How large depends upon your dedication and your expectations. Some folks fishing for the really big boys will use 200 lb. test leaders (or larger) that are ten feet long. My expectations weren’t that high. I bought 45 lb. test steel leaders that were 2.5 feet long. I lost some sharks, however, because I didn’t think big enough. More on that shortly.
WHERE TO FISH
Where you fish in St. Joe Bay really doesn’t matter too much. There are sharks everywhere and the plan is to attract them to your location with the chum. No doubt locals know some sweet spots. You’ll even find one area on some marine maps toward the mouth of the bay called “The Shark Hole.” However all I did was run off the shallow flats to a deeper (18 foot) hole shown on the Navionics map on my iPhone.
The one thing I do know – your best shark fishing will occur during periods of a rising or falling tide. The flowing water of incoming or outgoing tides disperses your chum scent far and wide to attract sharks. When you fish during periods of slack tide, your chum scent just sits stagnant in the water and won’t attract the predators nearly as well. The saying that sharks can smell a single drop of blood in the ocean is somewhat of an exaggeration. However a good chum line will draw sharks from several hundred yards away, perhaps a half-mile. If you have a good oily chum line extending behind your boat in St. Joe Bay, sooner or later a shark (or lots of sharks) will come your way.
After anchoring down and dropping my chum bag in the water, it took about 45 minutes – maybe an hour – for the first bite to come. My rods were outfitted with 50 lb. test braided line, the 2.5-foot steel leader and 5/0 Team Catfish circle hooks (the same hooks I use for Tennessee River catfish). One line included a 3 oz. weight to keep the cigar minnow bait on the bottom. The other had no weight and was fished as a “free line.”
The first bites came on the bait resting on the bottom. Once sharks moved in the bites came regularly, but they were smaller sharks and frequently simply stole my bait or sliced the bait in half without hooking up. After a while, the freeline started getting hit as well. Finally I hooked up on a shark maybe two feet long. But even smaller sharks fight like they’re possessed with demons. Once brought to the boat, smaller sharks aren’t hard to handle, although you still have to “respect the teeth.” I used a dehooker similar to this to remove the circle hooks, which almost always embed in the corner of the mouth.
Once the bite kicked in I caught about a half-dozen sharks in relatively short order, and broke off a couple – not necessarily from the fight but my lines were cut by the sandpaper-like shark skin. That is where your leader length comes into play.
Braided line has extreme tensile strength however it does a poor job withstanding sharp surfaces such as rocks, or the abrasions of shark skin. With a 2.5-foot steel leader, if a shark is longer than 2.5 feet, all the tail has to do is slap the braided line one time and it will be sliced in two as if cut with a sharp knife. Monofilament will withstand the abrasions much better, but my rods were already rigged with braid so I was too lazy (and too cheap) to re-spool with mono, and it cost me on more than one occasion – but not always.
THE BIG BITE
I was actually growing tired of catching small sharks and about to relocate when I cast a cigar minnow out on the free line. It had barely slapped the water when a shark grabbed it and headed for the other side of St. Joe Bay – and I couldn’t stop it.
The speed and ferocity of a big shark’s first run is absolutely awe-inspiring. All an angler can do is hold on and be amazed. But in seconds I was watching my screaming braided line leave the reel spool to a dangerously low level. I was forced to tighten my drag and pray it wouldn’t break, stopping the incredible run before I lost every inch of line.
It worked and that is when the big blacktip shark came to the surface. Every species of shark has its own characteristics. Blacktip sharks (not to be confused with blacktip reef sharks, a different species) are notorious jumpers. This guy didn’t completely clear water like some will, but in the distance I watched him thrash the top, creating holes in the water that looked like you had tossed a 55-gallon drum into the ocean.
From there it became a long, drawn out tug-of-war – with moments of angling terror as the fish tore off on more drag-screaming runs. Once I regained better control I managed to fire up my iPhone to make the very crude video above. On the video I was conservative, calling it a four-footer. From tip-to-tip it was probably more like five feet. Blacktips have been known to reach nine feet in length but four and five footers are most common. They are one of the few shark species that this inlander can easily identify because of the obvious black tips on its tail and pectoral fins. But there are dozens of species of sharks with differing regulations on each.
HANDLE WITH CARE
Although shark flesh can be excellent table fare, this guy was NOT coming into the boat with me for several reasons: (1) I was in a catch-and-release mood, (2) I had not done my homework and I was not up to speed on regulations and (3) I didn’t want to end up like my friend, John Wiley, who bears a massive scar on his forearm when he mishandled a similar sized bull shark that resulted in at least 60 stitches and staples to his arm.
“When I got him on board, I never got his head pinned down,” Wiley told me. “It’s kind of like handling a rattlesnake. It’s a bit of a rodeo until you get them pinned down.”
As Wiley was trying to pin the shark’s head as he has done hundreds of times before, the fish whipped its body around 180 degrees with a mouthful of slashing teeth.
“It all happened in a matter of seconds,” Wiley said. “But I sort of saw it coming and was pulling my arm away when his teeth caught the top of my arm. Before I knew it, he’d just peeled the skin back off the top of my arm.”
John’s experience was clearly top-of-mine as I struggled with the dehooker and shark, still in the water, to remove the hook. You can see in the video what its gnashing teeth and tremendous strength did do my hook. You don’t want the same thing happening to your arm so if you decide to try for St. Joe Bay sharks, go prepared and be safe.
Otherwise stick to the trout and redfish.