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July 30, 2012

Three Favorite Sharks

The lowdown on three popular shark species in three popular fisheries

Sharks are everyman’s fish. Big, powerful and exciting, they possess an uncanny ability to thrill like few other game fish. Sport Fishing gives you the lowdown on three popular species in three popular fisheries.


Shark: Lemon
Hot Spot: Florida Keys

Head to the skinny water for big-shark action

Most folks automatically conjure up images of deep, blue water and far offshore haunts when it comes to sharkin’. But that’s not necessarily the case in the Florida Keys.

The western backcountry expanse of the Keys is the de facto “lemon shark capital of the world,” says Capt. Mark Johnson (; 305‑393‑0900), a shark-fishing fanatic based in Islamorada. And, no, this is definitely not deepwater fishing — in fact, targeting lemons here routinely takes place on the same flats where bonefish and red drum feed, often in water just knee‑deep.

A Seasonal Sensation
Johnson pursues lemon sharks (Negaprion brevirostris) year-round throughout the Keys, but the action really heats up on these light-colored bruisers in spring.

“They’re here following the tarpon,” he says. “It’s the best time to target them, especially the bigger sharks.”

It’s not just lemons, either — hammerheads, bulls and tiger sharks all are on the prowl throughout the area, chasing tarpon through the end of summer and sometimes into early fall. But the lemons create a special situation for anglers because they frequently move into extreme shallows, presenting light-tackle sight-casting opportunities that rival those for prestigious flats targets like bonefish and permit.

“People don’t give lemon sharks the credit they deserve — until they hook one, ” says Johnson. “They’re just a phenomenal species.”

Johnson searches for lemons on the flats around the areas of Nine-Mile Bank, Palm Lakes, First National Bank, Sandy Key and Snake Bight in Florida Bay. Two conditions are a must for a flat to be productive: water temps of at least 75 degrees and a heavy current.

Johnson anchors his boat with a PowerPole in two to four feet of water, and then begins chumming, tossing three to four fresh fish carcasses — secured to a rope-and-cable apparatus — off the bow. Legal-size mackerel, bluefish or jack crevalle all work for this chum; but Johnson likes ladyfish the best, as they’re plentiful and extremely oily.

Then, a waiting game ensues, as the current carries the scent near and far. Sometimes it’s a short wait; other times it’s longer.

Big Fish, Shallow Water

Invariably, though, when the lemon sharks show in the slick (and it could be a single fish or multiples), they do what all sharks usually do: investigate.

“They’re very methodical,” Johnson says, “but their behavior patterns can change quickly. You have to use some tricks to get their guard down so they’ll eat your bait.”

That might involve slowly pulling in the dangling chum carcasses when a shark shows interest; it also might involve tossing chunks of ladyfish to a circling shark.

Eventually, a lemon will become intrigued enough that it’ll take a baited hook. Johnson likes to deploy rods rigged with small chunks or strips of ladyfish and let the morsels rest on the bottom in free-spool. He also has his anglers sight-cast baits to specific sharks that are showing signs of aggression.

Twenty-pound spinning gear is ideal, Johnson says. He rigs the chunks on 6/0 to 9/0 circle hooks with two feet of No. 6 wire attached to a four- or five-foot section of 100-pound mono for leadering the big sharks.

When one strikes, it’s time to hang on.

“These fish are big, and they pull hard,” says Johnson. “It takes some talent to catch a 200-pound shark on the flats, and they’re great not only for experienced anglers, but families and kids too.”