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.
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 (www.floridakeysfunfishing.com; 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.”
Hot Spot: New England
For the thrill of a lifetime, drift your way to a thresher
Of all species of sharks, the common thresher (Alopias vulpinus) might be the most beautiful and amazing for any angler to catch. Just listen to the words of Capt. Bill Brown (www.billfishcharter.com; 860‑741‑3301) of Watch Hill, Rhode Island.
“That big tail gives them tremendous thrust, and their jumping ability often leaves anglers’ mouths open in sheer awe. Seeing what looks like a 20-foot alien flying through the air leaves a mental image that will last a lifetime. Makos are known for their aerial abilities, but the sheer bulk and length of a leaping thresher is almost incomprehensible.”
Chasing the Thresher
Brown knows threshers. For 37 years, he’s been pursuing these graceful beauties around the famed waters of New England, painstakingly recording every detail of every catch in a logbook. Not many captains are more knowledgeable.
Threshers generally begin moving from Montauk Point to Block Island around the second week of June, Brown says, and then up to Martha’s Vineyard by the second week of July. By early August, they’ve progressed to the outer reaches of Massachusetts Bay and into the Gulf of Maine. Then the fish turn south on a reverse course, making it back to Montauk by early November.
Brown follows their movements like clockwork. “They travel in loose, aggregate schools, from four or five to a few dozen, spaced out over a couple of miles,” he says. “Whether it’s migratory movement, temperature parameters or simply following baitfish, they seem to show near the same places year after year.”
While working the 20- to 30-fathom curves, the most important factor for finding threshers is the presence of bait, says Brown, though he also watches closely for underwater structure and temperature breaks. When he finds a good break, his attention shifts to his fish finder, which he scans for thermoclines at least 40 to 50 feet down.
With ideal conditions like this, Brown prepares for a drift, often stopping a mile away from the intended drift zone, assessing the effects of wind and tidal flow.
Fighting the Thresher
Brown prefers a four-rod pattern, and he stages baits with appropriate lead at various depths depending on thermocline location and speed of drift, methodically chumming all the while.
He positions bluefish or false albacore fillets, butterflied bluefish or mackerel or a “sandwich of fresh squid and a fillet” on three Penn 50 VSWs, often adding colorful plastic skirts or plastic squid strips as visual attractors. On his fourth rod, a Penn 70 VSW, Brown drifts a live bluefish.
These outfits are spooled with 80- to 130-pound braid with 100-yard top shots of 80- or 100-pound mono, and Brown’s leaders are built with 8 to 10 feet of 600-pound-test longline mono (which is more abrasion-resistant than regular mono), six feet of No. 19 SS wire and a 10/0 Mustad 7699 hook.
When a fish is hooked, an angler is in for a real struggle, as a thresher’s fighting ability rivals that of any billfish or tuna, according to Brown. Because of this, “it’s imperative that you get over the fish [with the boat] to apply maximum pressure,” he says. Don’t even try fighting them from a dead boat.
And, yes, during the course of battle, these incredible animals will sometimes completely clear the water. When they do, simply be amazed.
Hot Spot: Southern California
Find makos both large and small in west coast canyons_
Two of the world’s coolest shark species spend much time in the waters around the famed Channel Islands off the Southern California coast. One you can fish for; the other you cannot.
And that’s OK — because while the great white shark has been protected in California for nearly 20 years, its smaller cousin, the shortfin mako (Isurus oxyrinchus), ranks as one the ocean’s top predators and best adversaries on rod‑and‑reel.
And why wouldn’t they? Makos grow to an impressive size. They have a nasty disposition. They are sleek and incredibly fast. And when hooked, they’re the stuff of legend.
Sharks of All Sizes**
Makos are present year-round off Southern California, but things peak from May through October, says Capt. Mike Schmidt (www.sharkus.com/charters; 805‑444‑2777), who runs the Squalus, a 40-foot Luhrs, out of Channel Islands Harbor. The optimum time is July and August, and while the typical mako you’re likely to encounter will run 100 pounds or less, huge females upwards of 1,000 pounds also migrate into these waters during the warm months.
One look at a Google satellite map reveals why: It’s a playground of underwater structure and canyons, the kind on which pelagic food chains thrive.
The continental shelf drops off precipitously. Redondo Canyon lies just off the Cali coast, and huge makos are regularly caught there. But fishermen also fire up the engines and target seamounts and drop-offs in the 1,500- to 5,000-foot range well offshore.
“There’s often a lot of traveling required,” says Schmidt. “Makos swim upwards of 40 miles a day, constantly looking for food. Therefore, we have to hunt them too. You have to be able to read the water and sea life when looking for makos.”
That means watching closely for weed lines, color changes and current rips — all of which might indicate sea-surface temperature changes. It also means monitoring SST charts prior to a trip, such as those at www.terrafin.com.
Big makos are generally encountered in temps of 58 to 68 degrees. The warmer the water becomes, the smaller the makos get. But if the water gets too cool, pesky blue sharks become more prevalent, requiring sight-casting techniques should a mako arrive.
Gear of All Sizes**
As in most forms of sharking, chumming is the name of the game with the mako. Once Schmidt finds an area to his liking, he begins a rigorous chumming operation with mackerel and tuna, which includes chunking, power chumming and the use of a barrel system. On any given day, he’ll go through 200 to 300 pounds of chum.
“When we’re done laying a slick,” says Schmidt, “it’s as wide as a freeway.”
Three 80-pound outfits are generally deployed into this slick at staggered depths and distances from the boat. Tuna heads are used, as are whole tunas, whole mackerels, strips and large squids rigged on 7/0 to 14/0 hooks, depending on bait size.
Finally, a mako arrives. If it’s a large shark, it’ll almost always be by itself. But if it’s a smaller fish, it may well have a friend.
In cases like this, Schmidt has gotten into the habit of sight-casting a shotgun rig to makos less than 200 pounds. He uses a Penn 16S two-speed, spooled with 50-pound braid beneath a 100-pound mono top shot and four feet of wire.
“You need the right bait too,” he adds. “You can’t throw a big tuna at an 80-pounder. A lot of times we’ll just take a squid head and put it out there. The fish will jump on it.”
Then the fun begins. “Of course, nothing beats catching a monster,” says Schmidt, “but these smaller fish jump so much more on the lighter gear. It’s really the way to go.”