Chasing Florida Keys Sharks in Shallow Water

Islamorada guides target bulls, lemons and hammerheads

Shark fishing seems to be a black-or-white issue: Anglers either love sharks and all things sharky or they treat these apex predators as a nuisance. In the Florida Keys, charter captains and anglers have developed a seemingly well-loved sightfishery for big bull, lemon and hammerhead sharks in the shallows of Florida Bay. Even shark maligners must admit this opportunity can be epic.

To explore this fishery and other shark prospects for year-round catch-and-release fun, I called on two captains who work out of the legendary Bud N' Mary's Marina in Islamorada: Capt. Rick Stanczyk (305-747-6903, islamoradasharkfishing.com) and Capt. Jim Willcox (305-393-1128, ultimatekeysfishing.com). I asked them to answer the following questions:

Q: Tell me why an angler would want to come to Islamorada to target these sharks?

Willcox: An angler would want to come to Islamorada because it's a location where the Gulf, the Atlantic and Florida Bay converge — like a confluence of three rivers. That means lots of activity.

Stanczyk: Sharks are great targets for many anglers. They're one of the most-requested species especially for novice fishermen who want to have fun battling something large. We have a variety of sharks here that can be caught all year long. They're hard fighters and can be caught in a variety of ways, including sightfishing. They're fairly common so you have plenty of opportunities, and novices don't have to worry so much about spooking their only shot at a fish in a day's fishing.

Q: What is/are the peak season(s) for sightcasting sharks on the flats?

Willcox: Shallow-water sightfishing is best March through November, but deep-water shark fishing happens all year. Even if it's cold, I can catch them in the canals in the Everglades. The area is not only a nursery and breeding ground, but a place where large sharks reside.

Stanczyk: The sharks in the shallows typically prefer warmer water temperatures, and in spring and summer, there are also plenty of baitfish such as mullet around.

Q: How big do the sharks get there and how many might you expect to catch during the peak seasons?

Willcox: We catch lemons, bulls, sandbars, blacktips, hammerheads, tiger sharks, nurse sharks and bonnetheads. It's possible to catch more than 20 sharks a day. The larger sharks can range from 150 to 200 pounds.

Stanczyk: Sharks in the backcountry typically weigh 50 to 100 pounds, though it's not uncommon to get them up to 200 pounds or even larger occasionally. In the peak season, on a good day, you can catch double-digit shark numbers. When sightfishing for them, that really depends on how well the angler can cast. A skilled angler would still likely average four or so in a day. We do typically practice catch and release with all sharks. Some are edible, but we usually prefer to go catch something like mangrove snapper, which are better eating and easier to clean and handle.

Q: What general areas in the backcountry out of Islamorada do you fish during peak seasons? What tides? And what's the optimal water depth/temperature?

Willcox: There are high-tide spots and low-tide spots, so there's no "best" tide. It depends on how you approach it, although high tide is best for shallow-water sightfishing. The best depth is determined by the temperature and the tide.

Stanczyk: We fish all over the backcountry from Flamingo to East Cape to out west in the near Gulf. Shark fishing can be good in just about all the channels and around the edges of many flats, around the mainland Everglades, and also out in the Gulf. Most the channels I fish, we're in 6- to 10-foot depths, ideally in 75- to 85-degree water, and where the water has a little dirtiness to it. We often have shots at tarpon, Goliath grouper, large sawfish, cobia, and even big redfish and snook while dead baiting for sharks — so that makes it very exciting.

Sightfishing, you'd be working the edges of the flats in 1 ½ to 3 feet of water; best tides vary depending on the area, but usually in the Gulf, we prefer the falling tide. You want to make sure the water is moving.

Generally in the winter, we fish the Gulf for larger blacktip sharks. In the later spring and summer, there are lots of lemon sharks cruising the flats. Bull sharks and sandbar sharks are often caught in the creeks and around the mainland Everglades in the spring, summer, and fall. Also in the spring there are occasional hammerhead sharks to be found.

Q: For anglers using conventional or fly tackle, what's the basic gear setup they need (rod, reel, line, terminal tackle) and what bait is most commonly used and most successful?

Willcox: Medium to heavy spinning rod (50-pound test); 80- to 131-pound wire leader — for fish over 150 pounds. For sightfishing, 15-pound-test braid with a wire leader. Fly tackle should be 8- to 12-weight, depending on the species, with a short wire leader.

Stanczyk: Typically when dead baiting, I use a heavier 20- to 30-pound rod with braided line of 50-pound test. I use a long piece of wind-on 60-pound leader with a couple ounces of weight and then a swivel. To that I add four feet of No. 9 wire going to an 8/0 circle hook. I usually use spinning gear because I prefer it, and I like Daiwa BG90 reels for larger sharks. For bait, fresh mullet or ladyfish is probably about the best thing you can use.

For more information on fishing Florida, go to Visit Florida.

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Courtesy Capt. Jim Willcox
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Courtesy Capt. Jim Willcox
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Courtesy Capt. Jim Willcox
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Courtesy Capt. Jim Willcox
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Courtesy Capt. Jim Willcox