Shark Bites

Though commercial threats--and the species' murderous reputation-- endure, shark fishing is as alluring as ever.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Snorkeling the passes between the bridges of the Florida Keys is not a wise thing to do. Today I shudder when I recall those foolish exploits of my youth. That I chose to swim not far from shore and did not make the error of going at night probably account for my continued existence. Even in brilliant sunlight, I was always uneasy when the bottom dropped away into that dim, deep-blue haze and I imagined what might be beyond sight, and probably was. By night I fished from the bridges, sometimes hooking tarpon that destroyed my inadequate tackle. I watched huge living Rorschach shapes undulate past the pilings, and now and then something would crash, feeding invisibly in the blackness. Those were the days when they still killed tarpon and brought them in to hang. I later learned that the corpses of those fish were hauled out by night and dumped into the passes where I swam. Of course the sharks came to eat.

With shark stories, it's difficult to separate truth from fancy, but in the legend of a giant hammerhead that visited the Bahia Honda bridge where I sometimes played, there are plenty of substantiated incidents. "Big Mo" (short for Big Mother) was the bane of tarpon guides. It took their fish and terrorized their clients when it struck at boatside, ripping away tarpon being fought or held for release. Size is vulnerable to embellishment, but most tales describe the eyes of Mo at either end of the hammer as being between four and five feet apart. Its girth was enormous. Its length was consistently estimated at between 17 and 18 feet when the fish first arrived. More recently a guide friend whose skiff is 18 feet long reported that when Mo passed under his boat, the head and tail extended past the bow and stern. That would make the creature at least 20 feet. Not surprisingly, a shark of such proportions invited concerted efforts to remove her, most of which were creative, if not barbaric.

Early on in the game, one guide, theorizing that extra weight equals extra impact, sent five .44 Magnum mercury-laced bullets into Big Mo's head. The barrage did little more than leave a distinctive scar pattern that, along with a tip-bent dorsal fin, made for easy identification later. One pair of guides reportedly fed her a tarpon carcass laced with a bag of lye, which evidently never elicited so much as a belch. Collective reports of Mo rearing from the water with 100-pound tarpon crossways in her jaws, flipping them in the air and severing them, eventually would lure some of Long Island's most passionate shark killers.

The story goes that the New York boys assembled an outfit using 1,000-pound-test aircraft cable as leader, 14/0, triple-strong hooks in tandem and a tarpon for bait. The line on their two-speed Fin-Nor reels was 125-pound-test. They teased Mo up all right, and when she struck they let her eat well and turn before simultaneously slamming down the reel drag lever and the throttles of their enormous chartered Hatteras. The boat shot forward, engines thundering, to drag Mo from the bridge. But within moments it was a stalemate-the resistance on the rod equaled the efforts to accelerate the boat. Later, back at the bridge, they found the cable leader wrapped three times around a bridge piling. The hooks were opened nearly straight and the shark was gone.

** A Changing Reputation**
Historically, sharks like Mo have been mankind's classic bete noir, the dragon that needs slaying. More recently we've begun to understand the vital role these fish play in the marine ecosystem-and potentially our own health-and the genetic frailty to which these otherwise perfect predators are heir.

Sharks are astonishingly slow-growing and late to reach sexual maturity (bull sharks, for instance, reach it at age 18). Their gestation period is far longer than ours (13 to 16 months for tigers), they produce a relatively small number of young and some species don't breed annuall Despite this natural vulnerability-coupled with the severe population depletions many species have undergone (see "Sharks on the Brink," page 64)-catch-and-release shark fishing remains viable, though drastically altered, along our coasts. From the shark concentrations that swarm some fishing hot spots you'd never know there's a problemÉbut there is. In the mid-Atlantic states, anglers are sometimes running 40 miles offshore to find fish where once they did well in honey holes just 12 miles out.

Though it's no longer realistic to expect the kind of multiple hookups that occurred with makos in the '70s out of ports like Montauk, N.Y., these violent, leaping gamefish still offer occasional adrenaline mainlines for anglers fishing both the Atlantic and the West Coast. Hammerheads, blacktips and lemons, though not nearly as plentiful as they once were, figure heavily in sportfishing catches, while species like browns (sandbars) and duskys have been badly beaten up by both offshore and inshore longliners. Threshers are an off-again, on-again catch on the East Coast, but are more reliable in the Pacific. Due to their unpopularity as food, blue sharks have healthy populations on both coasts. These sleek, beautiful requiem sharks, the only reliable game in town for northern anglers, have a mixed sporting reputation. Sometimes they're blisteringly "hot," but they can also live up to their nickname of "blue dogs." A lot depends on the individual shark and how you fish for it.

Blacktips With Jose
It's always wise, given the regionally specific techniques for attracting, baiting and fishing sharks, as well as the inherent danger in the game, to learn your shark fishing from someone who does it regularly in the area. Fishing methods include trolling hardhead lures from downriggers and flatlines for threshers and makos (a West Coast specialty); sight-fishing on flats; drift-chumming over deepwater humps; chumming while anchored near a reef or in a channel; and drifting the basins, bank edges and passes.

The latter is a specialty of Summerland Key Captain Jose Wejebe when fishing between Key West and the Marquesas. This is open Gulf country, where the hammerheads follow the tarpon, the bulls and lemons trade in and out to hunt and the blacktips are almost always around. Wherever you go in South Florida, barracudas are the favorite attractors. You hang the carcass, sometimes cutting or partially filleting it, and the incredible scenting capabilities of the sharks will soon lead them to the cache.

Once hooked, blacktips leap and spin, and if your leader catches a fin it takes only one head-shake for the aerialized shark to cut you off. Which is why Wejebe uses at least 30-pound leader tippet and No. 6 or No. 7 (58- to 65-pound-test) wire bite tippet for flyfishing. Clients using conventional or spinning gear often employ even heavier test wire traces with 20- to 30-pound line. "These aren't flats sharks," Wejebe says. "They start at 80 pounds, and the big ones fight harder than tarpon."

One day with Wejebe, we found our sharks in a basin holding for forage drifting down-current from a bank. Sometimes a single hunter would come and sometimes a school of them would move in fast. There were blacktips and a hammerhead that would have gone maybe 200 pounds. In Jose's experience, these offshore sharks eat and run in a nonstop sequence, and they do it faster than you can react. That's no problem with spinning or casting gear, but the warning for flyfishers is this: When drifting streamers on tight lines using a direct-drive reel, it's better to strike against the drag rather than use a handline set as you would when tarpon fishing-unless you yearn to have your skin burned down to the nerves.

In a freak accident, Jose's hand had been pierced by rigging scissors shortly before we fished with him. Taking that into consideration, we tried to keep him from having to wire every fish by cleverly breaking a few off. That was our excuse, anyway. But one pretty blacktip that did not snap free cried for photos as the sun was setting. I led the fish boatside and suddenly Jose folded over the gunwale. He grabbed the shark's pectorals, then chest, and literally hugged the thrashing beast while lifting it from the water.

"What the #@!&*$ do you think you're doing!?" I yelled.

"I'm Cuban. I'm supposed to be macho," Wejebe rumbled.

West Coast Flying
Greg Stotesbury knows about handling sharks, too. We left the Newport Beach, Calif., marina in his boat with the sun trying hard to burn through the haze of an angry-looking dawn. Just days before I'd arrived, the ocean had been totally alive-free-jumping makos were in good numbers. But the weather had cooled and things had turned sour. While trolling I picked up a 50-pound mako, a lucky catch since my leader had no wire. We began chumming near a kelp paddy. My friend Ken Carman was up with a fly when a mako rushed in. Stotesbury teased it with a live mackerel tethered through the sinuses Hawaiian harness-style, and the fish nearly ate Ken's big-eyed white fly a couple of times before turning timid and fleeing. "Funny thing, out here," Greg said. "These makos seem to go for darker flies, black or brown with only a little flash." In most of the world, white is right, and orange, chartreuse, red and yellow are just fine. Most veteran sharkers' experience with makos is a history of aggression, not timidity. And Greg's is no exception. "We once had a hooked jumper that fell in the boat," he says. "We were like cats clawing to reach anything that gave elevation while the thing snapped its way across the cockpit, then got a grip on the teak rod rack. While he was chewing that apart, I quieted him with a club enough to get him out."

This day, however, the sharks were reluctant feeders. A batch of blues came in and wouldn't eat. The largest went round and round the boat, occasionally rubbing it. Finally it stuck its snout and half its head from the water between boat and chum dispenser, like a dog looking to be petted. Ken scratched its back with his rod, which it seemed to like until it felt the guides. We wondered whether it might want to mate with the boat.

On the Flats
One of the more exciting forms of shark fishing is stalking them on the flats from a skiff. The key is to cast your lure alongside the fish's head and keep it tracking in the fish's sight line. Despite other magnificent sensory capabilities, sharks have poor eyesight. Miscasts that hit them on the head will spook them like goosed bonefish. The flip side to this sight-fishing is meeting sharks while wading for other species.

Nobody I know intentionally wades for sharks. However, most of us who have f tried to keep him from having to wire every fish by cleverly breaking a few off. That was our excuse, anyway. But one pretty blacktip that did not snap free cried for photos as the sun was setting. I led the fish boatside and suddenly Jose folded over the gunwale. He grabbed the shark's pectorals, then chest, and literally hugged the thrashing beast while lifting it from the water.

"What the #@!&*$ do you think you're doing!?" I yelled.

"I'm Cuban. I'm supposed to be macho," Wejebe rumbled.

West Coast Flying
Greg Stotesbury knows about handling sharks, too. We left the Newport Beach, Calif., marina in his boat with the sun trying hard to burn through the haze of an angry-looking dawn. Just days before I'd arrived, the ocean had been totally alive-free-jumping makos were in good numbers. But the weather had cooled and things had turned sour. While trolling I picked up a 50-pound mako, a lucky catch since my leader had no wire. We began chumming near a kelp paddy. My friend Ken Carman was up with a fly when a mako rushed in. Stotesbury teased it with a live mackerel tethered through the sinuses Hawaiian harness-style, and the fish nearly ate Ken's big-eyed white fly a couple of times before turning timid and fleeing. "Funny thing, out here," Greg said. "These makos seem to go for darker flies, black or brown with only a little flash." In most of the world, white is right, and orange, chartreuse, red and yellow are just fine. Most veteran sharkers' experience with makos is a history of aggression, not timidity. And Greg's is no exception. "We once had a hooked jumper that fell in the boat," he says. "We were like cats clawing to reach anything that gave elevation while the thing snapped its way across the cockpit, then got a grip on the teak rod rack. While he was chewing that apart, I quieted him with a club enough to get him out."

This day, however, the sharks were reluctant feeders. A batch of blues came in and wouldn't eat. The largest went round and round the boat, occasionally rubbing it. Finally it stuck its snout and half its head from the water between boat and chum dispenser, like a dog looking to be petted. Ken scratched its back with his rod, which it seemed to like until it felt the guides. We wondered whether it might want to mate with the boat.

On the Flats
One of the more exciting forms of shark fishing is stalking them on the flats from a skiff. The key is to cast your lure alongside the fish's head and keep it tracking in the fish's sight line. Despite other magnificent sensory capabilities, sharks have poor eyesight. Miscasts that hit them on the head will spook them like goosed bonefish. The flip side to this sight-fishing is meeting sharks while wading for other species.

Nobody I know intentionally wades for sharks. However, most of us who have f