Florida by Fly

Often, the best fishing trips are spontaneous. Some, like this recent shark and tarpon trip to Jacksonville, Florida, have made me immediately block out my schedule next year for a repeat. In early August, my college roommate, Zsolt Takacs, who lives in Jacksonville, called and told me to drop everything but my heaviest fly rods. This high school marine biology teacher, football coach and photographer had four days left to fish before football practice started, and one of Jacksonville's best bites was on. Shrimp boats were working right off Mayport Inlet, and when that happens a slough of lazy, large predators, including myriad sharks and tarpon, follow the shrimpers to slurp up bycatch from the trawls. We took full advantage of the action in the wake of these seagoing gravy trains.
Zsolt is a tarpon addict. His house resembles a shrine to tarpon and tarpon fishing. He wore his lucky tarpon-print Columbia Omni-Shield PFG, hoping that we'd stick a tarpon behind the shrimp boats.
I did. I spent an hour on this estimated 130-pound fish before getting impatient with her. She broke off when I tried too hard to stop her from swimming back down 40 feet after getting a gulp of air.
About 45 minutes into the fight, I asked Zsolt how long I had before a shark ate the tarpon. He swears that he's never seen that happen behind the shrimp boats, in 30 or so years of fishing out of Jax. I bet Zsolt $100 bucks that he wouldn't swim 100 yards in the vicinity of those shrimp boats in that Columbia shirt. He actually thought about it for a minute, but I think the temptation had more to do with teacher's salaries.
Trawling typically takes place from within a few miles of the beach. During late summer and early fall, a shrimp hatch takes place in the St. Johns River, which pours out Mayport Inlet. It's a short run to intercept the shrimpers.
You can catch fish behind boats as they trawl, but bonanza occurs when the crew shovels out the bycatch, which mostly includes croakers, sand trout and some pogies, a.k.a. "bunker," formally called "menhaden." When the crew lifts the nets, it means that they will shovel out the bycatch not long thereafter.
Busting tarpon go after the pogies with unbridled tenacity.
The legions of birds that follow the shrimp boats go into a Hitchcock-esque frenzy when the crew starts shoveling bycatch.
While they're trawling, you need to get the fly right up in the propwash without snagging a seagull.
This banded drum is a commonly discarded as bycatch. You can start your own chum slick by putting $20 in a chum bag attached to a buoy, and slinging onto the shrimp boat's deck. The mates will fill the bag and toss it overboard. Or, you can fight the birds, fish and porpoises for floating fish after they dump.
Matching the hatch mostly involved using flies that sink a little, but not too quickly. A 4-inch orange or orange-and-white Sea-Ducer proved the most successful pattern. Saddle hackles, and palmered hackle breathe naturally and provide subtle movement while the fly drifts suspended in the water. Without exception, curious sharks spooked when we introduced movement via stripping the fly, however slightly. Note the 4-inch wire leader with haywired loop made for a loop-to-loop leader connection.
This lemon shark ate a "chum fly" dead drifted in the prop wash, probably three hundred yards behind the shrimp boat. It's important to start close to the shrimper, then make sure the fly drifts naturally, without drag or movement. Flies that have relatively neutral density--flies that hover just under the surface--are best when the sharks are visibly feeding near the surface. Highly imitative baitfish patterns tied with materials that sink worked best when they were feeding closer to the bottom.
You can either attach leader to wire with a loop system, as we chose to do, or with an Albright knot. You need to re-tie after each fish. Sharks pull so hard that the wire will bite into the monofilament leader regardless of how you attach it. We chose the loop-to-loop system for ease of retying. Remember that fluorocarbon sinks, so stick to a mono leader to keep the fly in the strike zone longer.
Several times, sharks nipped at the tails of the flies. Sharks are curious, and they may bite these hunks of feathers out of curiosity. Usually, they strike so hard that they pull the fly line right out of your hand, and are into the backing before you know it. Don't lift the rod or you'll miss the strike. Set the hook with a strip strike, but make sure you don't hang onto the line when they run. You'll either break the fish off or burn yourself.
Bring a bunch of flies. We averaged about 1.5 flies per fish with these toothy critters.
Some shark researchers I work with are trying to figure out how much stress a shark can take, in terms of fight length, and still be released safely. I generally tackle up to whip them quickly. You can bring in these small- to medium sized lemon, spinner and blacktip sharks on a 12-weight, but 13-15 weight rods shorten the fight. We were using my trusty Temple Fork 12-weight, only because since last winter's shark season and the spring tarpon season left the rest of my heavier fly gear in a pile of shattered graphite.
Zsolt could lift those dogged lemon sharks because our leader consisted of a straight, four-foot piece 60-pound mono, going to a three-foot piece of 100-pound mono, which also gave the angler with the de-hooker a stretch of strong line to control the fish with.
Sharks fight erratically, pulling 150 yards of line out, then swimming back toward the boat after a sharp 180. Zsolt struggles to reel fast enough to avoid the slack, counting on the bend in the fly line to hold the hook fast.
You get far less leverage on a shark by lifting up than lifting sideways. But when the fish is down straight under the boat you don't have much choice. I'm on the verge of high-sticking this fish, which is a recipe for a broken rod. But the next movement is to lower the rod as fast as I can reel in line. Remain patient when a big fish is close to the boat, and regard even an inch gained as a victory.
The last place you want a shark is in the boat. They also fair a lot better if you keep them buoyant in the water. This lemon shark has decades of reproduction ahead of it.
I mean really, you want to hold this big gal up for a photo? This shark could be an accomplice to this year's Darwin Awards.
Blacktip sharks are more acrobatic than tarpon and make faster runs. They're a common catch off Jacksonville and will eat the same flies that other sharks do.
Regardless of your tackle preferences, this fishery is easily accessible in a small bay boat.
Randomly, the sharks would go down and show no interest in flies. Zsolt rigged up a heavy spinner with a circle hook, and was hooked up in seconds flat. Fishing with dead baits behind shrimp boats is usually a surefire way to catch sharks. This fishery is one of the best places I know to take a kid to catch his/her first shark. Jacksonville is a major hub, so flights are regular and inexpensive. Summer days, when most of the trawling takes place, are calm. And, the action, which requires little waiting, is right off the beach.
We saw huge barracudas in the chum slick. Note the parasitic copepods on the fish's face.
You can make your own chum slick by catching pogies along the beach and tossing them overboard a few at a time further offshore. Zsolt pancakes an 8-foot net.
The net was so full it floated.
The bait hardly fit in the livewell, though live baits are unnecessary and really less effective than dead ones, since the fish are feeding on dead bycatch.
Diving pelicans betray pogy pods.
The St. Johns River, one of the longest and only north-flowing rivers, flows into the Atlantic out the mouth of Jacksonville's Mayport Inlet. It's one of the most biologically productive places in the world, smack in the middle of a happening city. The diversity is incredible. Hands down, it offers one of the best places to fish for sharks on fly, or with any other means, not to mention the inshore angling for myriad species including speckled trout, redfish and flounder.
The offshore fishing for pelagic species is also superb. The mahi, yellowfin tuna, marlin and wahoo bites are on right now. A few good Jacksonville guides include: Capt. Dave Sipler; www.captdaves.com, and Capt. Kirk Waltz; enterprisefishingcharters.com. The same action occurs off St. Augustine. Contact Capt. Kevin Faver; kfaver@bellsouthnet, and www.jodielynncharters.com.