Carolina Sharks!

Carolina Sharks!
Looking for something to catch that's big, tough, easy to find and fun? Make sharks part of your game plan for North Carolina waters. (July 2006)

Captain Fisher Culbreth of Capture Charters cautiously unhooks a sandbar shark using a de-hooking tool. Sharks must be handled with care as they are brought to the boat.
Photo by Mike Marsh.

Shark! The very word invokes images of ferocious predators showing their teeth in threatening grimaces as they circle hapless prey. Many fishermen curse them because they eat baits intended for other game fish and attack hooked game fish with gruesome results. Many tournament-winning fish, from marlin to king mackerel to flounder have been attacked by a shark before being played to the boat and taken to the weigh-in station.

There are dozens of species of sharks swimming in North Carolina's coastal waters. Small dogfish and large sand tiger sharks prowl inshore waters, the surf and nearshore wrecks and reefs. Deeper waters attract every shark imaginable, including the huge "requiem" sharks -- purported man-eaters like the great hammerhead, tiger, bull, blue and great white sharks.

As recent as two decades ago, there were shark tournaments in coastal towns. However, overfishing, especially by commercial interests, has caused a decline in coastal shark populations to the point that there are restrictions on shark landings, including recreational landings.

Fishery managers are getting a handle on shark populations and the restrictions are helping some shark populations stabilize. A few are increasing, but some are still in trouble. Nearly all sharks have low reproductive rates and take longer than most marine species to reach maturity. The problem for sharks is not that people want to catch the sharks because the sharks eat people; the sharks' problem is that people like to eat sharks.

Large sharks get the most attention, but few anglers attempt to catch them and the big sharks hooked incidentally usually cut off or break the line. The biggest species attain weights of hundreds of pounds and most anglers would rather forgo catching them anyway.

Still, a few dedicated fishermen pursue big sharks. Shortfin makos are occasionally hooked by big-game anglers trolling for marlin. The mako may be the fastest shark in the world, thrilling an angler with spectacular leaps and streaking runs. Also called the "blue pointer," makos can achieve weights of over 1,000 pounds. Large sharks like the mako are extremely dangerous and have even been known to attack boats when hooked. Most anglers who hook them simply cut the line rather than try to land one and that's the case with other large sharks.

Anglers never forget tangling with threshers and spinners, which can also jump. A spinner seldom weighs over 100 pounds, but a thresher shark can weigh several hundred pounds.

Hammerheads are probably the most common large shark anglers encounter in North Carolina waters. The first saltwater big-game fish I ever landed was a 7-foot hammerhead. It was landed at Kure Beach fishing pier in 1971, a time when the species was more common. The fish struck a live spot fished with a king mackerel trolley rig. The big fish stripped 350 yards of line from a conventional spool reel on the first run and took over an hour to land. The largest hammerhead I've ever seen followed a hooked dolphin to the boat about 25 miles offshore of Carolina Beach two summers ago. The shark was certainly over 1,000 pounds in weight, bigger than the world's record. On the light gear I was using to land the dolphin, there was no hope of successfully fighting the monster shark, so I tightened the drag and horsed the dolphin to the boat just ahead of the shark's attack.

Last summer, I saw a 5-pound flounder fall victim to shark attack less than a mile off Wrightsville Beach. My fishing partner snatched the flounder from the shark, which had taken half the fish leaving a huge, semi-circular void. He held the half a flatfish over the opposite side of the boat to keep blood from dripping on the deck. You guessed it. The shark jumped and made off with the other half of his meal. It was a sandbar shark, a very common nearshore species. These experiences highlight how many different species of sharks there are and how many different types of bait they will strike.

Fishermen who are after king mackerel, grouper and snapper often catch smaller sharks like sharpnose and smooth dogfish or spiny dogfish. They are attracted to slow-trolled live menhaden and to chunked cigar minnows dropped to the bottom for reef fishing.

Most anglers think these smaller sharks are nuisances. But if they learn to identify them, they will find they offer excellent eating in smaller packages than the big sharks.

Still, these fish can be dangerous if not handled properly. Most anglers who are not going to keep a shark are better off cutting the line and giving the shark the hook than trying to shake the hook free or work it loose with pliers. Fishermen who are experienced at handling small sharks use a Spectra mesh fish-cleaning glove and grab the shark behind the head to control it before using pliers to free the hook. Another way to subdue a small shark is to drop it on the deck and let it work its way into a corner at the back of the boat. Once it tires, it can be grabbed by the tail and tossed into a fish box.

Many sharks are landed from the surf and ocean piers. Before shark fishing from a pier, however, anglers are advised to read the posted pier rules or to ask a pier attendant. Each pier's rules are different. Some allow shark fishing only at night, some during certain dates and some don't allow shark fishing at all. Anglers who fish for sharks from piers drop fish chunks from the pier to attract them. During the daytime, attracting sharks to baits meant for king mackerel or cobia with chum can raise tempers.

Landing a big shark from a pier in daylight can also, as you might imagine, have a negative impact on tourists walking the beaches and swimming nearby.

One popular pier for catching sharks is the municipal pier operated by Southport. The pier extends into the Cape Fear River and is very near the Atlantic Ocean. Some very large sharks have been landed at this pier.

Surf-fishermen can get away with chumming in most localities and anglers standing on sand have landed some of the state's biggest sharks. More surf-fishermen tangle with sharks than actually realize it. They use tackle too small to land even a modest 100-pounder. They get a strike, the leader cuts or the line breaks and the fight is over before it began. Sometimes they don't even feel the strike when the shark cuts the leader and swims off with their hook, leader and sinker.

Rigs for pier- and surf-fishi

ng for sharks are essentially the same. A long rod with a conventional or spinning reel packed with 400 yards of superbraid or monofilament gets the job done for all but the largest sharks.

Night is the best time to fish for sharks in the shallows, although they also strike during the day. The best places to fish for them are wherever there is a concentration of fish. Dark waters near inlets and coastal rivers where tide lines form and contact the beach are some of the best spots. Tide lines form when two different temperatures of water clash, forming a wall that concentrates baitfish, predatory fish and carcasses of marine creatures. Sharks feed on all this protein, so they won't be far away.

Chumming works as well when fishing from the beach as it does from a pier. Cutting up pinfish, spots, croakers and other small fish caught during a fishing trip and tossing them into the breakers attracts sharks. Chumming is also the best way to bring sharks near a boat.

Sharks can detect blood and vibrations of injured fish from great distances. They also detect changes in electrical currents given off by live prey. These sensory traits make sharks easy to attract to trolled or drifted baits.

Frozen chum can be purchased in blocks from seafood dealers and bait shops. But many anglers make concoctions of menhaden or other fish oil, pet food and ground or chunked fish. Some add poultry feed or cracked corn to sink particles of chum that attach to it so the scent will drift below the surface. Tossing chum overboard or placing it in a mesh bag and trolling in a circle around the resulting "slick" is the standard method of attracting sharks. Chumming works best when done over hard-bottom areas, wrecks and artificial reefs where sharks are already attracted to the structure.

Heavy trolling tackle works best for catching sharks. Most anglers expecting to catch sharks of up to 500 pounds use 6/0 to 9/0 conventional revolving reels spooled with 30- to 80-pound monofilament line. A shark's skin is very abrasive and can cut the line if the shark wraps the line around his body or tail during a fight. Some anglers use a length of superbraid line to the monofilament line as a "top shot" before tying on the leader.

Shark leaders must be made of metal. Even small sharks can bite through wire leaders. Sharks are not leader shy, so upsizing the leader doesn't deter strikes.

Heavy hooks are used to hold sharks. Smaller sharks like the common sandbar and blacktip in nearshore waters are caught with hooks ranging in size from 3/0 to 9/0. Bigger sharks obviously require the use of bigger hooks and leaders.

For anglers fishing from small boats, one tactic is becoming very popular. Several charter captains specialize in helping their clients catch sharks near commercial boats trawling for shrimp.

A shrimp boat fishes with a trawl, a net extending all the way down to the seafloor. The net is pulled for a short time, and then hoisted aboard the boat. The crew separates or "culls" the bycatch of finfish and other marine creatures from the shrimp and tosses the "scrap" overboard. When the net is pulled, the ocean behind it comes alive. Porpoises, seabirds and all types of fish move in for the ready-made feast. Sharks can be spotted swimming right at the backs of the boats when the net is gathered in and raised and the catch is culled.

Shark fishermen take advantage of the free chum. A dead mullet dipped in fish oil and blood will entice any shark drawn to the feeding frenzy. Chunked fish, fillets or frozen baits all work equally well. Charter captains who know the shrimp boat captains sometimes call them over their VHF radios and request scrap to use as bait. The bait is tossed overboard inside a plastic bag or plastic pail so it will float and the charter captain picks it up with a landing net or gaff.

Trolling behind a shrimp boat usually results in a strike. Therefore, most anglers fishing near shrimp boats troll only one or two lines. It saves the trouble of having to clear lines when a shark strikes and runs.

A 100- to 200-pound shark hooked on light king mackerel tackle behind a shrimp boat puts on a tough battle. Initially, the fish will take 100 to 200 yards of line against a tight drag. Anglers are advised to wear a fight belt to prevent injury to the groin area, as well as to help subdue the fish while preventing fatigue. Many sharks can be hooked in a day's fishing near the shrimp boats, so anything the angler can do to keep up his strength is a good idea.

When sportfishing for midsized sharks, most anglers release everything they catch. They play the fish until it's tired, which usually takes 15 to 30 minutes. Then they use a de-hooking tool to pull the hook free. The hook is sized to the fish, usually a 4/0 to 9/0 hook and seldom stainless steel. When a shark comes alongside but is too frisky for a safe release, the leader is cut. Using a hook that corrodes not only is safer for the fish, it saves money over buying stainless steel hooks.

Several large species of coastal sharks can be landed. But when a big shark is taken for the table, some forethought should take place. A large enough fish box to hold the entire fish or a marlin bag must be aboard with enough ice to keep the fish cold. The fish is gaffed with a stout gaff and brought aboard. For larger fish, a second gaff or a rope may be necessary to lift the tail into the boat. Some shark fishermen use a diver's bang stick or .410 shotgun to shoot the fish in the brain before bringing it aboard.

Any shark, even an apparently dead one, can suddenly come to life. If a shark bites any part of human anatomy, that part is gone. Even a small dogfish can inflict a serious wound to a hand or a foot. An aluminum or wood club or a rubber mallet can be used to calm a fish once it's aboard.

No angler should attempt to land a big shark unless he has experience. He should fish with an experienced shark fisherman before trying it on his own. But for anyone who only wants a big pull on the line before releasing a fish, sharks are the easiest big-game fish to catch.

Before heading out, an angler should have an understanding of shark regulations and identification. Dropping a bait in the ocean will eventually attract a shark, so it pays to know whether it can be kept. Here's a regulations summary, but anglers should check current NCDMF regulations for more specifics.

The creel limit is one shark per vessel unless fishing from shore, charter boat or head boat, then the limit is one per person excluding captain and crew.

In internal and coastal waters out to three miles, sharks must be between 54 and 84 inches fork length, except tiger, thresher, bigeye thresher, shortfin mako and all hammerhead species, which may exceed 84 inches. Prohibited sharks are basking, white, sand tiger and whale. Minimum size does not apply to Atlantic sharpnose or dogfish and creel limit does not apply to dogfish.

In the Exclusive Economic Zone, three to 200 miles offshore, minimum length is 54 inches with no maximum. Legal sharks include sandbar, silky, tig

er, blacktip, spinner, lemon, bull, nurse, smooth and scalloped and great hammerhead, blacknose, finetooth, bonnethead, shortfin mako, blue, thresher, porbeagle, and oceanic whitetip. Prohibited sharks are whale, basking, white, sand tiger, bigeye sand tiger, Atlantic angel shark, bigeye sixgill, bigeye thresher, bignose, Caribbean reef, Caribbean sharpnose, dusky, Galapagos, longfin mako, narrowtooth, night, sevengill, sixgill and smalltail. One Atlantic sharpnose of no minimum size and one bonnethead of no minimum size per person may be landed in addition to other shark limits and there are no limits on dogfish.

For information about a fishing trip, you can contact the following charters:

Fish Witch II Charters, Carolina Beach, Carl or Shane Snow, (910) 458-5855.

Capture Charters, Carolina Beach, Fisher Culbreth, (910) 262-1450.

Down East Charters, Greg Voliva or Ray Massengill, (252) 249-3101.

Excellent reference books include Offshore Angler -- Coastal Carolina's Mackerel Boat Fishing Guide, by Mike Marsh (e-mail mike62774@ aol.com), Sport Fish of the Atlantic, by Vic Dunaway (on line at www. floridasportsman.com/books) and Sharks of the World by Leonard Compagno, Marc Dando and Sarah Fowler (Princeton University Press, visit nathist.princeton.edu.). For regulations, visit the NCDMF Web site at www.ncfisheries.net.

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