The mere mention of the word creates horrific images of bloodstained seas and screaming swimmers. Ever since “Jaws” hit theaters in 1975, sharks of all kinds have a reputation that precedes them like no other ocean dweller.
To millions of Americans S-H-A-R-K spells fear.
But not everyone views sharks in this light. In fact, some anglers have come to appreciate the adventure of catching the toughest creatures in the sea. There are dozens of species of sharks swimming the waters off the Gulf Coast, ranging from the tiny to the enormous, and each of them presents unique challenges for anglers.
On the Gulf Coast, the most commonly pursued sharks are spinners and blacktips. These sharks often school together and are very similar in appearance, size and disposition. Spinner and black-tip sharks leap from the water in amazing displays of agility, proving to be one of the most thrilling sights an angler can expect to see in the summertime Gulf.
Spinners and blacktips feed in various parts of the water column. Savvy anglers know that small sharks often forage in the upper part of the water column, quickly grabbing chunks of chum and undersized-fish thrown overboard. But large sharks usually operate somewhere below their smaller cousins, in what might be termed the mid-range.
If sharks are in water 50 feet deep, the big boys typically hang around the 20- to 25-foot depths.
Most of the sharks that you’ll see free-jumping measure 4 to 6 feet long. From where they tend to swim, these sharks can see what is going on above them, and they have plenty of room to generate the kind of energy it takes to push their 150-pound body 10 feet out of the water.
To draw in these big boys, it helps to create a sense of competition among the sharks. The most economical method is to take a 5-gallon bucket, punch it full of holes and put weights in the bottom. Fill it with fish guts, old shrimp, cut menhaden or any kind of smelly stuff, then cap it.
Tie the bucket to your boat with enough rope to sink it at least 10 feet down. The result is a chum slick that draws in sharks from all around.
The secret to bringing up the biggest of the nearby sharks is a combination of wet sand and live glass minnows or finger mullet. Take several of these baitfish, clump them up in a handful of wet sand and throw the batch overboard.
The baitfish will escape the sand at different depths, driving sharks crazy. When the big ones start surfacing, skip the sand and throw over just the live bait to keep the sharks on top, where they’re easily fished.
This technique is a modified version of what in Florida is called “power chumming.”
To keep some of the smaller sharks from striking, use large live bait like a hardtail or ladyfish. Most of all, brace yourself — because when a 6-foot-long spinner or black-tipped shark blasts through a school of its competitors, it’s coming for a fight.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the tiger shark, one of the most dreaded species in the seven seas. Garnering its name from the faint stripes that line its body, the tiger shark has more in common with its namesake than coloration.
According to the 1961 book, Dangerous Creatures of the World’s Oceans, tiger sharks — just like the feared cats of the Asian jungles — are actual man-eaters.
As the book says, “Tiger sharks kill a greater proportion of their human victims than do great whites. Whereas whites often spit out their prey after they realize it’s not a seal or some other natural prey, the tiger shark will be quite happy with eating a person — and in fact, seem to relish it.”
Among predatory sharks, tiger sharks are second only to great whites in the size department. Still, there’s great dispute among shark experts about the size potential for the species. Most texts list tiger sharks as growing up to 18 feet long and weighing more than 2,000 pounds.
But when it comes to their size, there are figures all over the board. One source stated: “Tiger sharks range in size from 8.8 to 24 feet long. The largest found weighed 6,800 lbs.”
That top weight seems a bit high. The International Game Fish Association, which keeps records of recreational fish catches, lists one 1,780-pounder — caught in 1964 by Walter Maxwell off the South Carolina coast — as the largest tiger shark caught by an angler.
That’s far shy of the estimate quoted above, but still massive for an oceanic predator.
Fans of the movie “Jaws” will remember the scene where the characters played by Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider dissect a big tiger shark caught by an angler seeking the reward for the man-eater that has terrorized their community. They pull out a mackerel, a small tuna and a Louisiana license plate that reads “Sportsman’s Paradise.”
That’s a very accurate portrayal of tiger sharks’ eating habits. They are the garbage collectors of the ocean and will eat anything.
The tiger shark’s favored prey includes sea turtles, mackerel, stingrays, lobsters, crabs and oceanic birds. In parts of their range, sea snakes represent a large part of the diet of juvenile tigers. These sharks also scavenge, and researchers have found them with shoes, metal signs — and, yes, license plates — among various other debris.
Anglers wanting to catch tiger sharks should focus their efforts on large structure offshore, such as sunken ships, coral reefs and underwater plateaus rising above the Gulf’s bottom. Drift large offerings, such as whole bonita or jack crevalle, which will turn off most smaller species, They pretty much guarantee that if something bites, it’s huge and worth the effort.
Tigers may be the Gulf’s largest frequent shark visitor, but of all sharks, bull sharks are the most dangerous. And, yes, that means they are more dangerous than great whites, tigers, makos, hammerheads and all other toothy predators.
The reason for their nasty reputation is twofold. To start with, they frequent shallow areas popular with fishermen and swimmers. Their range also includes the upper reaches of bay systems and freshwater rivers.
Of all sharks, bull sharks have the highest tolerance for fresh water and have been fou
nd in the Mississippi River as far north as Illinois and more than 1,000 miles up the Amazon.
This habit, on top of the fact they are widely distributed, puts bull sharks in close contact with people far more than the cold-water dwelling great whites and blue-water denizens like the mako and oceanic white-tipped shark.
Second, bull sharks are mean — plain and simple. They have a terrible disposition and are responsible for most shark attacks along the Gulf Coast.
According to an article in Time magazine by Robert Hueter, director of the Center of Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., “Bull sharks have the highest level of testosterone in any animal, including lions and elephants. . . . Its lower spiked teeth are designed to hold prey, while the upper triangular serrated teeth gouge out flesh.”
Catching bull sharks is not difficult. They frequent jetties, beachfronts, barrier islands and oil rigs in the near-shore Gulf of Mexico, often feeding on small sharks like the common Atlantic sharpnose.
“I’ve been fishing around the rigs on several occasions out of Cameron, La., and had an Atlantic sharpnose on, and then a big bull shark comes up and grabs it,” said veteran shark angler Bill Killian. “It’s quite a sight to see a shark big enough to eat another shark. That’s pretty intense.”
Killian likes to catch bull sharks around the oil rigs. But he said anglers who want to catch bull sharks must forget about catching other sharks:
“I like to catch any kind of big shark. But when the bulls show up, the other sharks tend to disappear. You will catch bunches of spinners around the rigs, and they will school. But when bulls show up, you will get bulls and pretty much only bulls when the big ones show up. They are the boss of the Gulf.”
Killian’s favorite tactic for catching bull sharks involves using a live ladyfish on a modified free-line rig.
“I’ll put on a 1-ounce weight and then lower the ladyfish on a steel leader with a circle hook only about halfway down the water column.
The bulls feed around that area and down low a lot, and they can’t resist a ladyfish. And when one hits, the fight is on.
“They don’t put up a fancy fight, but they will just plain beat you up,” he said. “And that’s what I like about them.”