by Larry Bozka
What does a Texas angler get when he or she mixes equal parts of fascination, fear, and fun? In a word, sharks.
They are mysterious creatures, the stuff of folklore. Early ocean travellers portrayed them as menacing sea monsters on archaic maps of the world, a description that might not seem so unreasonable to anyone who has watched as 500 pounds or more of toothy predator surges powerfully across the surface of the Gulf and eats half of a 25-pound king mackerel in a single vicious bite.
They are misunderstood, too. Not only in regard to the critical role these magnificent creatures play in the marine ecosystem, but also in terms of what they can do for a day on the water. At this time of year, when coastal waters are warm, they are virtually everywhere, from the back bays to the sand bars of the surf to the blue-water chasms off the Continental shelf.
Summertime is the Right Time
Temperature is one of the most important factors affecting the distribution of sharks. As a result, deep-water species like the mako, bull shark and, to some degree, the tiger shark and hammerhead, can be found year-round in the open Gulf of Mexico. Likewise, along jetty systems, in the surf and within Texas bays, the creatures tend to migrate in accordance with the rise and fall of the mercury and the seasonal movements of baitfish. This month the shallow-water roamers — blacktips, bonnetheads and sand sharks — are moving back in. And more than a few Texas fishermen will be there waiting for them, some with trepidation and others with a great degree of anticipation.
Sharks, Sharks Everywhere
The order of sharks is composed of about 250 species, a great many of which can be taken from Texas waters. Across the board, they lack true bone cells. The skeleton support is received from cartilage, and the skin is composed of tiny “placoid” scales which are abrasive enough to cut through even stout monofilament. If you’re ever tried to wear out a pair of sharkskin cowboy boots, you understand just how tough these scales can be. And if the scales don’t cut your line, the shark’s teeth will. Sharks regenerate teeth as they lose them, and throughout the life of a shark its teeth are replaced as needed. Even a small shark can cut 50-pound-test monofilament effortlessly. Tarpon fishermen who use large circle hooks to catch their quarry sometimes land big sharks on 150-pound-test or heavier tarpon leaders, but it’s only because the circle hook (a.k.a. “tuna hook”) curves through the fish’s jaw and allows the leader to avoid the creature’s teeth. Usually, a shark hooked on mono leader is an unlikely candidate for the gaff.
Accordingly, anglers who are specifically after sharks stick with either wire leader or coated “Steelon” leader. The leader length should exceed the length of the shark, as the fish’s thrashing tail can do a real number on monofilament. Most fishermen still-fish for sharks with approximately 15 feet of leader and a bait rigged on a 9/0 to 12/0 hook. The first step, however, is to bring the fish to the boat via a chum line.
Sharks boast a sense of smell that is nothing short of incredible. Chumming is a dirty and dull business, but nothing will bring in a batch of sharks quicker than a ground or cut-up mess of menhaden, mullet or other such oily baitfish. The same chum line that attracts king mackerel will readily draw sharks, as will the huge piles of bycatch tossed overboard by shrimpers who are culling the night’s catch.
Oil rigs or gas production platforms are always good points at which to start a chum line. Ditto for any areas which hold schools of bar jacks or mackerel. Toss just enough chum overboard to create an unbroken slick. A small bit of chum will attract big numbers of sharks, and if you overdo it you’re liable to defeat the purpose. Sharks will lay back and feed as the current brings the offering to them, and will not be as likely to range within distance of the drifted baits.
The fish will suspend at various depths. So, it’s smart to fish at least two lines — one at the surface, the other on the bottom. For surface fishing use a balloon rig, a small party balloon tied just above the swivel. The balloon will readily drift the bait with the wind, and will pop from the water pressure when a fish pulls it down.
A wide variety of baitfish will attract strikes, the oilier and bloodier the better. Cut bluefish, jack crevalle, bonito and mackerel all make excellent shark baits. Leave the rod in a holder with the drag set very lightly and the clicker on.
Normally, a shark will play with the bait a bit before taking it deep. So don’t get anxious. The clicker will sound off when the fish picks up the bait, and maybe even stop a time or two as the shark bites the offering. Wait until the clicker is steadily whining and line is slowly peeling out before setting the hook. Sometimes, the wait can consume as much as two or three minutes.
Unless you’re after a monster tiger or hammerhead for the purposes of record-breaking, don’t go overgunned. Sharks hooked on light tackle make for some spectacular action, and in open water they can be played as long as it takes to get them to the boat.
Again, the Gulf of Mexico is home to a great many shark species. But for our purposes the top five — blacktips, bull sharks, tiger sharks, hammerheads and makos — are all it takes to wear out a fishing party and, in some instances, stock the freezer with delectable boneless fillets.
Latin name: Carcharhinus limbatus
Texas State Record: Caught by Gary Rooth of Bay City from the Gulf of Mexico on May 20, 1989. Weight 179 lbs.; Length 81”.
From the standpoints of availability and edibility, the blacktip shark ranks number-one among Texas anglers. Furthermore, these fish are impressive fighters.
A freshly-hooked blacktip is a sight to behold. On the hookset the fish usually jump — not once, but several times. It’s a characteristic which the blacktip shares with its close cousin the spinner shark. The blacktip resembles the spinner, but has a shorter, less pointed snout and larger eyes. The blacktip has a dark grey body with a white to yellowish-white underbody, and sports distinctive black markings on its fins which give the fish its name.
It’s unusual for a blacktip to exceed six feet in length. A 5-1/2 footer will usually weigh in at around 70 pounds, every bit of which is excellent eating. The fish are commonly taken by offshore anglers after kingfish, but from now through the rest of the summer they’re also common along jetty systems. Occasionally, blacktips will even hit spoons and other lures thrown in the bays for speckled trout and redfish. In fact, the blacktip is one of the few shark species which will strike artificial lures with any degree of consistency. They are likely to hit not only plugs and spoons, but also large bucktail flies and streamers. A 10-pound blacktip will strip 100 yards of fly line without hesitation, and as light-tackle sportfish, these creatures are very tough to beat.
Latin name: Carcharhinus leucas
State record: Caught by Dale Harper of Pasadena from the Gulf of Mexico on July 1, 1971. Weight 497 lbs.; Length 110”
Numbers-wise, bull sharks might lead the pack in the Texas Gulf and bay line-up. The bull shark has an extremely short snout which is much shorter than the width of its mouth, small eyes and a large dorsal fin which is placed well in advance over the pectoral fins. The fish is gray to gray-brown above with a white underbelly.
Most bull sharks taken by Texas anglers measure eight feet or less, although 10-foot-long fish in the 400-pound-range have been verified. This time of year, when the females are giving birth, it is common for bull sharks to venture close to shore. Though they’re not much of a food fish, they are great fun to catch, again, on light tackle. Unless you have a friend who can do something with the fish’s quality hide, bull sharks are best caught and released to fight again another day.
Latin name: Galeocerdo cuvieri
State record: Caught by Chap Cain III of Liberty from the Gulf of Mexico on May 24, 1992. Weight 1128.98 lbs.; Length 162”
In Texas shark-fishing circles, the tiger reigns king. Major sportfishing tournaments commonly witness the weigh-in of tigers which weigh 500 pounds or more, and the fellows who purse these beasts on purpose do so in serious fashion.
The maximum documented size of the tiger shark is 18 feet, but reports of behemoths measuring as much as 30 feet persist. A 13-to 14-foot tiger shark will tip the scales at 1,000 to 1,400 pounds, depending largely upon whether or not the specimen is a female.
Aside from the obvious striped markings found on younger specimens, the tiger shark can be identified by its short, sharp-pointed snout and distinctive teeth. The teeth are recurved and notched at their inner margins, with the tooth margins serrated. As the fish grow older, the trademark stripes give way to an overall brownish-gray coloration.
This is the species which gave “Tiger Alley” off of Galveston’s Heald Bank its name. Most of the large tigers taken in Texas are caught by offshore anglers, although the huge predators often venture into deep holes off of jetty systems and sometimes even the third or fourth bar of the beachfront.
If you are going to be afraid of a shark, this is the one to fear. Despite the fact, however, that the tiger shark is classified a “man-eater,” Texas surf waders would do better to worry about stingrays than tiger sharks or, for that matter, any other shark species.
Great Hammerhead Shark
Latin name: Sphyrna mokarran
State record: No established state record
There’s no missing this guy. The distinct, hammer-shaped head is a dead giveaway. It should be noted, though, that the much smaller bonnethead shark is often misidentified as the hammerhead. Whereas 13- to 14-foot great hammerheads are commonplace, the bonnetheads taken from the bays and beachfront rarely exceed four or five feet. The broad head of the bonnethead is shaped like a shovel and much more rounded than that of its king-sized cousin. And unlike the great hammerhead, the bonnethead is relatively sluggish and not particularly dangerous to handle.
Hooked hammerheads are extremely hard fighters. They make long runs near or on the surface and thrash wildly, putting a great deal of stress on the leader. Small hammerheads are good to eat, but like most sharks, once they get big the quality of the flesh tends to diminish.
Latin name: Isurus oxyrinchus
State record: No established state record
You name it, the mako has it. Top-notch table quality. Superb fighting characteristics. Even good looks. The leaping battle of a mako shark is unparalleled, and the angler who hooks into one of these rare deep-water denizens is fortunate indeed.
The mako sports a long, conical snout and streamlined body. The back of the fish is a brilliant blue, it’s underbelly snow-white. Perhaps most impressive, is the mako’s teeth. Curved daggers with no cusps or serrations, they are every bit as formidable as they appear.
“Swordfish steaks” sold in upscale restaurants are often in fact mako meat. And like swordfish, the mako bears much of the brunt of Gulf-run longlines. Commercial fishermen favor these fish for their salability as much as sport fishermen want them for both fight and table fare. Again, though, makos are relatively rare.
A hooked mako can clear the water by as much as 30 feet, and a mako brought close to the boat while lively is one dangerous critter. At times, the fish will even charge the boat or, in some documented cases, leap into the cockpit. Makos as long as 12 feet have been recorded; a 10-footer can easily weigh a half-ton.
After The Catch
Texas anglers may retain five sharks per day, with no maximum or minimum size limit. The possession limit is 10.
Small sharks make for fine eating, but they must be properly handled. If you intend to retain a shark for the table, cut off the head and tail immediately and allow the fish to thoroughly bleed out. A whole shark left in the ice chest for even a short period of time will take on an ammonia-like odor which will rapidly render the meat useless.
Shark attacks, though documented, are extremely rare. Most fishermen hurt by these creatures fall prey to either careless handling or, occasionally, a short wade fishing stringer that doesn’t have a float. A stringer of trout in the surf is as good as shark bait, and should be treated accordingly. When wade fishing in the bays or surf, always place the fish well out on a long floating stringer with a quick-disconnect belt attachment. The shark will be after the fish, not you. But when he takes a bite of your catch, he’ll get away with a piece of your thigh or calf as well if the stringer is sunken and wrapped around your leg.
Sharks are an everyday aspect of Texas warm-water coastal fishing, creatures that deserve the same respect afforded to more highly touted game species.