THE SNOOK WAS WHIPPED.
I was wading waist-deep along the edge of a channel in the (aptly named) Shark River country of the Everglades. The shining silver and yellow fish weighed five or six pounds, small for the region, but big in the eyes of a Texas plugger.
I raised the rod tip and the snook slid with bristling fins across the tannin-stained surface. The black lateral line was plainly visible. My right hand reached to clamp the mean lower lip.
The open jaws of a bull shark materialized—simply raged from nowhere. I was looking straight into the incoming maw and blunt snout three or four feet from my extended fingers.
The six-foot shark slammed into the snook, chopping it cleanly in a semi-circle just behind the gills. I felt the wash of the big fish as its momentum carried past my legs.
I yelled and backpedaled into shin-deep water. I remained in shin-deep water the remainder of the day. The fact remains that the jacked-up bull shark could have missed the snook and hit my outstretched hand or, startled, slashed out and ripped a serious chunk from my calf or thigh.
Sharks scare me. This is because, as lifetime wader and surfer, I am repeatedly invading their element. They are out there. But I can’t quit; I am drawn to the wildness, the openness of the surf. But sharks scare me.
The fact that specialized heavy-tackle anglers occasionally catch huge tigers, bulls, even hammerheads, from the Texas surf does little to console this fear.
Probably my closest encounter with a big shark occurred at the Chandeleur Islands—and I never even saw the brute.
Longtime friend David Boyles and I were wading waist-deep along the channel on the upper end of the old (pre-Katrina) Curlew Island. The late-afternoon tide was running and low sun glare shimmered across the surface.
I insisted my old partner take the lead—not because I am such a nice guy but because his stringer most likely would draw first fire from any incoming predator.
We each had several specks on our long stringers. The proper heavy cord surf stringer is rigged with a cork, allowing the wader to slide caught fish to the far end to bobble near the surface.
Boyles hooked another trout, and I sidled closer, figuring to help him out if a school was within reach. His stringer hung straight in the flow; the cork was about 10 feet from him, but only three or four feet in front of me.
A monstrous swirl boiled from the glare and engulfed the softball-sized cork. Boyles and I bolted for the shallows. In his wake trailed the empty stringer, cut cleanly a foot or so from the cork. The float and three strung trout were gone.
On the subject of the Chandeleurs, the most aggressive shark that I recall chased a hooked fish onto the dry beach. I was wading knee-deep on one of the barrier sandbars. A three-pound skipjack snatched my silver spoon and ran like a bonefish and jumped like a baby tarpon—a terrific game fish that doesn’t get enough credit.
Then, abruptly, the “ladyfish” reversed course and ran straight at me. A five-foot, mustard-colored lemon shark streaked in attack. The ladyfish shot scant yards past my rod and launched with a wash of foam onto the beach.
The lemon followed, grabbing the luckless skipjack amid a scatter of sand and shells. Then it thrashed back into the water and vanished.
The line was cut. I stood speechless, having just watched a shark feed on dry sand behind me. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that a lemon shark with all its flags flying is not a serious predator.
These are among the memorable close encounters. There have been others. But keep in mind this record encompasses more than 50 years of coastal wading; the chances of encountering a shark on a given day are slim.
The odds of getting bitten—let alone killed—along the Texas coast are extremely low. In fact, drowning is a far greater risk. At least three swimmers were lost during a siege of rough surf during May. To my knowledge, not even a Band-Aid has been required to cover any Texas shark encounters during 2019,although a swimmer recently was attacked and killed off Maui, Hawaii.
Most inshore sharks are in the surf, but primary bays can attract them. This is especially true near major passes and channels feeding the Gulf.
Once, while I dragged a trout-laden stringer back to the anchored boat across a thigh-deep Matagorda Bay flat, my cord yanked tight.
I staggered and spun to see the pale belly of a six- or seven-foot blacktip rolling up under the cork. The shark snatched a two-pound speck, then rolled again and took another one. Then it cruised casually from view.
The fact that I was at least 100 yards from the center console and three more fish remained on the cord, did little to lower my pulse rate.
My most recent encounter with the Grayfin Express—again in the surf—was last July off Surfside Beach, near Freeport. A green tide was on the beach. Rickey Morris and I were wading along the second bar and casting plugs into the head-high gut.
I drew a hard strike then the line went slack. The 30-pound shock leader was cut cleanly, and my classic old Bingo Flash was gone. Several yards away, Morris got a heavy strike and “stayed stuck.”
The fish fought in a wide circle, then worked close. It was a three-foot shark with a sharp snout—a spinner, I think. The surf was infested with them.
Several times we had them follow lures and swirl away. Then a shark cut one of my strung trout in half, and we decided enough was enough.
Granted, they were little “ankle snappers,” but larger ones could have been out there. The whole incident got me thinking about the potential danger of hand-grabbing fish in waist- or chest-deep water. Often, it takes several attempts to grip a thrashing trout properly (across the shoulder, just behind the flared gill plates).
Even a small shark making an aggressive pass at the wrong time during the splashy drill could nail a finger or wrist. Murky “trout green” water only encourages this risk. Frankly, I am amazed that more Texas waders have not been bitten during these hand-grabbing attempts.
A short landing net tucked in the back of the wading belt is an excellent idea. So, also, is keeping the stringer at full length, with all fish segregated under the cork. Only a rookie uses a short, thin stringer or allows wave action to wrap the cord around waist or legs. Wearing a girdle of gleaming, bleeding specks is—well, think about it.
In fairness, during a long career, I’ve only seen two really big sharks while wading. By “really big” I mean 9- or 10-footers. Both were tigers.
One was in waist-deep water in the Seychelles, so that doesn’t count for much, here. But the other was chest-deep near San Luis Pass. The tiger glided broadside in a lifting green swell about 20 or 30 feet away, and the bold vertical stripes were obvious.
I was horrified, absolutely terrified. The image was indelible—the overlord of the outside bar. The fact that large sharks are caught on those big rods from the beach (mainly off Padre Island) is proof that such encounters are possible during the summer months.
Of course, large sharks are plentiful offshore. Near or far, rare is the serious offshore angler who has not seen them circling or lost sizable fish to them.
Most shark species in the Gulf of Mexico are after fish, not people. I totally get that. But fish can be the potential problem. Understand that the successful surf wader towing a stringer is trolling for sharks, and the wader playing a fish is chumming for sharks.
If a significant shark makes a determined pass, the wader has entered a red zone where all the comforting statistics are way back on the dry beach.
You are waist deep, alone and helpless. I don’t care if your mother was Wonder Woman or your old man was Tarzan, a close encounter with the Grayfin Express will scare the bloody, freaking hell out of you.
Sharks are disappearing from the world’s oceans at an alarming rate and biologists are worried. From shark finning to unregulated fishing these apex predators are in trouble. We take a look at what’s being done along the Texas coast to help save these wolves of the ocean.
—story by JOE DOGGETT