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Shark Fishing Charters in Marathon Florida
Part of the Fishing the Florida Keys Series

         For a great windy-day option, try targeting those feisty Florida Keys coastal sharks off Marathon.

One of the best aspects of fishing in the Florida Keys is the number of angling options available. Whether one chooses fish atop the flats, on the reef, or out in the Gulf Stream, the quality and quantity of fish on hand here in the Keys is staggering.

Marathon Florida shark fishing charters

What happens though when you take these same great fishing venues and add a week's worth of steady 20 to 25 knot winds. The flats are turned into mud puddles, and the waters on the reef and out in the 'Stream are churning like a washing machine. What's an eager angler to do?

PHOTO: Glen Gerald of Vienna, VA gives a thumbs up after whipping a spinner shark on light tackle in the waters north of Marathon. 

Rather than losing fishing days to the whims of the wind, why not gear up for a fun day of light tackle shark fishing?  Now we're not talking about the back breaking deep-water slugfest that takes place when angler meets large shark on heavy tackle in a pitching boat. The action you want takes place in the shallow and relatively protected coastal waters that you routinely ignore on your way out to your regular offshore destinations.  You'll be challenging powerful, but manageable sharks in the three to five foot range, but not with those heavy boat rods of yours; replace them with 12 to 20 pound spinning or light conventional outfits. In shallow water with no place to run but out and away from an angler, coastal sharks can provide great sport on this lighter gear.

                                               Brief History of Shark fishing

Perhaps no fish in the ocean has been more misunderstood than the shark.  Though they have been caught on hook and line for years, few sharks were actually targeted by anglers on a regular basis (with the exception of makos).  Then came the book and the movie Jaws back in the early 70's, and a whole new era began in shark fishing.  It was not uncommon to stroll down the docks of nearly any charter boat fleet and see gaudy signs on the boats advertising "monster fishing."  Hungry for the thrill and convinced in their own mind that they were doing humanity a favor, many anglers would catch and kill sharks for the sole purpose of having them hung up at the dock for pictures. Of course a sharp charter captain realized that a large shark hanging at the dock was sure to draw a crowd of onlookers, a crowd that hopefully included passengers for the following day's charter. After the photos were taken and the tourists were gone, the shark was dragged back into the water and tied off behind the boat. The following day it would be towed out to sea and be unceremoniously dumped. No part of the shark would be utilized save for maybe the occasional set of jaws.

Marathon Florida Keys shark fishing charters

PHOTO: Big bad bull sharks frequent the shallow waters of Marathon, especially in the spring. This one, a five footer, poses for one last photo before being released.

Shark tournaments back then were basically nothing more than community sanctioned slaughter. And when necessary, captains, anglers, and tournament organizers could justify their actions by the fact that "science people" would be on the dock gathering...well, "science stuff" from all of those dead sharks. Frankly, I was also caught up in the same craze, having won trophies on numerous occasions for high point captain for most sharks caught (killed) in a tournament. That was just the way things were back then.

Times have changed. The Jaws craze is over, and with a greater public consciousness toward conservation, catch and release fishing has become the norm rather than the exception.  Perhaps the best illustration of this came several years ago when south Miami angler Dixie Burns, caught a 106 lb. tiger shark aboard Capt. Ralph Delph's charter boat the Vitamin Sea, out of Key West.  The catch was an IGFA world record for eight pound test, but what made the feat truly unique was that the shark was brought back to the dock alive in Delph's oversized livewell, measured, photographed and then released.  Instances like this are becoming more the norm here in South Florida these days, rather than the exception. Quite a swing in the pendulum.

Florida Keys shark fishing

 

 

 

PHOTO: Serene Towey down from Minn. caught and released this hard fighting lemon shark. Lemons have a formidable set of teeth that flair out, making them a favorite for boatside photos.

 

 


Another sign of changing times are the number of pure catch and release shark tournaments (as opposed to a shark tourney with only a separate division for catch and release).    Rather than being seen as an object of evil and malice, sharks are beginning to be viewed as a normal part of the marine ecosystem.  Outdated descriptive phrases like "perfect eating machines" and "indestructible prehistoric savages" have given way to more accurate and understanding terms like "fragile resource" and "stressed fishery."  Knowledgeable anglers are now looking upon the shark, not as some villainous creature that snatches away prized gamefish, but as more of an actual designated target species for catch and release purposes (or at least a good secondary option when conditions aren't right for other species).

                                                 The Players

Before getting into tackle and tactics, a brief overview of some of the main players involved in coastal shark game is in order.  The following sharks listed are the ones dealt with the most in South Florida and the Keys.  The reader may have other coastal species pertaining to his local waters, as well.

Spinners and Blacktips - These two sharks are to coastal shark fishermen what the mako is to the offshore shark angler.  Noted for spectacular corkscrew leaps upon being hooked, these two sharks also provide long line-sizzling runs that will leave an angler slack jawed in disbelief.  These sharks are identified by the conspicuous black markings on the tips of their fins and the lack of a ridge between the dorsal fins.  This second characteristic is an important but often overlooked detail as some of the "ridgeback" species also have black markings (though not as distinct as the blacktip and spinner. These two sharks are lumped together here because of their strikingly similar appearance and fighting ability, though they are two separate species.  In fact, if you want to get a good argument going at dockside (and who doesn't), ask a group of fishermen to differentiate between a spinner and a blacktip shark.  The wide range of responses will leave you wishing you had never asked.   

According to materials sent to me from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the easiest way to distinguish a blacktip from a spinner is to look at the placement of the dorsal fin in relation to the pectoral fins.  If the forward base of the dorsal fin lies directly over the pectorals, it's a blacktip.  If the forward base of the dorsal fin lies behind the "pecs," then you're looking at a spinner.

Lemon - A very common inshore shark (especially on the flats), lemons are identified by their yellow brown coloration in shallow water (though they can sometimes appear dark gray), and by the fact that the second dorsal fin is nearly as large as the first.  It has a large jaw and sharp teeth that flare out from the jaw, giving it an impressive look during photo sessions at boatside.  They are also one of the few sharks that are comfortable at rest on the bottom.  For the most part lemons are good fighters in shallow water, and make excellent sight casting targets on the flats.

Bonnethead - A small member of the hammerhead family, the bonnethead (also called shovelnose or shovelhead) is easily identified by its, you guessed it, shovel-shaped head.  Another common coastal shark, bonnetheads are frisky fighters for their size, which is generally about two to three feet.  They are frequent targets of flats fishermen, and can provide a first run that is only slightly less than that of a comparably-sized bonefish.

Other Sharks - These are by no means the only sharks that we encounter in our local inshore waters. Perhaps the most common coastal shark of all, the nurse shark, was not included because of its sluggishness.  But, a host of others including the bull, brown, sandbar, finetooth, blacknose, and Atlantic sharpnose are good fighters and are just some of the species found in the shallow waters of the Keys.

Perhaps one point should be clarified at this time; it is not the targeting of a particular species of shark that defines the coastal shark game. Rather, it's more a function of picking a size bracket within which you'll be working. Remember, we're supposed to be having fun here, and trying to cope with a 400 lb. bull shark on a plug casting rod might not qualify.

                                                     Rods & Reels

When putting together a rod and reel combo for shark fishing, don't get the idea that you can get away with cheap gear.  Many sharks will tax your outfit just as much as any game fish so don't skimp.  For reels, insist on top quality drags that are smooth during long runs, and can hold up under substantial pressure for extended periods of time.    A spool with a large line capacity is also important; figure on a minimum of 175-200 yards (and even then you'll have to chase the larger sharks with the boat.)    A high gear ratio retrieve is a big help too; after a long scorching run, sharks often do a "180" and charge right back toward the boat, creating a lot of slack line that must be taken up immediately.  One particular item to watch for involves the level wind mechanism on plug casting and certain models of conventional reels.   Should you decide to use a combination wire/heavy mono leader, the knot joining the heavy mono portion to the double line may not pass through the level wind guide on the reel.



 

Concerning a rod, stay away from those discount department store "specials."    You need a good quality rod blank, well wrapped line guides, and solid reel seat to handle the abuse sharks can dole out. Whether you choose a fast taper blank or one with a stiffer tip is purely a personal choice.  Many anglers prefer the stiff tip for its hook setting capabilities.  To make the hook setting process easier when using a fast taper rod, simply use a smaller, thinner gauge wire hook.

As far as line is concerned, stick with monofilament; its inherent stretch factor will help cushion the shark's constant head shaking or line slapping with it's tail (both of which will take a toll on anglers fishing with Dacron or some of the newer minimum stretch braids.  Look for a good balance between limpness (for castability) and abrasion resistance (to prevent chafing when the shark rolls the double line up into his tail).

                                                    Terminal Tackle

Balance is the key!  Whether you are sightcasting for "pups" up on the flats with six pound, or tangling with five and six footers with your 20's, it's imperative to balance the terminal tackle (hook and leader system) to the rod, reel and line size you've chosen.  Just as you wouldn't think of using a small snapper hook on a heavy trolling rod, so also would it be ludicrous to use an oversized triple strength big game hook on a 12-15 lb. spinning outfit.  Yet, that is the most common mistake made by many anglers when they decide it's time to go shark fishing.  They cleave to the big fish - big terminal tackle philosophy and ultimately choose a hook that is nearly impossible to set in the tough jaw of a shark. Over the years I've become a strong advocate of staying reasonable with regard to hook and leader size, actually leaning toward the "when in doubt, downsize" philosophy of terminal tackle.

A typical leader system actually starts with the line.  A bimini twist should be used to double a portion of the line; this is actually the last line of defense (no pun intended) in your leader system should jumping or twisting shark roll the main part of the leader up in his body.  The double line will also allow an angler to really put the "boots" to a shark with additional pressure once the knot is on the reel.

Next comes the shock leader, a piece of heavy monofilament that joins the double line to the wire leader.  Frankly, if all you're planning to do is sight cast to small sharks (under three feet) you can do without it altogether...just join the double line to the wire leader using a small black swivel or an albright knot.  However for larger sharks, and especially for medium to large blacktips and spinners, the shock leader system is important for several reasons:  First, the mid air gyrations of spinners and blacktips often kink and break long wire leaders, whereas the combination wire/heavy mono leaders can absorb the twists and turns of a jumping or rolling shark.  Secondly, a shock leader can be wound onto the rod and into the reel, making it castable.  Thus, an angler can pitch a bait quite some distance with a combination two foot wire/eight foot heavy mono leader (effective length of ten feet). Try doing that with a ten foot wire leader if you want an exercise in frustration!  And finally, the combination leader is a whole lot easier to handle at the boat; the leader man won't have to deal with all of those loose coils of wire that can cause injury because most of the leader can be wound onto the rod once the shark is brought to the boat.

One caveat regarding combination leaders. If you are sightcasting, don't go too hea hspace="5" align="left"vy on the mono shock leader, or the large knots and stiffness of the heavy mono will detract from the castability of the rig.

The next step in the leader system is the wire leader itself.  I recommend the use of coffee colored single strand stainless wire over the braided cable.  I've had a number of cable leaders part during extended battles; the back and forth sawing of the teeth against the cable breaks it down one tiny strand at a time.

With regards to the length of the wire portion of the leader, I like just enough to reach from the inside of the sharks mouth around to the pectoral fin; this way the wire will not get caught behind the "pec" fin and kink as the shark twists and spins.

And finally, the hook.  As stated earlier, I prefer keeping hook sizes reasonable, both for ease of penetration on the hookup, and as a favor to the shark when it's time to cut the leader and release him. A 5/0 or 6/0 hook is the largest hook you'll need for 20 lb. gear. As indicated in the terminal tackle chart, hook size drops proportionately with the drop in line strength.

                              Single, Double, or Treble Hooks?

I've done a major about face in my shark fishing philosophy in recent years, especially in regards to hooks.  In the past, I really liked those quadruple strength treble hooks in the 1/0 size for light tackle shark fishing; in fact, I'd often wire in a trailer hook about six inches behind the first.  Although our hookup ratio was excellent, it finally occurred to me that I wasn't doing those sharks we caught much of a favor by releasing them...a pair of treble hooks stuck in their mouth or gullet surely was not going to make their continued existence a pleasant one.

I finally dropped down to a thinner gauge single hook (not stainless), which will rust out quickly in a shark's gullet, but won't interfere with the sharks ingestion process in the meantime.  Yes, we miss a few more hook ups than in the past, but the sharks we release have the highest possible chance of survival...which is the reasoning behind a catch and release ethic in the first place...right?

                                             Other Gear

There are some other valuable items you'll want to bring along or have ready when targeting coastal sharks.  If you are going to fish from anchor, then certainly a quick release buoy is a must...you just aren't going to have time to pull that anchor should you need to chase your fish with the boat.  Gloves are an obvious "must" once it's time to grab the leader.  And a good pair of well-oiled wire clippers (that will cut the first time) is vital for safety's sake when you're clipping those leaders close to the shark's mouth during the release procedure.    Other items include a sharp knife and cutting board for dicing up baitfish for chumming.  Finally, don't forget that camera; shark fishing can provide some exciting photo opportunities.

                             Where to Fish for Sharks off Marathon, Florida

The next order of business is to find some sharks!  Obviously, it's preferable to target areas that will afford a high percentage shot at locating and baiting up sharks.    For me the shallow and relatively protected waters of Florida Bay, especially within the confines of Everglades National Park, offer a perfect setting to target these fighters.  There are three particular settings or conditions that I look for when choosing a spot.  An inlet that breaks a shoreline (from small creek opening to river mouth) is hard to beat because of the prevalence of a reliable food source (especially on an outgoing tide).  An entire food chain generally exists at most inlets, starting from microscopic organisms and working up through the baitfish, the smaller predatory fish, and finally up to the apex predators (sharks).  Almost without fail, a creek or river mouth will produce sharks.

                

Another condition that is quite similar to the first, is a spot where a channel runs between two shallow flats and dumps out into the deeper surrounding waters.  This produces an "inlet effect," providing a gathering point for baitfish and predator alike.  The edge of a flat, especially a long isolated flat surrounded by deeper water is also a good producer for me.

For those who would target coastal sharks in their local shallows, I'd suggest you look for the same type of conditions as mentioned above.  In addition, inshore wrecks and even bridges can create a food chain of their own and be good producers for sharks.    Beaches can be a good bet too, especially during the major seasonal migrations of baitfish.  Here on the Florida coasts, it's not uncommon to see sharks hounding schools of mullet just beyond the surf line during the spring and the fall.

Otherwise, tackle shops, commercial fish houses, and even charter boat docks can be good sources of local knowledge for the "do it yourselfer"; shark fishing areas generally aren't the closely guarded secrets that other fishing spots are.  Or if you want to save yourself the time and aggravation of trying to locate sharks yourself, hire the services of a local charter captain and let him do all the work for you.

                                                     Bait Me!

The selection of bait is also an important matter in shark fishing.  Contrary to what many have been led to believe, most sharks are not "swimming garbage disposals."    That is, as a rule they are not carrion eaters, so forget about those rancid bonitos that were left in the sun too long as being very effective. It has been my experience that the only coastal shark that will consistently eat poor-grade bait is the nurse (and one of the goals in shark fishing is to try to avoid these sluggards altogether). 

Even the use of frozen bait (though it was fresh frozen) will cut down on your productivity.  In actuality, the active sharks that you'll be targeting are sensitive feeders, and the serious angler is only going to use fresh bait, both to stick on his hook and to chum with.  Fresh blood from freshly caught bait actually makes a crackling sound in the water (as the blood cells rupture); the shark can "hear" as well as smell fresh blood.  Sure, you can use the carcasses from your previous day's catch of snapper, dolphin, mackerel, or whatever...just make sure those carcasses get thrown back on ice after being filleted.  Perhaps the best shark bait of all is a bonito (because of its bloody nature), but bluefish, small tunas, mackerel, jacks, mullet and even barracuda are just some of the many effective baits.

                                               Chum and Get It

In the world of fishing, chumming and sharks go together like peanut butter and jelly!    The shark's keen sense of smell more often than not will make it a sucker for the chumming process.

This is a much easier operation in coastal shallows as opposed to offshore; it doesn't take nearly as much chum to effectively draw sharks in six feet of water as it does in say 200 feet.  For fishing the shallow waters of the Park, I'll initially cut a couple of small jacks into two inch steaks and then toss them out behind the boat...adding steaks from another jack every fifteen minutes or so.  To give the chumline a little extra kick, I'll tie off a fresh carcass from a large fish to the transom.  Just remember, the whole idea behind chumming is to attract sharks, and not to overfeed them, so keep those pieces small.  As sharks swim by and enter the chumline, they detect the aroma that has been swept down tide, and they instinctively turn into the current and follow the scent to its source (which is where the baited hooks are waiting).

Some sharks can get a little boat shy though, even with the best of chumslicks.  I've watched blacktips spook out of the chumline well before reaching the tidbits I had waiting near the boat.  So when positioning baits in the chumline, I always fish one well back  in the slick (30 to 40 yards) for the spooky ones.

                                      The Best of Both Worlds

While it's no great secret that sharks possess a keen olfactory sense (able to detect blood in seawater in parts per million concentrations), what is not widely known is that they have an uncanny ability to hear (or better stated, "feel") a struggling fish in the water.  The low frequency vibrations that emanate from a distressed fish are picked up from quite some distance away by the sensors located in the shark's lateral line.  Wise anglers know that they can take advantage of this keen sense through the use of live bait.  And unlike a dead bait, which can only attract a shark that has picked up the scent flowing down tide, a live bait has 360 degree drawing power.    That is, a shark can be on any side of the bait, and it will be drawn in from the low frequency vibrations of the bait.  Obviously then, employing the liveliest live bait possible will enhance your chances of attracting and catching sharks.  My personal favorites for "livies" are blue runners and mullet, but a wide range of baits can be used in a pinch.  The live baits can be fished out behind the boat under a balloon...or you can employ an extremely effective technique that's usually reserved for blue water fishing.

                                               Go Fly A Kite

Without a doubt, my favorite shark fishing tactic involves the use of a fishing kite while anchored or drift fishing; there is simply no more effective or exciting means of catching coastal sharks in shallow water.    When you stick a frisky live bait in a kite (a blue runner or other small jack) and dangle him just below the surface, you have now increased his ability to put out those low frequency vibrations to which sharks are so drawn.  To watch a shark pop to the surface some 50 to 75 yards away and hunt for the bait...and then to witness the explosion on the water as he finally grabs the bait, is truly a spectacle to behold.

                                        Setting Up An Ambush

There are two basic styles or modes of shark fishing that I use in the shallow waters of Florida Bay and Everglades National Park.  Both are highly productive, lots of fun, and can be easily customized to meet the preferences or skill levels of my clients.    The first is the ambush, whereby I'll anchor the boat in a predetermined spot (rarely deeper than six feet) and toss in some chum to create a chumline or chumslick down current of the boat.  Next, I'll usually stagger two fresh dead baits on the bottom out behind the boat; one way back in the chumline, the other a couple of boat lengths back.  If I've got wind and "livies" the kite goes up; no wind and I'll stick a live bait on a balloon and fish it as the farthest bait back.  Then, it's just a matter of waiting for sharks to wander into the ambush.

In past years I fished my spinning reels with the bail open and a piece of copper wrapping wire coming up from the reel seat and bent in an "L" shape to hold the line from the spool in place.  When a shark hit, the line would pop free from the copper wire, providing an automatic dropback. This would give the shark time to gulp the bait down, insuring a solid hookup once the reel was engaged.  Conventional reels set in freespool with the click ratchet on would also provide the same type of dropback.    But having spent a great deal of time in conversation with those involved with shark research, and after having poured over the reams of literature I've accumulated on the subject of shark tagging, one point has become painfully clear: The rate of recapture of tagged sharks that were gut hooked is, at best, very poor.  As tough an animal as it is, and despite what I've always thought that their powerful gastric juices were capable of, I personally feel that this long drop back technique that so many of us have used over the years (even while promoting a catch and release ethic) is doing far more damage to the sharks than we realized.  What other anglers decide on this issue must be based on their own conscience.  As for me, I'll be fishing my reels "locked up" from now on, with no dropback whatsoever.  If we miss a few more hookups... then we miss a few more hookups!

Anyway, back to the ambush.  Once we get a strike, the hook is set with a series of short but strong jolts; the idea being to drive the hook in by degree, rather than in one rod shattering, line popping "career hook set."  Once we're hooked up, the other lines are reeled in to avoid tangles, and if we've got a reel screamer on our hands, the aforementioned anchor buoy is tossed and we're off in hot pursuit.

Although I don't drift fish while targeting sharks, it can be a good technique at times.    The procedure is similar to anchor fishing, only you will need to chum a little heavier, and you may need to keep your baits off the bottom a bit (suspended with floats or balloons) to keep from hanging the bottom.

The other style I like, is to actively hunt for sharks while poling the flats.    Stalking sharks and then sightcasting to them on the flats can be every bit as enjoyable and challenging as fishing for bonefish and permit.  And this style affords an angler the opportunity to match a particular size shark with a predetermined rod and reel, thus avoiding the inevitable mismatches that occur by fishing "blind" while anchored or drifting.  This is also a great method for freshwater plugcasting enthusiasts.  I love watching a bass fisherman's eyes come out on stalks as he watches a shark chase down and engulf his plug...and then proceed to carry said plug off to parts unknown.  Fly fishermen are at home here too; sharks provide an excellent introduction into the intricacies of sightcasting with fly, while also allowing an angler to log valuable "fighting time" on those expensive saltwater fly rods.

Poling in water from one to three feet deep, our main sightcasting targets are blacktips, lemons, and bonnetheads.  Once we're within casting range I like to have an angler lead the fish with his cast by about two feet and overshoot its predicted path by about the same amount.  Then, I'll instruct my angler to reel the bait slowly so it just breaks the top of the water as it crosses in front of the shark.  My angler will stop the retrieve about a foot past the shark.  Even if the shark doesn't see the bait (a fresh mullet fillet or whole butterflied ballyhoo are hard to beat) he'll swim through the scent trail of the bait and usually start hunting for it.  If he can't find it, but is obviously all "hot and bothered" about having smelled it, a recast will usually do the trick.

One important point about casting to sharks: they do have a blind spot right in front of them.  Be sure to present a bait or artificial slightly off to the side of the sharks head.  Also make sure your presentation is such that the shark perceives the bait as fleeing from him rather than approaching him in a threatening manner.   Strange as it may seem, it's possible to spook a shark if the bait is reeled toward him on a collision course.


                                               Boatside Manner

After a shark has been hooked, fought, and brought alongside, an entirely new sport begins, because there are few fish in the ocean that are any unhappier about getting caught than a shark.  Safety should be an angler's first concern; no sense in turning an enjoyable day of fishing into a dash to the emergency room at the local hospital.

Though I am not ignorant of the fact that some people eat sharks, this article deals with shark fishing on a catch and release basis only.  Thus, I'm not going to cover the various means of subduing and boating a shark.

The easiest way to release a shark is to simply cut the leader as close to the mouth as possible without compromising your safety.  Often I'll reach down in the water and grab small sharks (two feet or less) between the dorsal fin and the gills and lift them out to dehook them, although I don't recommend this procedure for an inexperienced fisherman.  If you use this method, do not squeeze the shark too hard or you might cause internal injuries.  One method that works quite well for releasing sharks that are hooked in the mouth involves the use of a small hand gaff with a two to three foot handle.  Simply slide the hook of the gaff down the leader and up against the hook in the mouth of the shark.  A downward pull of the gaff (180 degrees opposite the direction of the leader) followed by an upward pull of the leader a fraction of a second later, usually results in the fish hook left on the gaff hook, and the shark free to swim off without any hardware left in his mouth.

 

shark fishing

Shark Tagging Programs

An incredible amount of information has been collected over the past twenty years from shark tagging efforts.  Two of the major shark tagging programs involving the East and Gulf Coast of the United States are run by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) through their lab in Narragansett, Rhode Island, and the Center for Shark Research (CSR) at Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota, Florida.

Tagging of sharks has allowed scientists to better study shark migration as well as growth rates and harvest rates  One particularly interesting piece of information regarding coastal sharks is that some of them travel as much as their offshore (pelagic) counterparts.  NMFS has recaptured tagged tiger, dusky, and sandbar sharks that have made the trip from New England to Mexico.  As many as seventeen sandbar sharks have been recaptured after traveling 1000 miles or more.

Records kept on the elapsed time between the original tagging and recapture have yielded interesting and widely varied results (from a tiger that was out less than two months, but made a New York to Florida trip, to a handful of wide ranging sandbars that were out for over twenty years).

One Florida Keys angler who has really logged in some time in tagging sharks locally is Bill Botten of Key Colony Beach.  Working mainly out of his twelve foot aluminum skiff, he prowls the backcountry shallows from Marathon to Big Pine Key, sightcasting for his specimens.  In the past eleven years he has personally tagged (using the NMFS tag) an incredible 835 sharks (mostly lemons). A true student of the science of sharks, he has amassed and stored in his home computer an incredible wealth of information (that could probably rival the databases of some shark research programs).

A question that often arises among anglers is, "What do I do if I catch a shark with a tag in it?"  First, it's important to realize that the shark need not be killed in order for it to render useful scientific data. Your next move will be determined by the type of tag the shark is carrying. The NMFS tag is a clear plastic streamer, at the end of which is a watertight capsule containing instructions to the anger. Cut the capsule from the steamer and send it to NMFS (see address below).  The Mote Marine Lab tag is in the form of a bi-colored streamer (yellow at base, orange at top). An angler is to cut the orange portion of the tag off and mail it to CSR (see address below).  If the orange portion has already been removed (you see only a yellow streamer) then record the number from the remaining yellow streamer before releasing the shark.  Both programs tag their sharks at the base of the dorsal fin.

Regardless of the type of tag, be sure to record the following information about the catch: your name, address, and telephone number, date and location of the capture, total length of the shark, and whether the shark was released or not.  Be sure to write down the tag ID number as those capsules and streamers are sometimes lost in the mail.

Of the two programs, NMFS is more willing to involve knowledgeable anglers in the actual tagging process.  Again, use the address below to send off for a tagging kit and correlating information.  Mote Marine does sponsor a very interesting and fun catch, record, and release shark tournament every year late in the spring.  Entitled the Gulf Coast Shark Census Tournament, this contest takes place between Tarpon Springs and Cape Sable, and allows anglers to earn points (tickets actually) for each release. The tickets go toward cash prizes done on a lottery basis at the end of the tournament.    Call or write Mote Marine for details (address follows).

The CSR is also very interested in information regarding newborn and/or juvenile sharks or nursery grounds in the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Mexico. Contact Duane Phillips at the CSR (Ext. 309).

For those interested in other tag and release programs, the IGFA has an impressive list of them (both national and international) in their annual publication World Record Game Fishes.

For additional information contact:

Apex Predator Investigation
NOAH - NMFS
28 Tarzwell Dr.
Narragansett, Rhode Island 02882
401-782-3328

And also:

Center for Shark Research (CSR)
Mote Marine Laboratory
1600 Thompson Parkway
Sarasota, Florida 34236
813-388-4441

                                       Another Look at the Limit

Sharks are in trouble but don't just take my word for it.  Having spent a great deal of time researching papers and articles written by authorities such as Dr. Samuel Gruber of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences/University of Miami; Jack Casey with NMFS shark research; and Dr. Robert Heuter, Director of Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota, the theme (whether stated or implied) is the same: Sharks are a stressed fishery both in the United States and world wide.  Consider just the ingredients involved in shark biology: a slow growth rate, a long period of time before reaching sexual maturity, long gestation periods (many lasting over a year and occurring only every other year, and small litters (in some sharks only a few pups per litter).  Add to this an oversized portion of commercial fishing pressure and years of misunderstanding and abuse from the recreational fishing community, and you have a recipe for ecological disaster.    Regarding coastal sharks in U.S. waters, NMFS concluded recently that large coastal sharks were definitely over fished and that the smaller coastal species were fully exploited.  Many are unhappy with the present Federal Management Plan as it continues to allow a commercial (and to a lesser degree recreational) harvest levels that will continue to exacerbate the problem.  There are no easy answers, especially considering that this exploitation is taking place on the global level, with many foreign fleets included. And, as shown by tagging studies, some coastal sharks travel extensively, thus thwarting conservation efforts in one area due to heavy fishing pressure in others.

A typical reaction from the recreational fishing community would be to lay the blame at the feet of U.S. and foreign commercial fishing fleets.  Fact is, up until 12 years ago more sharks were killed (based on total metric tonnage) by our own recreational fishermen than by U.S. commercial industries.  You are welcome to reread that statement if it didn't sink in the first time!

At present, federal regulations allow the recreational angler to take four large coastal sharks per vessel per day and five per person per day for the smaller coastal species.    (Florida's daily bag limit for state waters is much more conservative at two sharks per boat or one per angler, whichever is less). Some feel that the Federal numbers are still too high, and that short of being left alone to recover, both coastal and pelagic sharks, have a bleak future ahead.

It is not my place to be anyone's conscience.  While not wanting to make the recreational angler who kills a shark for the table out to be the bad guy, I do feel it's important that we as anglers base our personal decision to kill or release on knowledge rather than ignorance.  The significant problems we face in this fishery are not going to be solved with the same level of thinking that got us into those problems in the first place.  Becoming better educated about what's going on out there is the first step in developing a deeper consciousness of our responsibility toward preserving these magnificent creatures that share the apex of the marine food pyramid with us.

                                           Don't Shirk the Shark

Why make such a big deal about fishing for coastal sharks? After all, isn't a shark...well, still just a shark?

First of all, it's a type of fishing that's available to most anglers.  You don't need a large offshore sportfisherman to chase these sharks.  Fact is, in many places you don't even need a boat!  They can be readily caught from bridges, piers, jetties, and beaches without a great deal of expense involved.

Secondly, it's challenging.  These creatures strike savagely, make long drag-scorching runs, and in some cases, will explode from the water in a leap worthy of the most highly touted gamefish.  And when targeted up on the flat, sharks will test even the most experienced angler's ability to cast accurately.

And finally, shark fishing is just plain exciting.  You're targeting a powerful creature with an attitude...a fish that when provoked would just as soon bite you as look at you.  And believe me, after being hooked and being brought alongside, they are provoked.  It is not for the weak of heart!

Yet, there are those for whom the shark will never be anything more than a nuisance.    I frequently observe this attitude from some of my clients while we're targeting redfish and snook (catch and release fishing mind you) up in Everglades National Park. Their expressions quickly turn from one of glee (as they feel a powerful strike and subsequent line-sizzling run of an unknown quarry), to one of disappointment and frustration once they realize their effort was wasted on a "stinkin' shark."

I can't help but feel that somehow many of us have been programmed to think of sharks in a totally negative way, either as a primitive, voracious eating machine or else a useless trash fish.  It's time to reevaluate our opinion of the shark, not only because they make a great catch and release target (and a great windy-day option), but also because these noble brawlers are going to need some "friends" if they are to survive into the next century.

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