Guest Post by Dena Standley —
I can’t talk about surf fishing for sharks without telling the story of my very first surf-fishing experience. I had grown up fishing in the lakes of East Texas, as was a rite of passage for any kid who grew up within a driving distance of Lake Sam Rayburn and Lake Livingston. As adults, my husband and I had fallen in love with spending as much of the summer as possible at Crystal Beach on the Bolivar Peninsula.
My husband and boys fished, catching mostly saltwater catfish, with the occasional surprise that saltwater fishing always brings. On this particular day, my husband was fishing for bait but instead catching small juvenile sharks. It looked like so much fun that I asked if he would rig me up a pole while I hopped online and bought my first ever adult fishing license.
He did and waded out to the sandbar with me. Within moments I felt a hard hit, set the hook and reeled in the largest gaff top catfish we had seen to date. I had immediate bragging rights which drove my sons crazy. So, as soon as I was baited again, I waded back out.
Again, within moments, something kept bumping the line. I told my husband what was happening, and he said “reel it in just a bit. Make whatever is out there commit.” The next sentence out of my mouth was a squealed “You mean like THIS?” The surf pole had doubled over and it was all I could do to keep it upright.
My First Shark from the Surf
We had no clue what was on the other end, but it was by far bigger than anything we had caught before. My husband wisely said, “Let’s head to the beach before you bring it in.” So, across the gully we go. As soon as I was in less than waist-deep water I started trying to land whatever I had.
It would swim straight at me for long periods and it was all I could do to keep up; then stop and fight until I was sure my arms would fall off. After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably less than 10 minutes, we could see the fin. FIN! This was a shark. For someone who was very new to saltwater fishing, it is hard to describe the adrenaline rush. Finally, he was on the beach.
It turned out to be a 4 ½ foot shortfin mako shark. Makos are uncommon in the shallow waters off of Texas, but for whatever reason, this one was visiting that day. Although they are the most common shark in the Gulf of Mexico, they definitely prefer the deeper water and are rarely caught from the surf.
We soon discovered we had a problem. This is quite a large shark and we were not equipped for shark fishing. So, how to get him off the line and back into the water? (Side note, for all their ferocious reputation, sharks are a somewhat fragile fish. They drown easily and do not survive for long without being able to move water past their gills).
Anyway, we got creative with a pair of pliers and my son’s croc shoved into his mouth and finally got the hook out. It is also a little disconcerting to drag a shark this size back into the water and let him go, hoping he swims away from you instead of back toward you for a little revenge.
To say the least, it was an exciting day. In less than 30 minutes, on my first venture into saltwater fishing, I had broken two family records and a new addiction was born. My teenage son fished himself to exhaustion many days after that trying to escape the shame of being out-fished by his mom.
It was so much fun that it did not take long until we were geared up for shark surf fishing. Until that mako, our fishing had really just been lighthearted fun at seeing what the Gulf would offer up that day. After the mako, it became serious business. We did a little research, talked to people who frequently fished for sharks in the same area and then came up with the best set-up for ourselves. What we use:
- A decent quality bait pole. Basically just a short pole with a saltwater reel, along with small rigging, for catching your bait in the surf.
- A good quality rod and reel for casting from shore. We use this on when we are not using a kayak or wave runner to take the bait out. This also comes in handy when you just do not have terrific bait and it does not seem worth the effort to rig up the big pole. You want a long pole to give you a good cast and a sturdy saltwater reel. One of our favorite combos is the Penn Spinfisher VI.
- What we use for the times we will be dragging bait out with a kayak or wave runner is a Magic Eye ME 80 that is 5’6” pole combined with a Penn Senator 6/0 reel. This is a sturdy combo and holds plenty of heavy-duty line to get your bait out as far as you need.
- It is hard to find pre-made leaders for this type of fishing so we make our own using steel coated material. The key here is that you want the leader to be long enough that the shark’s tail will not hit your main line.
- We use circle hooks that are 8/O to 9/O.
- The type of weight you will use depends on the surf conditions. On all but the calmest of days, 2-6 ounce spider type weights work well as they grab the bottom and keep your bait swimming just above the bottom. On calmer days you can use 2-4 ounce pyramid weights.
- You will also want a pair of extended reach needle nose pliers for retrieving the hooks from the shark’s mouth.
- A piece of wood, something like a cut broom handle, is also necessary. It helps to prop the shark’s mouth open while you work to get the hook out.
- A wave runner or kayak to get your bait out into deeper water. The Gulf Coast stays shallow very far offshore, so we find that we usually have to drop bait 400-600 yards (depending on tides) offshore just to be in twelve to fifteen feet of water.
Best Shark Bait for Surf Fishing and Time of Day
We use casting nets and smaller bait poles to catch whatever is in the surf. Sharks are not finicky, but they do like their food fresh. We have had the best luck with ray wings, ladyfish, sheepshead, cracked blue crab and large croakers. Many fishermen use cut bait, but with the exception of the ray wings, we have not had much luck with cut bait for sharks.
If there isn’t an abundance of bait, we will sometimes rig one leader with cut bait and use live bait on the other. The theory is that they are attracted to the smell from the cut bait, but it is always the live bait they actually hit on.
Follow your local fishing times for the best times to have your hooks in the water. Sharks are pretty simple, in that you just watch for the bait. When the bait is in the water, so are the predators that feed on it. Most fishermen swear by dawn and dusk as prime fishing times. When fishing for sharks, I find that outgoing tides tend to be best. The only other reliable indicator is when the bait is plentiful closer to shore.
Types of Sharks Common in the Gulf Region
On our part of the coast and fishing from the surf, the types of sharks we catch most frequently are sand sharks, blacktips and bonnetheads. We have not caught one, but occasionally you will see large bull sharks caught as well.
Just this past summer, someone pulled a 7 ½ foot one onto the beach. According to them, their line was less than 400 yards offshore. Bull sharks can grow up to 12 feet in length and are often referred to as the “boss of the gulf.” Unlike other sharks, Bull sharks have the amazing ability to spend a significant portion of their lives in freshwater. They have been found as far as 2,300 miles up the Mississippi River.
Great Sport but a Species Under Pressure
We practice catch and release and it is important to note that shark populations are vulnerable to the pressure from commercial fishing. They are often unintended victims of trawler lines and virtually any type of net fishing. There is also a market for shark fins as a delicacy, and research shows it is starting to affect shark populations around the globe.
In the Gulf, commercial shark fishing isn’t seen often and pressure on the shark population there is generally due to being killed as byproducts of other types of fishing. One disturbing practice we have seen evidence of is finning sharks. The fins are left discarded on the beach (or taken as trophies) while the rest of the shark is thrown back into the water to die. It is illegal, of course, but it is hard to catch people in the act.
As the fins are often left discarded on the beach, I assume that they are caught by people fishing for something else and that, because of the reputation of sharks, they are finned in an effort to make the water “safer” for swimmers and other fishermen. We frequently encounter people who are shocked to realize that they are sharing the warm shallow water with sharks.
The vast majority of sharks in the Gulf pose almost no threat to humans. Considering the large number of sharks within a few hundred yards of our very populated beaches, versus the number of bites reported each year, sharks statistically pose almost no threat to humans.
We work as a team once the shark is on the beach. One of us grabs the pliers and block of wood to get the hook out. The kids run for the camera. We try to make the entire process of getting the hook out, grabbing pictures and letting others around us (many who have never seen a shark of any kind) see or touch the shark.
We orchestrate all of this around making sure we keep them out of the water for the least amount of time possible. We have frustrated others by refusing to let them continue posing with the shark, taking their time to set up shots, etc. Our number one goal is to get them back into the water with as little damage done as possible.
Fishing for sharks is great fun. They do not behave like any other fish when hooked. One of the ways that I know, almost certainly, that it is a shark on the line is when the start they run fast and straight in. Most other fish will run either down the beach or out to sea when hooked. Sharks have a tendency to run toward you making it a challenge to keep the line tight.
Different species put up different degrees of fight. Bulls are considered a sport fish as they use their might and fight long and hard. Blacktips are also known for the length of time and power they can put into any struggle. There is also something very primal and thrilling that is hard to explain when you are fighting one of nature’s most perfectly designed prehistoric predators.
About the Author:
My name is Dena Standley. I am a wife, mom, and freelance writer. My passions are reading, writing, traveling and spending as much time as possible near or on the ocean. A favorite hobby for my entire family is saltwater fishing, and we spend as much of our summer as possible on the Texas Gulf Coast.
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