Get to know the Sunshine State’s most feared predators.While most highly-migratory pelagic predators roaming both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts possess more game fish appeal, have a much greater level of endurance, appear more glamorous and are definitely more pleasing to the palate, none come with the allure surrounding sharks.
Bull Shark – Cunning and petrifying.
Perhaps no other species of shark has attracted as much media attention as the bull shark. This apex predator is undoubtedly at the leading edge of the aquatic food chain. Inhabiting estuarine, near-shore and offshore environments typically in 100 feet of water or less around the entire perimeter of the state and beyond, bull sharks are feared the world over and are one of only a few shark species that have the capability to inhabit freshwater. Fully grown adults have been reported as far up the Mississippi River as Illinois. No one is safe.
The bull shark is well known for its unpredictable, often aggressive behavior, completely docile one moment and in savage attack mode the very next. Accounting for 17 deaths and the third highest number of attacks on humans at 82, many scientists agree that since bull sharks often dwell in shallow water, they may, in fact, be more dangerous to humans than any other species, including the fearsome great white.
Bull sharks get their name from their short, blunt snout, as well as their pugnacious disposition and tendency to head-butt their prey before committing to the kill. Bull sharks are one of only a very few species of shark observed lying motionless on the seabed as if sleeping. As of yet, no apparent explanation for this desire to rest is immediately obvious.
The bull shark is an omnivorous, opportunistic feeder. Their stomach contents have revealed a variety of bony fishes and invertebrates, other sharks and rays, porpoises and sea turtles, and they even enjoy a nutritious portion of poultry ever now and then as they have mastered the art of sabotaging unsuspecting sea birds frolicking at the surface. Fortunately for the bull shark, the species constitutes only a small portion of the overall commercial shark fishery worldwide, which explains their abundance.
Bull sharks are mostly sluggish, solitary animals which cruise the murky shallows. However, despite their apparent docility, they are capable of surprising bursts of speed and can be highly aggressive. With a maximum size of approximately ten feet, they are well worth hunting and provide fantastic sport on the appropriate class tackle. Most often targeted on the flats throughout Everglades National Park, Chokoloskee and the Ten Thousand Islands region, bull sharks provide an exceptional challenge on fly. Anglers typically stake-off up-current of a grassy plateau and invite the sharks in to play by hanging a fresh ladyfish or freshly cut barracuda over the side. The enticing odor disperses down-current, inviting curious bulls in from great distances. This is where and when the excitement kicks in as you watch their sleek dorsal and tail fin slice through the otherwise serene surface as they close-in on the scent.
It’s directly on the grassy shallows where they make perfect sight-fishing targets, rarely turning down a bulky red fly. However, don’t be fooled into thinking this is an easy game. Chasing any shark with fly gear has always been considered an iffy proposition at best. Mature adults typically suffer from less than great eyesight and aren’t likely to pursue a fast moving Clouser. Add in the all-too-frequent problem of cutoffs normally a result of the shark’s abrasive sandpaper-like skin, and simply stated, you can do everything 100 percent right and still lose the fish to some sort of tackle failure.
Bull sharks are also successfully targeted and captured by beach going anglers on a regular occasion as the perfect predator cruises the shoreline in search of its next meal. Regardless of how or where you cross paths with this brown bomber; never turn your back on a bull shark!
Proportions: Mature adults reach six to eight feet in length with an average weight of 200 – 300 pounds. *All Tackle World Record - 697 lbs. 12 oz.
Fight Club: Bull sharks may appear docile as they patrol their territory along shorelines and throughout Florida’s backcountry, although once agitated, bull sharks are relentless fighters with bulkiness, strength and endurance on their side.
Tackle & Techniques: Extremely powerful, bull sharks will test any anglers’ skill on a wide variety of tackle. Most bull sharks are encountered in relatively shallow water throughout the Florida Keys and Everglades National Park, so this specie can effectively be taken on 14 weight fly outfits or spinning or casting gear loaded with braid. Rarely will bull sharks turn their nose up at freshly cut fish with a preference for oily barracuda and ladyfish. Like other sharks on the flats, bulls can effectively be chummed into casting range where they make perfect targets. If you prefer to go artificial, noisy…slow-moving…easy-to-catch top-water plugs are the ticket, just don’t forget the single strand wire leader and to replace the trebles with single triple-strength Js.
Tiger Shark – Stealthy and deceptive.
Common throughout Florida’s warm-temperate seas, fearsome tiger sharks inhabit a variety of diverse habitats including river mouths, shallow bays and vast open ocean waters. Of all the shark species, tiger sharks are the ones you rarely see and may very well claim the title of “Least Picky Eater.” This solitary hunter typically swims into the shallows and kills at night, returning into the deep, dark depths well before daybreak. Like many other sharks, the tiger’s eye has a mirror-like finish behind the retina called the tapetum lucidum which processes more light to help the tiger with increased vision under the cover of darkness. The same mirror-like finish is covered during daytime conditions so the shark is not completed blinded by the sun’s penetrating rays.
A tiger shark is an indiscriminate feeder. It will consume anything it can fit into its gaping maw, including the kitchen sink. Stomach contents have been reported to include large sea turtles, which it easily crushes with its powerful jaws and highly-serrated rows of dentures, fish, sea birds, mammals and a wide variety of shellfish. Garbage isn’t excluded either with metal, wood, burlap bags, plastic buckets, tires, cans, license plates and a variety of other junk all recovered from tigers.
While this sharks eating habits make it a solid choice for the trophy room, its aggressive tendencies in shallow water have never been good news for swimmers. Accredited with 29 fatalities, reports claim tiger sharks are second only to the great white in the number of attacks on humans. Unlike other shark species which taste their prey first and then decide if it is edible, tiger sharks destroy and devour the entire item and ask questions later. They are possessed by a relentless drive to attack and consume any available prey, regardless if they are hungry or not. It’s been said that their voracious appetite may have something to do with the fact that they can produce a litter of 80 young. Imagine that.
Hammerhead Shark – Intimidating and threatening.
Scalloped hammerhead sharks are quite possibly the most common tropical and subtropical shark inhabiting the open-ocean and shallow coastal waters off both coasts of Florida. Due to their somewhat extraterrestrial head shape, scalloped hammerhead sharks are quite the intimidating creature as they casually roam deep continental shelves and insular coral reefs associated with inlets and mouths of bays. Notably, pregnancy in adult female scalloped hammerheads lasts approximately nine months and depending on their size, females may give birth to up to three dozen pups. At the time of birth, their wide, obtrusive heads are soft and flexible to ease the birthing process.
With their frightening appearance, hammerheads are the most mystifying of all of the state’s shark species. Nomadic and highly migratory, they primarily feed on fish, including sardines, herring, mackerel, bottom dwelling snapper and grouper, and even small sharks and stingrays. To satiate their voracious appetite, squid, octopus and spiny lobster fill the voids between easy meals.
Hammerheads have a vast playing field where they instill their fear. Their distribution in the water column reaches from the surface down to a depth exceeding 1,000 feet, most often in the vicinity of steep ledges and drop-offs rising toward the surface from the near endless abyss. Their young, however, remain in protected backcountry bays where they avoid the danger of falling into the mouths of ocean-going predators until they are large enough to fend for themselves.
While the scalloped hammerhead will not hesitate swimming the ocean alone, at certain times of the year and places, and only during certain phases of their lives, big numbers of scalloped hammerheads form large congregations. Some populations remain stationary; others wander, migrating in the direction of the poles during the summer months. Some believe these mass movements may be associated with among other things, feeding habits and reproduction patterns. Other studies consider this behavior to be a group protective function, you know; safety in numbers. This is somewhat questionable since hammerhead sharks have no natural enemies after reaching full maturity – other than man. Harvested in the commercial longline fishery solely for their high quality fins, nearly all species of hammerheads are considered over-fished.
Although these sharks have been involved in accidents, they are not really considered dangerous in the sense of being aggressive man-eaters. They often appear in estuaries where visibility is limited and where the influence of fresh water does not allow an optimal reaction of their electrical sensors. Any encounters with humans in these environments are more likely a reactive defense mechanism when startled or frightened rather than an intentional attack of any kind.
Lemon shark – Erratic and unpredictable.
An abundant, inshore tropical shark that inhabits both estuarine and near-shore waters along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of Florida, similar to bull sharks, lemon sharks commonly enter estuarine environments and often venture into freshwater arenas. They do not, however, penetrate as far up freshwater rivers as their close cousins.
The lemon shark typically prefers shallow water, rarely exceeding depths of more than a couple of hundred feet. Common places you're likely to cross paths with a lemon shark are coral reefs, around mangrove encrusted islands, throughout sheltered bays and in the vicinity of steadily flowing river mouths. Lemon sharks can also be found in oceanic waters during migration periods but do tend to remain well inside of the continental shelf. The lemon shark is also known to form loose aggregations based on size and sex, and have been seen congregating in shallow water at night before returning to the deep during the day.
With a stocky yellowish-hued sleek brown body and broad snout, during the winter months, lemon sharks migrate southward into deeper water in search of more comfortable surroundings and more abundant food supplies. Typically though, lemons feed over sandy sea floors and like their close cousins the bull shark, will consume nearly anything, including fish, crustaceans, mollusks, rays, other sharks and even wading birds. Fortunately for this species, lemon sharks constitute only a very small portion of the overall commercial shark fishery.
Somewhat unpredictable and quite wily, lemon sharks may be spotted swimming alone on a flat or in large aggregations of more than one hundred members like the one recorded three miles off Jupiter, Florida each winter. Such gatherings guarantee the two sexes get together and stay together - at least long enough to insure future generations.
With the unique ability to lay motionless on the bottom, female lemon sharks give birth to between four and 20 young every other year in warm, shallow lagoons. The young remain in shallow water fending for themselves near the protection of overhanging mangroves until they grow large enough to take care of business out in the wild.
To avoid inbreeding problems within their relatively small populations, lemon sharks appear to have developed a mating strategy as of yet unobserved in any other shark species. While female lemon sharks return to their natal grounds each and every year, males remain nomadic and continue to cruise their wide open territories in search of their next tasty treat, and next voluptuous vixen.
The lemon shark is one of 39 shark species protected by the US Government through the Department of Commerce. Although it is one of the best studied sharks, virtually nothing is known about the adult phase of its mysterious life.
Shortfin Mako Shark – Ferocious and fearless.
Shortfin mako sharks clearly represent the largest, fastest and most sophisticated species of pelagic shark on the planet. They are unrivaled in their power, agility, acrobatic abilities and aggressive tendencies. Right next to great white sharks, makos are number one on the food chain, consuming anything and everything they desire. However, unlike some of their relatives that devour garbage, mako sharks are discriminate feeders. They are picky about what they eat. It must be fresh and appealing. Of course, when you have the unrivaled power and blistering speed capabilities of the ferocious shortfin mako shark, you can choose to picky.
With teeth exposed even when their mouth is closed, mako sharks are intimidating hunters. Their cobalt blue black coloration blends into the azure depths - providing the perfect camouflage when attacking prey from below. Capable of powerful bursts and the ability to turn on a dime, tuna, billfish and other large food items rarely see death coming. Here along the Atlantic, shortfin mako sharks are sometimes spotted offshore searching for large prey just below the surface. In recent years, anglers targeting swordfish in the Gulf Stream have not only encountered monster makos exceeding 700 pounds, but have had their prized broadbills literally eaten off of the hook. As a matter of fact, the mako shark is an adult broadbill swordfish’s only natural predator.
Quite active, athletic shortfin mako sharks are the true Olympians of the deep blue. They are super-strong swimmers and one of the only sharks admired for leaping out of the water when hooked. Shortfin mako sharks are the undisputed high-jumpers of the pelagic playing field besting even marlin and sailfish with their 20 foot high summersaults.
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