Predator Pursuit On Fly!

Florida Keys' Shallow Water Sharks

Capt. Eric Herstedt November 18, 2008

There are many good reasons to fly fish for sharks. One of the many is purely for the educational value. While the majority of anglers new to fly-fishing will tell you they would prefer to target more glamorous tarpon, when a novice connects with his or her first big ‘poon in excess of a hundred pounds, they often complain about how difficult the fight is. Reason being they lack the experience required to fight such powerful fish on slender fly-rods. This is where sharks enter the picture, as the entire gamut of toothy predators inhabiting the Florida Keys’ shallows are eager to provide a wealth of experience when it comes to subduing commanding fish.

Predator Pursuits On Fly

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Photo: Oswaldo Saiki

Let’s face it – As a new fly angler, you probably don’t know how to handle a hundred pound fish and a bit intimidated. When you finally hook your first trophy, the last thing you want is to allow angler error into the equation. It really isn’t your fault though as you’re probably just over-matched. It’s like stepping into the ring for your first boxing match and facing Iron Mike Tyson. Shallow-water sharks are the clear solution here. Once hooked, these imposing fish are characteristically similar to mature tarpon. They provide screaming runs, can leap high into the air and put up a serious fight when close to the boat. The difference being if you break a shark off, it’s really no big deal as you can often reconnect in a matter of minutes. After gaining some experience fighting and releasing these wonderful predators, you’ll quickly gain the skill set required to handle any powerful fish on fly.

Once hooked, these imposing fish are characteristically similar to mature tarpon. They provide screaming runs, can leap high into the air and put up a serious fight when close to the boat.

Anglers looking to experience this thrilling challenge can do so in just about any shallow-water basin throughout the coverage area of this publication, though you can’t go wrong by visiting any flat from Biscayne Bay to Key West. With only a little bit of preparation, you’ll be able to attract bull, lemon, hammerhead, bonnethead, blacktip, spinner, nurse and even the occasional tiger shark. Keep in mind that sharks behave similar to many shallow-water species. As the coldest months of the year approach, they tend to move out to deeper, more suitable surroundings. This means your best bet for connecting with these brilliant predators on any shallow-water flat is to stick to the warmest hours of the day. Optimum conditions for consistently hooking these beasts on fly also include stained water. Under these conditions, you’ll find sharks often let their guard down and are easier to persuade. Water depth is also critical to your success. Some days the toothy critters will be prowling in water so shallow it barely covers their back while on other days they tend to stay out a bit deeper. As a rule, start your search in depths ranging from two- to six-feet, and I am sure you will find the sweet spot to be somewhere in the three- to four-foot range.

Additional variables are wind and current. A slight breeze is a good thing when you’re shark fishing as it creates advantageous conditions on the flats. A small chop leaves the sharks less suspicious. It sounds crazy, but on occasions when there is not a breath of wind to be found, adult bull and lemon sharks will sometimes spook as easy as wary bonefish. Additionally, a steady breeze stirs up the water and assists in dispersing your chum which creates a wider, more inviting slick.

As far as current is concerned, it plays an equally important role. A strong current is good, but too much will confuse the sharks and they won’t be able to track the source of the tempting slick. On the flip side, not enough current translates into a lack of a steady slick, which could spell disaster. If you find yourself with very little moving water, try anchoring your skiff along the edge of the flat where it drops off into a channel. The water running off the flat typically gets funneled into the channel and helps disperse your chum. If the wind and current are opposing, drifting across a shallow-water expanse is an option, but staking off or anchoring usually provides the greatest results. By now you can tell that finding the happy medium of wind and current plays an important role in successful shallow-water shark fishing.

Now that we’ve discussed where to fish, let’s talk a little bit about attracting hungry sharks to within casting range. Barracuda, bonito, ladyfish and jack crevalle all make excellent enticements. On occasion, catching your chum can prove to be difficult so it’s always a good idea to bring along some extra bait. Plus, you never know when an aggressive shark may come along and literally rip you off. The last thing you want to do is end a promising day prematurely. Once you’ve arrived at your destination, you’ll need to score the fish prior to hanging them over the side. Another option, and one that I prefer, is to fillet a barracuda or a few ladyfish, but instead of cutting the fillets completely off, leave them attached at the tail by a thick piece of skin. Once the baits are prepared, run a small diameter rope through the gills and hang them over the side. Under ideal conditions, you’ll soon start to see baitfish and other pesky critters hanging around. Then it’s only a matter of time before the predators come in to investigate. If you’re staked out for more than 30-minutes and not a single shark approaches, you should re-evaluate your position and make an adjustment. You may want to drift if fishing on the hook hasn’t produced any results. You’ll know when you’re on the correct flat as sharks usually appear within minutes of the stringer being placed in the water. Sharks are wild animals and all have different personalities; some are aggressive and some are submissive. Some will race into the slick with vigor while others will carefully make their way towards the source of the inviting aroma.

In most cases, as your eyes scan the surface you’ll clearly be able to see sharks approaching. It usually starts with just one nosing its way up the tempting slick. Then as a couple others gather, the competitiveness kicks in and the sharks become increasingly agitated. The idea is to cast your fly into striking range without spooking the shark. Remember that your fly is imitating a freshly cut chunk, and chunks don’t swim. Keep a close eye on the shark as it approaches your colorful offering and attempt to present it at eye level. This will make the fly convenient for the shark to see and eat. Don’t strip too quickly if you need to make a last second adjustment as a sudden jerk may spook the interested party. Instead, gently slide the fly into position and keep it in front of the curious fish. Once a shark eats the fly, immediately set the hook with a hard aggressive strip strike.

Once hooked, sharks behave a lot like tarpon, so prepare yourself for long blistering runs and don’t be surprised when they turn and race straight toward the boat. By holding the rod high, you can clear the guides of extra line before the fight really gets underway. If you’re having a tough time getting the shark to come your way, apply side pressure. Often this will help get the fish moving in your direction. Fighting a large fish on such a limber piece of equipment can be nerve wracking, but with a little experience it can always be a world of fun. The key to winning the battle is preparation, such as well-maintained equipment and properly tied knots. Most importantly, don’t panic. As long as you stay connected and always keep the line tight, you’ve got a great chance of emerging victorious.

Now that you have managed to get your shark boat-side, unless you are really experienced, do not attempt to bring it in the boat. This is a 100-percent catch and release fishery so snap a couple of quick photos then cut him off and let him have your fly. Don’t worry – it will rust out very quickly. Sharks can be ferocious. When you grab one, they seem to have a sixth sense of knowing exactly where your hand is and they’ll literally try and bite your arm off! Aggressive sharks also enjoy beating up the side of your skiff so be prepared for scratches in your shiny gelcoat. One of my most hair raising experiences came when I was holding a five-foot lemon shark in the water for a photo. A bull shark more than twice its size appeared out of nowhere and took a huge bite right out of the lemon, narrowly missing my arm!

Sharks may not be as glamorous as tarpon, bonefish or permit, but they do provide fly fishermen plenty of opportunity to hone their skills. They’re often easy to find and will readily devour your offering. Get out there, enjoy the shallows and have an awesome time pursuing these magnificent predators. Ultimately, you’ll be a better fly fisherman.

Tackle Tips

When it comes to shallow-water shark fishing, my ‘go-to’ shark outfit has always been a 12-weight Biscayne rod matched with an Old Florida Nautilus reel. The large arbor reel helps gain line quickly when a shark charges the boat. You can get away with lighter equipment, but you never know when that 10-foot tiger will rear its ferocious head. Top quality gear is a must for shark fishing as utilizing the best equipment will enhance your overall experience. Due to the shallow depth of water, I would suggest a floating line. I would also suggest that your leader only be about six-feet as you’re only making short casts with big patterns and want to be able to quickly turn over your leader. A 60lb. test fluorocarbon butt section to avoid being cut off on the sharks sandpaper-like skin is a must. For class tippet, 20lb. Mason usually does the trick. I attach a 12-inch trace of straight #5 wire to the tippet with an Albright knot.

Fly selection is not complicated. Stick with red, orange and black in any combination. Big flies that are at least six-inches long and bulky are a good idea. Sharks have poor eyesight and primarily rely on smell, so a big target that’s easy to see is ideal. A long shank 4/0 or larger hook is also important. As always, preparation is the key to a successful day on the water. Pack extra leaders and plenty of flies before you leave home. If you don’t and the action is hot, you’ll be spending all your time tying leaders and will likely lose quality shots. Personally, I always carry two or three extra fly rods rigged and ready at all times to maximize on every opportunity that presents itself.

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