As another perfect winter in the Florida Keys fades away, anglers will see an influx of various flats species to area shallows. And just as tarpon, bonefish and permit enjoy feeding and frolicking in the crystalline tropical water, sharks also take up residence on backcountry shallows during the coming months where they hang around until the end of the summer.
While sharks are exciting encounters no matter what venue they’re targeted in, there’s something special about fishing for big sharks on light tackle in only a few feet of water. Because of the unique angling scenario that takes place in shallow water, we are afforded incredible opportunities to observe shark behavior and tailor our tactics and techniques accordingly. Over the years I’ve seen countless sharks in the shallows and noticed that blacktip and bull sharks rarely refuse hooked bait. What we have observed is that lemon sharks can be extra finicky as they close in on a tempting offering and often turn off at the very last moment. One might think lemon sharks are equipped with incredible eyesight and simply detect the contrasting wire leader, but science tells a different story.
While sharks are exciting encounters no matter what venue they’re targeted in, there’s something special about fishing for big sharks on light tackle in only a few feet of water.
We know that from a distance sharks key in on potential forage through sound and smell. As they close in on a target, they use their lateral line to pick up on vibrations in the water. At short range they use advanced electrosensory structures in their snouts to pick up on subtle electric fields in the water emitted from prey and orient their jaws accordingly for a successful attack or quick retreat. While all shark species have highly specialized sensory organs called ampullae de lorenzini that sense electrical pulses in the water, lemon sharks are particularly sensitive to these minute electrical fields. When lemon sharks refuse hooked bait that’s presented on wire, what’s really happening is they are sensing an electrical pulse that turns them off.
While shark fishing in the Florida Keys backcountry, we typically encounter 80 percent lemon sharks, with the remaining 20 percent a mix of blacktip and bulls, and the occasional hammerhead and juvenile tiger. Fortunately, when lemon sharks want to play tough we have a trick up our sleeve. Most would never think to use monofilament leader for any shark fishing application, but the tooth structure and design of a lemon shark’s jaw makes them a perfect candidate to be captured on mono. Unlike bull sharks, which have broad, triangular and heavily serrated teeth, lemon sharks have teeth that are narrow and ideal for grabbing fish and holding on.
I really enjoy shark fishing with medium action 20 or 30 lb. class spinning gear because it keeps the fights sporty and enables anglers to sight cast to sharks as they investigate the chum slick. From the mainline tie a 30-turn Bimini twist and attach a 6-foot length of 60 lb. monofilament with a Bristol knot. This serves the same purpose as a wind-on leader and keeps the need to leader big sharks to a minimum. It’s now time to attach a ball-bearing swivel to the 60 lb. running line. The last step involves attaching a 24-inch length of 400 lb. mono leader finished off with a VMC 9/0 wide gap circle-hook (#7385). It is important to note that bull and blacktip sharks will slice through even the heaviest monofilament with ease, so this approach only applies to lemon sharks.
All sharks are aggressive and unpredictable, and fishing for these apex predators in only a few feet of water is incredibly exciting. Just remember that sharks are key to a balanced ecosystem and it’s critical your backcountry shark efforts are strictly catch and release.