Keying on sharks

KEY LARGO, Fla. – Sharks are the unquestioned rulers of their realm. They’ll swim up to boats in less than 2 feet of water and furiously rip and tear away fish attached to stringers. They fear only larger sharks, not mere boats or fishermen.

Many varieties of sharks roam the waters of the Florida Keys, from the small to very large. They share the same water as boaters, snorkelers and fishermen wading onto the famed Florida flats. Among the more numerous in terms of visibility are the nurse shark, black tip and the curiously unusual hammerhead.

Nurse sharks are generally slow swimmers that are often seen loafing about the shallow water of the flats in search of easy meals. Black tips roam the shallows too but, in sharp contract to nurse sharks, they can swim at blistering speed. A nurse shark will take bait and swim away slowly. Not so with a black tip. He’ll grab the bait, rip out 175 yards of line in mere seconds and then do a series of spectacular back flips high above the water.

Oddly, given sharks of comparable size, it will take a fisherman longer to battle a nurse shark than a black tip. That’s because a nurse shark will make steady and determined runs, using its bulk and powerful tail to strain fishing line and fishermen to the limit. A black tip tends to wear itself out.

A black tip is never in a mood to outlast an angler. His strategy is to fight violently immediately, often making huge runs that almost always culminate with amazingly agile leaps high above the water. They are showmen of the first order. A fisherman who hooks into a black tip knows it by the sound of line screaming off the reel. Incredibly, the powerful black tips manage huge leaps even from shallow water. Hooking into one is an experience no fisherman will ever forget.

Sharks have a keen sense of smell and can detect blood in the water from great distances. Therefore, chum is an effective way to lure sharks to the fisherman. A chum bag, or fish carcasses on a metal clothespin-type stringer, are tied to the boat and emit scent in the water. A large piece of meat, such as cut barracuda, is then suspended on a circle hook under a bobber tossed off the back of the boat several feet away from the chum.

If the boat is kept moving, or the tidal current is right, a shark will follow the scent of the chum and encounter the bait during his deadly approach. Then, when the shark strikes, the clever advantage employed by the fisherman turns into near chaos when the battle commences. Often several sharks will arrive at nearly the same time, circling the boat while the fisherman conducts a very personal battle of wills with the shark at the end of the line.

A good boat operator is required to help close the distance and keep the shark from “spooling” the reel. Once at boatside, only the smallest of sharks are lifted from the water. Larger sharks are much too heavy and much too dangerous to pull into a boat. If the hook cannot be removed from a shark’s toothy mouth, the leader is cut and the shark is released unharmed. The saltwater will make short work of the hook.

The following is an account of five days of fishing in the Florida Keys, sharks included.

Day 1

Rain, thunder and wind were in the forecast but the storms stayed distant enough to permit a full day of fishing. North Dakota Fishing Hall-of-Famer Mort Bank, Bismarck, planned to target barracuda with artificial plugs pulled through shallow water while having one rod with a bobber and hook dedicated to shark fishing.

Within the first hour, the loud sound of the drag from the baitcasting reel on the shark rod pierced the air. A second or so after the rod was removed from its holder, a large black tip shark flipped into the air about 125 yards away. The sensational and showy maneuver snapped the line. The shark was gone but it left behind an unforgettable image of a massive fish leaping high in the air.

Later, a few barracuda fell to Bank’s presentations, primarily jointed lures reeled quickly through the shallow flats. Barracuda have a ferocious presence. Their long and numerous teeth and sleek appearance make them one of the ocean’s finest predators. They are remarkably fast swimmers and put up a powerful and lengthy fight on standard baitcasting or spinning tackle.

A highlight of the day included the hooking and landing of a small black tip by Kelli Fundingsland, Minot. The fish made things interesting after being brought to boatside. While Bank was attempting to take out the hook, the shark clamped onto the bobber and wouldn’t let go. Only after the bobber was pried from its mouth could the hook be removed and the shark released. It was a small shark, but an indicator of how difficult and dangerous sharks can be when reeled in on hook and line.

Day 2

On this day, Bank turned the boat toward the gulf side of the Keys. The west side of the Keys would provide the most shelter from easterly winds that were expected to blow all day. Fortunately the winds never developed as forecast and the day proved to be remarkably pleasant despite the thermometer reaching 88 degrees.

Fishing on this day was done primarily in bays and points covered in eerie mangroves, those strange trees that flourish along the saltwater flats. The water was murkier than what was encountered on Day 1. A few large fish, at least the dark images of them, could be seen passing underneath lures as they were reeled toward the boat. The water was too cloudy to allow accurate identification but, based on the size of the murky images, they were believed to be either tarpon or shark.

Bank caught and released a few snook. A cold spell severely diminished Florida’s snook population several years ago and snook are still on that state’s restricted list, meaning they must be released. A very large speckled trout was boated by Bank, along with a very nice mangrove snapper. The latter pounced on an X-Rap that was flipped under overhanging mangroves. Both fish proved to be exceptional table fare.

Day 3

On this day the weather favored fishing the Atlantic side of the Keys. Storms were in the forecast but the skies in the immediate area promised good fishing weather for several hours. That proved to be a good thing.

The plan on this day was to once again cast the shallows for whatever fish were present, including tarpon that kept making appearances above and below the water, and keep bait on a shark rod for the duration. Fundingsland hooked into a large nurse shark that dominated the day. After about 1 1/2 hours the fish finally came into view, an estimated 8 feet long and likely weighing well over 300 pounds. The leader was cut and the shark slowly swam away.

A second nurse shark, which measured a paltry 58 inches, was also caught. It was boated, photographs taken and released back into the ocean. Bank added a very impressive barracuda that made several nice leaps before being released. The tarpon seemed to be everywhere, but the moody fish never opened their mouths to grab a lure.

Shortly after noon, the weather took on an ominous appearance. Rain gear was donned and a run made to get closer to the dock in case the wind continued to increase. During the dash the wind abated and the storm appeared to move farther south. That allowed for some additional fishing time along one of Bank’s favorite shorelines. Some smaller barracuda were hooked before gathering storms clouds signaled an end to the day.

Day 4

One of the fishing spots on this day was an area Bank had dubbed “shark alley” because of a number of sharks seen and caught during previous fishing excursions to the area. The designation proved to be a correct one. Fundingsland caught a 5 1/2-foot nurse shark that was brought into the boat and photographed.

What followed was a crazy sequence that started with a 5-foot nurse shark seen cruising near the boat. Suddenly the water erupted near the bobber and line was singing off the reel. A black tip came out of the water about 150 yards out and the battle was on. With Bank manning the motor and Fundingsland the shark rod, the fight lasted about an hour. Finally a 7 1/2-foot black tip came into view near the front of the boat. It was a huge fish. According to various fish weight calculation tables it weighed from 350 to 435 pounds.

No sooner was the bait tossed back out when another big black tip attacked it viciously and tore through the water at incredible speed. This shark took nearly 90 minutes to bring to the boat. The estimated length was 7 1/2 to 8 feet.

Almost forgotten during the hours of active shark fighting was the fact that Bank managed to fool a few more barracuda, including the largest of the trip at perhaps 15 pounds. Also, tarpon were again seen in good numbers but again failed to chase a variety of presentations.

Day 5

The start to this day was delayed by an active weather system that threatened to keep all fishermen off the flats. However, by mid-morning the weather was near perfect and fishermen were taking advantage of the opportunity to get back on the water.

A great lure for anglers was the ever-present tarpon. They were in the midst of what is known as the “tarpon run” along the Keys. Unfortunately, they proved to be uncooperative for the third consecutive day.

Generally on this day, the fishing proved to be tough, likely due to the combination of low tide and an uncertain weather system. A highlight was watching one of the ocean’s most unique inhabitants, a puffer fish, follow one of Bank’s lures to the boat.

A shutout was averted when Fundingsland hooked into a black tip that made a wild dash for the mangroves before turning parallel to the shore line and heading out to sea. The fish was outmatched by fisherman and fishing tackle. She brought it boatside in short order. It was a black tip estimated at 4 1/2 feet. It was quickly unhooked and released.