Key West Shark Fishing

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Eyeballing Monsters Sight Fishing for Sharks
Capt. Steven Lamp

Published in the 2003/2004 Winter edition of South Florida Sport Fishing Magazine

Key West is recognized around the world as a tourist Mecca for water sports such as diving, snorkeling, sailing, and parasailing. Hard to imagine that with all of that going on Key West has also made it to the top ten list of the world’s most shark infested waters. The Florida Keys have more species of sharks than one can imagine and the long list of notoriously famous critters is gaining popularity in the recreational sport fishing arena. Increasingly, both inshore and offshore anglers have set their sights on sharks of all species and sizes. Using light tackle and fly gear, anglers all over the Keys have leveled the playing field and are now pursuing sharks as top fish.

Shark Fishing Key West

Starting in Homestead, the Florida Keys meander their way down to Key West and out to the Dry Tortugas. Quickly glancing at a chart or map, the string of small islands resembles a tail swinging odd the South Florida coast line. Located between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, the Florida Keys offer an abundance of fishing opportunities. To the south and southeast is the Atlantic side, claiming fame for having the only living coral reef in North America. Also on the Atlantic side you’ll find a never ending northward flowing river called the Gulf Stream. To the north and northwest of the Florida Keys is the Gulf of Mexico. We call the inshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico the backcountry, home to gin clear shallow water that covers the famous flats of the Florida Keys. Further yet to eh north is Florida Bay. Florida Bay is the resting place of many wrecks and houses a multitude of natural hiding places for numerous species of baitfish and the many predators that eat them. The Florida Keys all boil down to one of the best places in the world to pursue numerous species of sharks on 12 lb. to 20 lb. tackle.

Sharks in general are hungry, seemingly always on the hunt. Rarely will an angler find a shark that will turn down a free meal. Sharks have terrible eyesight but a great sniffer and extremely sensitive sensors that allow them to hone in on wounded prey. With the nature of the beast being what it is, sharks make a perfect target for light tackle and fly fishing enthusiasts. Regardless of your weapon of choice, there are enough sharks in the Keys to make an entire fishing vacation out of this one fish alone.

Black tips and spinner sharks head the list as two of the most enjoyable to pursue. Both offer anglers a challenging fight and are visually thrilling as they so eloquently leap into the air. Found in the inshore channels, on the flats and inhabiting wrecks, these sharks are easily enticed and eager eaters.

Hammerheads are one of the most famous sharks due partly to the unique shape of their heads and pertly to their unbelievable stamina. Because of their lack of numbers, only a few anglers have been specially seeking hammerheads on light tackle. This intimidating shark ranges in size from 5 – 15 feet and most of the year can be found hovering over wrecks and structure in deep water. As the spring season approaches, hammerheads can sometimes be seen on shallow water flats chasing their favorite snack, tarpon. Hammerhead sharks respond well to all sorts of chum and will eat almost anything. A number of Key West fishing guides have even been challenging hammerheads on fly with astonishing results.

Bulls are probably the most common shark targeted in the Keys. A tough match for any light tackle angler, bull sharks can be found up and down the entire island chain. Regardless of depth or type of structure, commanding bull sharks leisurely cruise around with the attitude that they own the place. Ranging in size from 3 – 13 feet, they usually scarf up anything that falls in their path. Fishing for bull sharks on the flats requires strong arms and a bit heavier tackle. Just like their namesake, bull sharks fight like hell. Chumming with a scored barracuda offers the best results. These sharks will eat anything that requires little effort to catch including slow moving plugs, flies, and chunks of bait.

Lemon sharks also frequent the Keys but are mainly targeted on the shallow water flats. Ranging in size from 3 – 7 feet, these sharks are noted for their blistering runs and eagerness to eat. Lemon sharks respond well to chum and will also consume a variety of plugs, flies, and bait.

Bonnet head sharks, though not very big in size, are still worth mentioning. Shaped somewhat like their bigger cousin, the hammerhead shark, bonnet heads only range in length from 2 – 5 feet. Bonnet heads stalk the shallows in search of easy offerings. Light tackle anglers will have great opportunities with these relatively easy targets. Entices with crabs or shrimp, bonnet heads are common on productive Bonefishing flats and can make a slow day of chasing the gray ghost a bit more entertaining.

Tackle selection when shark fishing in the Keys is open to personal preference. Whether the angler wishes to use spinning tackle, conventional gear or fly rods, the choice is simply up to them. Here are some things to keep in mind. Whatever platform of equipment you choose it’s a good idea to make sure that your reels have plenty of line or backing. Some species of sharks can peel off a 100 yards of line in the blink of an eye and then put up a pit bull like tug of war. Rods should offer good shock resistance for the occasional air show and head shake with substantial stiffness for safety during boat side handling. Fly rods shouldn’t be any smaller than 10 weight in size.

Sharks are all about teeth! A short trace of wire is the first link in keeping your fish from slicing its way to freedom. Wire comes in all forms, shapes and line strengths. On the flats, use as light a wire as possible for low visibility and good abrasion resistance. On the fly, the angler will want to use a very flexible wire that will not inhibit the motion of the fly during presentation or make casting awkward. Monofilament or fluorocarbon leader material should be used between the wire and the running line from the reel. The strength of the leader material is dependent on the size of your intended game. Sharks are covered with coarse sandpaper-like skin so the length of the leader should at least exceed the length of the shark. Their powerful tails can make easy work of our light lines and unfortunately sharks like to roll. A stealthy fluorocarbon leader will also be helpful in the Caribbean like crystal clear waters and offers better abrasion resistance then mono.

Assembling a leader system can be done in many different ways. Some anglers use two barrel swivels; one connected the leader to the main line and one connecting the leader to the wire trace. New to the market are soft steel and titanium wire leaders that can actually be tied in knots, thus eliminating the swivels and increasing the invisibility factor. Be creative and remember to take mental notes on what works so you may implement it again.

Hooks used in shark fishing should be extra strong with thick shanks to hold up against the extreme pressure. Hooks should also be extra sharp to penetrate the shark’s thick skin. Out of the box is not sharp enough. When using artificial plugs, and poppers, replace the treble hooks with single hooks of comparable size. The size of the hook is again personal preference and should correspond with the size of sharks being pursued and the type of bait being used.

Chumming a flat provides thrilling results. It is the easiest way to light tackle fish for sharks and great for the novice angler who may not have the patience to poll around all day. The best results will be found on a flat that has at least 2 feet of running water flowing across it. The strong flow of water will carry the scent for miles. One sniff and the shark’s acute sense will hone in on the source. Barracudas, bonito, and dolphin carcasses make great chum for all species of sharks.
Chasing big sharks o the flats and in the backcountry out of small shallow skiffs is a world of fun! Shallow drafted skiffs offer a great advantage as most of the sharks mentioned will spend large portions of their day in the shallows seeking out prey. When on a flat, wearing a pair of polarized sunglasses is critical in observing approaching targets. When you do spot and incoming shark, casting a surface popper or floating plug is an extremely exciting way to attract his attention. To entice the fish to eat the artificial, make a lot of noise with it and keep the retrieve a bit on the slow side. Casting across and well in front of the shark allows time for his senses to zero in on the sound. Pop the plug vigorously until the shark reacts. Then impale a slight fleeing action in the bait as the hunter approaches and hopefully attacks the plug. Casting live bait toward and incoming shark is another heart stopping way to connect. Use a pinfish or something similar and cast the bait in the shark’s path or travel. Predatory instincts will take care of the rest.

Fly fishing for sharks on the flats is another great thrill. Here the angler has certainly given the shark the advantage. Shark fishing with a fly rod is a medium level challenge to the fly fisherman in casting distance, accuracy and presentation. Actually landing one of these toothy critters on fly is an accomplishment that will boost the confidence of any aspiring big game fly angler. A few techniques, flies and gear secrets that may be helpful include the following. Flies of choice should be thick with large silhouettes and move lots of water. Large poppers are an excellent choice. Casting large shark flies can be slightly awkward but made a little easier with what I call the “one up” program. Load your 11 weight rod with 12 weight line to help better load the rod for the heavier fly. Presentations should be placed in front of the shark’s path. Remember, even sharks don’t like surprises creeping up from behind them. Keep flies in front of or to the side of their nose, stripping steadily till a strike is encouraged. Once the fish strikes strip back hard and sting him with the hook without lifting the rod. If the strip strike was done correctly, the shark will take off like a rocket. Now is a good time to clear the rest of your line and let him take drag. When hooked up with a shark on the flats be sure to hold your rod tip as high as possible to keep your line clear of obstructions. Don’t try and force the fish to the boat. You are definitely in for the long haul as the fish don’t know when to quit.

Practice catch and release when fishing for sharks. Here are some tips that may help the shark quickly revive from the experience and help you keep all your fingers and toes. For starters, shark skin is extremely abrasive so wear gloves. Sharks obviously have sharp teeth and they won’t think twice about biting you. At boat side, never take your eyes off of the shark’s head. If you know where his head is you know where his teeth are. Don’t grab the shark by its tail. Doing so can result in a bite to the arm. Most of all, never underestimate the power of a shark. Most sharks never stop swimming. Imagine how strong you would be if you never stopped moving. The best thing to do once a shark is at the boat side is to cut the leader as close to the hook as possible. Another alternative is the Boca Grip. Run the grip down the line to the hook shank and pull. This little move will often completely free the hook. On fly, all the same rules apply. Careful the fish doesn’t exert a last blast of energy and wrap your fly rod around the bottom of the boat. As a rule, when handling any size shark at boat side, photos should only be taken by an observer, not someone trying to release a fish. Main focus here is to release the fish unharmed and not get hurt.

I hope you too can appreciate shark fishing on the flats and in the backcountry as another great way to enjoy a day of fishing her in the fabulous Florida Keys. Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground while touching on various shark species and their natures. Ensure our future with ea positive impact on the resource by using good catch and release techniques. Take this information and add it to your own recipe for shark success.