Shark Fishing on the GA Coast
These highly misunderstood predators are fun to catch.
Each summer our numerous shallow waters and sandbar-strewn sounds play host to a wide variety of sharks that migrate here to spawn or feed on bait from our super-productive estuaries. Many an angler has griped about hooking the toothy critters, not giving respect to this top predator. Their sheer numbers and feisty battle should earn them a higher position on the list of saltwater targets. While they do not leap multiple times like the silver king (tarpon), the brute strength of a big fish can bring even an old salt to their knees. The beauty of shark fishing is that there are many different effective techniques to catch them. If your snout is in the air at the thought of catching a shark, then go to the next article. If your goal is to have sore arms at the end of the day, then read on.
Capt. Billy Bice is an expert shark captain in the St. Simons area. He specializes in taking families fishing, and sharks are often the main attraction.
“My goal for the day is to provide a lifetime memory of the fun,” he shared.
Billy was a teacher and elementary school principal, and he loves kids. He has a real knack with little ones. For instance when the fish are not biting, he starts “calling” the fish, and sometimes they actually bite (whether coincidence or the kids actually pay more attention when he calls them). He told me about one older child who was doubtful the fish call would work but caught fish two times when Billy started calling the sharks. Billy later in the day heard the young man calling the fish… quietly in the back of the boat, so as to not give up that he was convinced.
Billy uses a Carolina rig for almost all of his bottom fishing. He uses a No. 2 long-shank hook, then a steel leader attached to a swivel. On the other side of the swivel is a bead and a flat, line-through sinker (some call it a no-roll sinker) that is heavy enough to keep the bait on the bottom. His most effective bait has been a postage-stamp-sized chunk of whiting, but he always takes some frozen shrimp and squid along, as well. He fishes his offerings on Zebco 733 spincasting reels and 6-foot heavy-action Ugly Stik rods. His clients get the hang of the equipment in just a couple of minutes, even if they do not already know how to fish.
Anglers fishing with Billy typically tangle with sharks, whiting, croakers, bluefish, rays and even a redfish every now and then. Kids who fish with him receive a shark tooth at the end of the day as a memoir of their trip.
But sharks are not just for kids… a large one can give you more of a fight than you want. All summer long giant sharks will be marauding schools of pogies roaming the beaches and sounds. I love to fish among the pogy pods and catch tarpon and sharks around them.
If I am looking for bigger sharks and even an occasional tarpon, I ride the beach looking for telltale flipping pogies. If there is a school in the area, I will give it a look. I smile when I see a tightly balled school, as there are usually predators causing the school to tighten up. I usually stop the boat and watch the school a few minutes before fishing. If there are lots of schools in the area, I do not fish unless I see predators chomping through the school, but if pogies are scarce, I will fish the pod even if I do not see predators.
I usually sneak in on the school and throw a cast net to nab a few-dozen live baits and then use my trolling motor to stay near the school. I suspend a live pogy about 5 feet deep underneath a Cajun Thunder or Back Bay Thunder Float and let my bait dance on the edge of the school. It is an unbelievable sight to watch a shark or tarpon bigger than you inhale your bait and scream off drag. Every now and then a big shark will actually eat the Cajun Thunder Float. I have dozens of floats with teeth marks from errant sharks, but some never release the float!
The way I rig for pogy-pod fishing is to tie a 6- or 7-foot section of 100-lb. test monofilament to the bottom swivel of the float and attach a 7/0 Mustad No. 7766 tarpon hook to the other end of the leader. The Gamakatsu No. 130 hook is awesome for tarpon but is a good bit pricier than the Mustad option. If I hook a big shark deep, I do not wrestle it, but cut the leader above the hook. Stout spinning tackle is what I employ when chasing big sharks. When trying to fling a bait to an active fish, it is much easier to cast spinning gear than baitcasting. The perfect outfit for doing this is a 7 1/2- or 8-foot extra-heavy action Penn Legion rod and an 8500 Penn Spinfisher V liveliner reel. I like the liveliner feature to let a fish take a bait well before setting the hook if you are not paying attention when it hits. My main line is 25- or 30-lb. test Vicious Salt A.C.T. monofilament or 30-lb. test Vicious Braid. For big fish like sharks and tarpon, I like monofilament because it is more forgiving for beginning anglers, and it does not cut underneath itself like braid sometimes does during a powerful run. The folks at Cajun Thunder are going to release a new larger float this summer that will be perfect for tarpon and sharks, so keep an eye out for it.
Capt. Greg Hildreth fishes the Brunswick and St. Simons areas for mid-sized sharks up to about 7 or 8 feet. This time of year, his approach is to tuck in behind trawling shrimp boats and drift baits. He uses 8-foot, 40- to 50-lb. class Shakespeare Ugly Stik Custom Rods paired with a high-speed Penn Torque conventional reel. He spools with 65-lb. test braided line. To his main line, he ties a heavy-duty swivel, then a 6-foot section of 200-lb. test monofilament leader. His hook of choice is a 6/0 Mustad No. 7766.
Early in the season when pogies are hard to find, he uses bonito (available at many bait-and-tackle shops) for bait.
“Bonito strips are as good as live bait, and you don’t have to throw a cast net,” Greg said.
He cuts a filet off each side of the bonito and then cuts strips from the filets. Each side will make about five or six baits. He touts the oils that are released from the strips, but emphasizes the importance of keeping your bait fresh, changing it every couple drifts.
His technique is to ease in behind a working shrimp boat (do not go any closer than the porpoises working behind the nets) and then kill the motor and put out the lines. He freelines two rods at a time, one about 30 feet behind the boat and the other a little closer to keep the lines from tangling. Later in the season when pogies are easy to catch, he will use a live pogy suspended underneath a float in addition to a bonito strip. Often he can see big blacktip sharks swimming along behind the boats. The key is to make sure the tide is moving, as the bite typically dies around slack tide.
Greg releases all of the sharks his charters fight. He uses only monofilament leader to help facilitate their release. Some fish break him off, but you usually get several good runs, even on the break-offs. He also leaves his reel engaged at all times to reduce the probability of gut-hooked fish.
If running around actively chasing sharks sounds like too much work for you, but you want to catch a big shark, bottom fishing is a sure way to hook up with Mr. Toothy. Chumming even increases your odds. Find a current rip (the intersection of swift and still water) in one of the sounds after you catch a cooler of pogies (used for bait and chumming, if you choose to chum). You can start fishing immediately, but it is often worth a little time getting a chum line going. You can cut up individual pogies with a knife or scissors (lots of work!) or use a grinder or chum basket with cutting blades to create your chum “slick”. You can use the same Carolina rig Billy employs, but beef it up with 20- to 30-lb. test main line and 100-lb. test mono leader material and definitely use heavier equipment, such as what I describe above for chasing pogy pods. It may take 3 or 4 ounces of lead (or even more) to keep your bait on the bottom because of the swift currents in our sounds.
Those who know me realize I do not like staring at the same water for very long. Coming from a bass-fishing background, I like to go hunt the fish, not wait for them to come to me. Because of that, I prefer to not anchor. My favorite method to catch sharks is to sight-fish them with light tackle. No, this is not a high-profile fishery like sneaking up on a tailing redfish and flinging a fly at them, but it is a hoot nonetheless. It is extremely common to be trout fishing along a grassline and see a fin breach the surface near the bank. Cruising sharks are extremely common, especially in the warm summer waters.
The sharks are already cruising the shallows at the time of writing this and will be all summer. Just a few weeks ago, I was fishing with a friend from Waycross and we were easing down a grassline at mid-tide. Bait was flipping everywhere, and occasionally a trout would trap a school of mullet at the surface and down one for breakfast. I had just unhooked a 20-plus inch trout that ate a clown-colored Bite-A-Bait Fighter when I noticed a 6-inch fin appear to my left. Without hesitation, I flung the minnow plug in front of his path and twitched it with a jerk-jerk-pause cadence. On about the second series of pauses, it smashed it. What ensued was, by far, the hardest fight of the day. With the lure lodged in its maul, the shark cut north, south, deep, to the surface, and stripped more drag than all of the other fish of the day… combined. I carefully boated the 3-footer, removed the hooks, snapped a photo and flopped it back to continue its baitfish feast.
Some would say it was silly to interrupt a good trout bite to catch a shark, but with their strong fight, it was worth it. While sharks will occasionally eat a spinnerbait or Sea Shad, they will rarely turn down a minnow-shaped jerkbait placed in their vicinity. Of course, it is smart to make such a cast with a lure you will not cry if it comes back mangled or does not come back at all.
When seatrout fishing the backwaters around Crooked River, I almost always have a rod rigged with a Bite-A-Bait Fighter plastic-bodied plug sitting on the deck. I leave the barbs on when trout fishing, but if I know I am going to target sharks, I typically smash down the barbs or cut one of the hooks off of each treble to make releasing them easier. Actually, I am not sure who is releasing whom–a thrashing shark at the side of the boat can be a tricky ordeal. Most of the sharks we encounter inshore are less than 4 feet long, but occasionally you will see a large one.
Whether you intentionally fish for them or accidentally catch them, sharks will often bring a boost of adrenaline to the day. Sometimes they will even reinvigorate an otherwise slow day. Think twice next time before snubbing these sandpaper-skinned denizens.
Shark identification can be tricky, unless you know what to look for. They are not all “big gray sharks” as I jokingly described them a couple decades ago when my fishing buddies would ask what kind of shark I caught. Subtle differences like head shape, spots, fin shapes and sizes and snout distances can help distinguish the various sharks. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a handy identification chart on their shark webpage available at: www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/hms/hmsdocument_files/sharks.htm (click on Recreational Shark Identification Placard).
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