Don’t sweat the small sharks

To the experienced fisherwoman, catching little sharks in the shallow waters of the Florida Keys is simply an obnoxious business.

However, if you’re me and you enjoy spending time on a boat with your best friends, listening to music and pulling out whatever catch manages

Carina with a bonnethead of Bahia Honda Key

Me with a bonnethead off Bahia Honda Key.

to pierce its lip with your hook, little shark fishing can be a thrilling experience.

This past summer I went on our annual Keys fishing trip which includes my own family and a couple of my friends and their families.  On days when the weather wasn’t right to get out into the open blue, we preferred to make a “kids boat” although all of us are well into our adult lives and an “old folks boat.”  In hopes of catching yellowtail snapper or grouper (and catching way too many grunts) to make up our dinner, we anchored on the west side of Bahia Honda bridge off of Bahia Honda Key.

After a few catch and releases of grunts, a small native fish dubbed a “grunt” for the sound it makes when it feels threatened, we started attracting the bigger prey.  Our bait included live shrimps which one has to squeeze until they snap in half, an exceptionally easy thing to do if you’re a female that keeps a good manicure, and frozen squid in a box measuring approximately 10 inches long.

The squid being especially potent both in the open air and under the ocean surface attract more than just the fish we intend to catch.  The frenzying of the smaller grunts and snappers draw the smaller sharks of the ocean to the bait as well.  After extensive research searching through fish breed books and watching way too much “Shark Week” on Discovery Channel, I have determined these smaller sharks to be bonnetheads, baby hammerheads, and blacktips.  To find some great drawings of these sharks, click here.

My first clue that baby “Jaws” is on the end of my line would be the fight these little predators give.  If it were one of those grunts or snappers, it would be a mere “tug, tug, yank up” and you’ve got a catch.  The sharks have to be dealt with differently.  These fish will try to run as far out with your line as they can.  I suggest letting it take the line a little and then reeling in a little.  Inch by inch you’ll be pulling your shark in.  When there’s a shark on the line, your pole may bend as if it’s going to snap.  I suggest taking the line in your own hands if the pole bending scares you.  Just like the Old Man in the Old Man and the Sea, hold that line and pull yourself.  This will allow you to feel if it’s going to snap or not.  I would also suggest wearing gloves if you have soft or sensitive hands.

Once the shark is visible in the water, you may feel the need to use a net which is the safest way to go about getting the shark aboard to take it and its terrible teeth off the hook.  If you don’t have a net, I suggest keeping the shark as close to the side of the boat as possible until you can get a hold of it right behind its dorsal fin (the big fin made famous by “Jaws”).  By holding it here, the shark won’t be able to bite you.

Shark skin is like sandpaper.  It has little microscopic hook-like prongs not unlike Velcro strips that will give you a slight burning rash if it rubs against your bare skin.  Although these rashes aren’t poisonous and won’t stay, they are a little unsightly if you were planning on wearing a mini-dress to the bars on Duval Street.

Whatever you do, do not let that toothy little razor mouth get near you.  Never grab a shark off the floor of the boat if it’s flopping around unless you’re wearing gloves!  Once you’ve got it from behind that fin, use pliers to remove the hook and slide it back into the water.  You can have up to 2 sharks in your boat for eating but the sharp, smoky flavor may not be for all palates.

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