By Louis Cahill
Here’s a cautionary tail and some tips that might come in handy one day.
I’ve spent a lot of time around sharks. Little babies and fish bigger than a flats boat. Generally speaking, I’m not afraid of them but I know when to cut them a wide berth. I’ve had a few interesting encounters but never a really close call, until recently. I know, that is I’ve been told, how to handle a really aggressive shark but it’s a long walk from knowing to doing.
I fish for these toothy, ill tempered fish from time to time and I’m glad I do. The better part of catching a shark is reading its body language. That is knowing by observation which fish are likely to eat and under what circumstances. That is also the most important skill in avoiding a sticky situation. If you know what a shark is thinking, you know how to approach him. That said, sharks are stupid animals which are capable of any kind of random behavior. Caution is always the best approach.
When you are wading in saltwater, sharks are unavoidable.
They have very poor eyesight and hunt by smell. They can smell you in the water from a long way off and they will come to see if you are interesting. Once they get close enough to see you, they generally want no part of you and bolt out in a hurry. Being blind as bats however, they get pretty close before that happens and that unnerves a lot of anglers. If you’re not use to it, your reaction may not be the best.
In a shark’s mind, food is anything that runs away. If a shark swims up to you and you try to get away from it, you’re sending a signal that you are worth further investigation. That investigation may or may not involve teeth but it’s an interaction you don’t want to have. It’s best to draw a line early. Standing your ground is often enough, but once in a while some aggressive behavior is necessarily. A push pole to the head, a loud splash like jumping up and planting both feet hard and, worst case scenario, a stomp on the head.
The best case is to not get into a bad situation to start with. If you see a shark behaving badly, swimming quickly and searching side to side, cruising around with its dorsal fin out of the water, being aggressive with fish or other sharks, it’s best to leave him to it. Stay in the boat, on the shore, or if it’s too late for any of that, at least don’t exasperate the issue by hooking a fish. That will keep you out of trouble most of the time.
That said, here’s how I recently found myself in a tight spot with a big shark.
I was wading in knee- to thigh-deep water, approaching a school of bonefish. I was with a guide and another angler. We were about a hundred yards from a small key and better than twice that from the boat. I saw a black tip shark about six feet long acting suspiciously. Cutting here and there after bonefish on the edge of the school.
I was a hundred feet or so from my companions and the shark was on the side closest to me. I should have just waded to the other side of the flat. I don’t care anything about fishing to big schools of fish and that would have been the safe thing to do.
It had been a weird day. There was a tropical depression to the northeast and a high pressure front had rolled in behind it. We hadn’t seen many fish and the ones we’d seen were schooled up. Every school was being worked by aggressive sharks. The friend I was fishing with actually caught a four foot shark and while he was fighting it another shark twice its size tried to eat it. Everything on the flats just seemed to be on edge and that as much as anything should have told me what was about to happen.
When I got within casting distance, I could see that these were not typical small schoolies. There were some nice fish in there. I didn’t see the shark at the minute, so I made a cast and hooked up a nice fish. As soon as it started to run the shark got in after it. I immediately loosened my drag so the fish would have a chance. He repaid my kindness by running straight at me, as if to say, “Watch this, smart ass.”
Sure enough the fish turned off when it got close and the shark, now in a total feeding frenzy, came straight for me. I must have looked like an easy meal next to that bonefish. He was moving at top speed, maybe twenty-five miles per hour and he was pissed. I’ve had sharks swim right up to me plenty of times but never a full-on charge. When he got close I actually saw him open his mouth. It was big enough for a basketball.
Let me tell you something.
When you see a shark’s mouth open, you can rationalize anything you like, somewhere deep inside you there is an ancient monkey that knows this is a bad situation. I have a bad history with large animals. It’s a running joke among my friends. I have a buddy who says he’s going to get rich by filming a TV show called, “When animals attack Louis.”
I used to photograph a lot of exotic animals and in the process I got roughed up a few times. Snatched up by an elephant and knocked about ten feet by a big male lion. I know that sounds crazy but it’s true and well documented. About twelve years ago though, it got serious. I was attacked by a pair of hundred-and-fifty pound adult chimpanzees. No joke, these are dangerous animals and I was badly hurt and very lucky not to have been killed. It stuck with me. I promised myself that was the last time I’d be the victim. If some animal wanted a piece of me, they’d have to work for it.
I want you to take this to heart because if you ever find yourself in this situation it may save you.
If you are an angler, you know how to read a fish. When it’s just having a look and when it’s going to eat. If that shark has made up its mind, it’s on you to change it. You can not run away and you can not sit there and watch it happen. It’s time to take a hard look in the mirror and cowboy up.
I picked my right foot up as high as I could and stomped that shark. I’ve seen a couple of sharks get stomped by my guide buddies and I’ve never seen one do anything but run for its life. This guy didn’t run. He spun around and came straight back at me, mouth open. By this time I was spewing obscenities at the fish. I stomped him again. He spun around and came at me a third time. I screamed a few more choice words and stomped him hard a third time.
This time he had enough. He turned off and headed back toward deeper water. My heart was pounding and I was so hopped up on adrenaline that I caught myself following the shark for a couple of steps. I think I actually yelled, “Come back here, you piece of shit!” I immediately realized how crazy this was and retreated to the far side of the flat. My guide was pretty shaken up. I’m sure he was picturing himself showing up at the dock with just my hat.
I didn’t see the shark again and we caught a few more fish before leaving the school. None of them were as big as the first fish I’d hooked. He was a really nice fish. Isn’t that how things work? All things considered, I went in feeling pretty good about the day. I mean, any day you fight a shark and win is a good day. I had a good meal, several very strong drinks and spent some time thinking about how to explain all of this to my wife before calling home.
Now that you’ve heard my cautionary tale, here are a few things to keep in mind any time you’re fishing saltwater.
Always be aware of your surroundings.
Even if you are fishing from the boat, know what’s around. Never reach down to land a fish when there are sharks or barracuda near by. For the record, barracuda are more dangerous than sharks should be treated with respect. Look around when you’re wading, including behind you. Sharks like to swim up your mud trail and you don’t want to feel him before you see him. They often rub against people before they bite. Don’t let them get that close.
Be aware of body language.
There’s no need to be afraid of sharks. You just need to understand them. If they are swimming slow and easy, they are probably not a threat. Don’t panic. Just keep an eye on them. If they look like they are in a bad mood, give them plenty of space.
Never run from a shark, regardless of its behavior.
Even a shark that is not aggressive can get turned on by a fleeing angler. Stand your ground. That’s easy to say and hard to do but you must not run. If things get serious, go on the offensive. Little splashes get them excited, big splashes scare them. Get angry.
Pay attention to the conditions.
I love to wade for permit at dusk but if I see suspicious sharks around I head back to the boat. That’s dinner time for them and the decreased visibility makes for a dangerous situation. If you see sharks being really aggressive, it may not be a day for wading. Have a rum drink on the beach instead.
Don’t let sharks put you off of good fishing. I know I told you a scary story, but really 99.9% of the time they are not an issue. Just use some common sense and know what trouble looks like when you see it. And don’t take it out on the sharks. There’s no need to kill them. They have an important place in the ecosystem and they are in trouble on a global scale. That’s hard to picture when your fishing in the Keys or Bahamas but it’s true. They are just fishermen like us. Give them their space. Treat them like cranky steelheaders and you’ll be fine.
Here’s Louis CK’s take on the subject.
Louis Cahill Gink & Gasoline www.ginkandgasoline.com email@example.com Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!