Shark Smart, Staying Off Of The Food Chain

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Bruce Smithhammer encounters his first shark. Photo by Louis Cahill

Bruce Smithhammer encounters his first shark. Photo by Louis Cahill

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.

DSC_4108-3If 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
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19 thoughts on “Shark Smart, Staying Off Of The Food Chain

  1. Another great article and was in fact a topic of conversation this weekend as my father and I were wading chest deep in muddy waters of the indian river this weekend.

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  3. If just one G&G reader finds themselves in this situation then this article is more than worth it! Mind you I still maintain you never really know how you are going to react until you’re there in the middle of it!

    Interesting point about being careful on boats as well. A follow up article on barracuda behaviour could be really interesting.

  4. People at work look at me while I laugh in front of my monitor. The mental picture of you trash talking the shark and going after it is pretty great. Sounds like something I might do too. Good read.


  5. My plan, should I get into a similar situation, is to break down my rod in half, and jab him with the butt section to keep him at bay. Come any closer and plan B will be a head stomp. Thanks ya’ll.

    What about shark repellent? Pack it with your sunscreen.

  6. I’ve personally witnessed a brand spanky new Tibor Everglades connected to a new TFO 8wt mauled by a 3ft lemon. Angler was landing a bonefish, lemon shark was amped up and charged, guy danced around a little then after the shark tried to take the toe of his wading boot he wopped it on the head with the butt of his rod. Quicker than a duck a duck on a june bug that shark grabbed his reel and shook the bejeebers out of it. I was sitting on the bow of the skiff watching from a safe 100 yards or so. It was funny at the time but thinking about it even that little shark could have caused some serious lacerations on a foot or ankle.

    Ditto your assessment of cudas. Always keep a lookout for marauding cudas and never try to hand land a fish, any fish, if a cuda is within eye sight.

    The other option is to always fish with Smithhammer because nothing messes with Smithhammer.

  7. I’ve had it happen to me, chest deep in Pensacola fishing for trout. Saying I felt helpless is an understatement. I just released a large speck, after quite a long fight. I didn’t have a net, so I spent a bit of time trying to calm the fish down. When I released him, he had a bit of an issue, and rolled over. Well that brought him in. The shark moves so fast there isn’t a thing you can do, except what I now do. I don’t wade past my thighs anymore. I won’t call it running, because I was so deep in the water, but it’s exactly what I did. I expected a bite to the legs any second. I’ll never forget the feeling of “shit…….this is how it ends” A couple weeks later my brother sends me a picture of the lagoon we fished that day, and caught red fish and trout almost at will. What is it? An alligator! Wading in salt water is not something I do anymore, at least not with aggression.

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  9. Very insightful and sobering article. I’ve had a few encounters with blacktips and lemons on the flats before, but nothing like that. I’ve seen them coming and lowered my rod tip in the water, jabbing them in the head/nose, obviously willing to sacrifice the rod at that point. This has worked thus far, and my rod has always survived. Granted, the water was crystal clear, and the sharks weren’t in attack mode.

    Additionally, I’ll second the comments about being careful on a boat. I recall an incident near one of the bridges in Islamorada where we had thrown a cast net on a mullet school. We netted more fish than we needed, and were tossing excess fish back overboard. As we finished, I stuck my hands over the side to wash off some mullet slime. As soon as I pulled my hands out of the water, a small lemon shark roared up from the murk, jaws wide open, and slammed the exact spot where my hands had been. Needless to say I don’t stick any appendage overboard anymore when there is bait around, when the water is near, or when I’m near a bridge or wreck.

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  12. While wading in Charlotte harbor I was approached by an aggressive bull shark coming at me full on. I found that while screaming like a little girl and thrashing about $1500 bucks of fly rod at it does in fact scare them off. That time.

  13. For many years we’ve fished in shark infested waters along the coastal areas of the Everglades and up inside the interior (I’m in my 20th year as a guide….) from Flamingo to Chokoloskee. To give most an idea of just how many there are we usually expect a fresh piece of cutbait to get picked up in around five minutes…. wherever we are if there’s a current to spread the scent.

    We encounter lemons, bulls, blacktips, and the occasional hammer or tiger – always in dark waters where you can’t see what’s coming in your direction if you’re in the water. In summer they’re a real problem if you hook anything and don’t remove it from the water promptly…

    On one occasion we released a small hammerhead (about six feet long – only 60lbs estimated- a baby great hammer – long and lean) it swam off and was eaten right in front of us – I guessed that a really big shark took care of business since I’ve seen animals nearly as big as my 17′ skiff at times in that area….

    In that same area we occasionally draw strikes on fly from sharks that weren’t chummed up at all – just sighted and cast to (fish from six to eight feet long). As you can guess I don’t recommend that my anglers wade ever….

    One lesson I have learned from watching birds and animals swimming in that area…. None of them make the slightest sound or splash at all – they’re dead silent – birds, racoons, bobcats, foxes, snakes…. I’m certain that any noisy ones never live long enough to have babies…..

    Many years ago as a young mate on charter boats I killed every shark we caught – all were headed for the taxidermist. I’m glad we don’t do that any more. Every one we bring to the boat is carefully released and sent on its way – and none of that exciting tail rope ’em and drag ’em in the boat for a photo – not ever! Even a really big shark is easy to handle safely if you let it settle down and remain in the water as you remove the hook (if possible….). The only sharks that have ever drawn blood from me were the babies that are just so quick and tough to handle safely (since they’re agile enough to turn and bite the hand holding them if you’re not careful….

    Be a hero…. take a kid fishing….

  14. “treat them like cranky steelheaders”
    ha. just so..

    Fishing Long Key near dark once, a 6′ shark swam underneath my fly rod.. never saw him coming, but I sure watched him go.. then moved, very quietly, back to shore 😉

    Had the canoe out inshore from one of the Keys, asked my wife to hang on to a paddle stuck in the sand while I fished. She let go when the 8′ lemon shark swam under the canoe.. so much for that outing..

    In W. Australia, fishing off the rocks, could see the whole food chain in motion – small fish in the shallows, big schools of spanish mackerel to 4′ come swooping in from the deeps, big bronze whaler sharks to 12′ hot on their tails.. Stayed on my rock six feet up from the water..

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