During the middle of the summer along South Carolina’s beautiful shores, the mercury bubbles toward the very top of the scale, with water temperatures sky-rocketing to the mid-80s. Many fish hunker down and wait to feed until the coolest times of the day: dawn, dusk or at night. But one species with a mouth full of teeth and a spade-like head thrives in the summer heat, a perfect angling option as the summer heat sizzles.
Bonnethead sharks are one of the smallest shark species occurring along South Carolina’s coast and the smallest member of the hammerhead family. The state record weighed only 28 pounds, and the world record was only 32. But there is nothing small about their powerful runs and stamina when connected to the end of an angler’s line. They will refuse to cry uncle until the very last inch of line in back on the reel.
Bonnetheads migrate from waters near the equator well up the eastern seaboard; as long as the waters are salty and at least 70 degrees, a bonnethead is as happy as a clam. But few will travel too far from the sight of land and the summer buffet that’s inshore. The inlets and shores around Georgetown offer prime places for bonnetheads to fill their bellies.
Capt. Jay Nelson of Winyah Guide Service in Pawley’s Island frequently targets bonnetheads when the arrive, taking advantage of their preference for animals that come in shells.
“They primarily have a crustacean diet,” said Nelson (843-817-8508). “They will eat crabs, shrimp, and fish sometimes, but crabs are no doubt their favorite.”
Unlike most sharks, bonnetheads only have sharp teeth in the front of their mouths. Their rear teeth are more rounded like molars for crushing and grinding up their hard-shelled meals.
Nelson targets bonnetheads close to the ocean in areas where crabs are abundant.
“They like to hang within close proximity to the ocean,” he said. “You can find them back in the creeks from time to time, but the places with saltier water are much better.”
Nelson targets the areas close to North Inlet and both North and South Santee Inlets. These inlets have lots of shell around with ideal habitat for crabs.
“I like to find a nice oyster edge close to an inlet. They like to cruise oyster edges right where the blue crabs are hanging out,” he said.
When not chasing a tarpon or speckled trout under the summer sun, Capt. Steve Roff of Barrier Island Guide Service targets bonnetheads. In addition to oysters near inlets, Roff likes to drop his lines around the barnacle-encrusted jetties at the mouth of Winyah Bay, especially when the tide falls and pulls water out of the bay.
“On low tide, they seem to pull out to the jetties. Fish anywhere along the jetties up near the rocks on low tide,” said Roff (843-446-7337), who fishes inside the inlet on sand flats behind the barrier islands on higher stages of the tide.
“They will cruise in right behind the beach on points and spits on the clear side of the inlet,” said Roff.
On extremely high tides, when redfish are sliding up into the grass to eat crabs, Roff catches bonnetheads up on the edge of the flats closest to the ocean. They give themselves away regularly as both their dorsal and tail fins break the surface.
Like many sharks, bonnetheads make a living off their keen sense of smell. They have high metabolisms and must eat constantly. With few predators that can eat them in the shallows, they are not very shy and are very opportunistic.
“They are not too terribly selective. They are designed to detect smells with their large heads,” Roff said. “And when they find something they want, there isn’t any nibbling going on. They blast it!”
Crabs give off a broad scent trail, using cut pieces of blue crab remains the best option for catching bonnetheads. Nelson believes the scent emitted from a broken crab will drift downstream for great distances.
“The scent that a crab gives off taunts them in,” he said. “I cast pieces of crab along the edges of the oysters, and I let them sit. They will follow their nose and sniff it out.”
As a result, Nelson prefers to fish in areas with current to distribute the crab scent along the bank, but not a raging current that would dilute the scent across a much larger area.
“I prefer the upper and lower end of the tide when the current is moving slower. It allows the scent to carry,” Nelson said.
Typically, bonnetheads cruise oyster edges near inlets, and if any are around, they will find the crushed crab very quickly. Roff will relocate if he hasn’t had a pickup shortly after dropping his lines out.
“It is not uncommon to catch 15 at low tide, but if you don’t get a fish in 15 or 20 minutes, you need to relocate either further away from or closer to the shoreline,” he said.
Rigging is simple for bonnethead fishing. The standard Carolina rig with a 2/0 circle hook, 1-ounce sinker, and 12 to 16 inches of strong, monofilament leader is the norm. Nelson beefs up his leader to 50 to 60-pound test to eliminate abrasions. Also, bonnetheads are not very skittish of terminal tackle. The circle hook will almost always hook the fish right in the side of the mouth, keeping their sharp teeth away from the line.
Anglers can obtain crabs by purchasing them at seafood markets or by using crab pots or gather them throughout the estuaries.
Nelson and Roff prepare the crabs by removing their hard, outer shells and cutting them into quarters. When fresh crabs are not available, frozen crab quarters will work. And if crabs are not available, menhaden or cut shrimp will also draw strikes from bonnetheads.
“They will eat menhaden, but (they) will eat a hard crab 10-to-1 over anything else,” Roff said.
HOW TO GET THERE/WHEN TO GO — The waters around Georgetown are accessible from three main public ramps, South Island Ferry southeast of Georgetown on South Island Road, the East Bay Park landing at the ballpark in downtown Georgetown and thend the Carroll Campbell Marine Complex on the south side of the US 17 bridge over the Sampit River. Bonnethead sharks become active when the water temperature reaches 70 degrees, and the hotter the better. The lower phases of the tide are preferred, and the Winyah Bay jetties and all nearby inlets are top areas.
BEST BAITS/TECHNIQUES — Live blue crabs are the best baits for bonnethead sharks. Remove the hard, outer shell and cut crabs into four sections to fish around shallow oysters. Always keep a look out for bonnetheads cruising the surface. They are not very skittish of boats. Use standard Carolina rig with one ounce of weight, a 2/0 to 4/0 circle hook, and 12 to 18 inches of heavy monofilament leader. Braided line on the reel will help with stronger hooksets due to zero stretch. Seven-foot, medium-heavy rods attached to either bait-casting or spinning reels are preferred.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Georgetown Icehouse, 843-546-6169; Pawley’s Island Outdoors, 843-979-4666; Capt. Jay Nelson, WInyah Guide Service, 843-817-8508, www.winyahguide.com; Capt. Steve Roff, Barrier Island Guide Service, 843-446-7337, www.barrierislandguide.com.