He was placing bottom lines for bonnethead sharks, which I hand never fished for, and had only a single bait in place.
Waits was stringing a hook through a second piece of crab when the first baited rod slammed down in its holder and started bouncing hard. I leaped from my seat, yanked the rod from the holder and set the hook.
Waits cast out the other line about the same time as I set the hook, and by the time I got my fish close to the boat, Mark Davis of Shakespeare Fishing Tackle had gone to work fighting a bonnethead of his own.
I was amazed at the strength of my first bonnethead, which weighed less than 10 pounds, and was impressed by the speed of the fish's runs. I also was struck by the bonnethead's beauty, despite an obvious shark look and odd-shaped head.
True to Waits' forecast for the day, bonnetheads began cooperating as soon as we started putting out baits, and they took many baits as quickly as Waits could get them prepared and in the water.
We hit several of Waits' favorite spots, including some in the Intracoastal Waterway and one well up a tidal creek, along a big, deep bend. We caught several sharks from each hole.
"Bonnetheads are some of my favorite kinds of fish to go after during the summer," said Waits, a full-time guide, who specializes in flats fishing near Charleston. "They're strong, fast and really pretty."
Bonnetheads also are dependable, which is a huge plus in the column of any species of fish from a guide's perspective. From early May all the way through the end of September, Waits counts on being able to put his clients on a bonnethead bite.
He also said bonnetheads don't really alter their behavior during that period. He approaches the same kinds of waters in the same ways from the time they show up in late spring through the beginning of fall, when they disappear from S.C.'s coastal waters. Migratory sharks, bonnetheads head south to warmer waters every fall.
Waits has been targeting bonnetheads for close to a decade, and he has enjoyed more and more opportunities to put out baits for them during recent years. Clients who have had the chance to catch bonnetheads often return for another round, and Waits often mixes redfish/bonnethead days during the summer.
Interestingly, despite having fished the waters behind Charleston's beaches all his life, Waits never encountered more than an occasional bonnethead prior to the mid 1990s. While it's true he didn't target these sharks prior to that time, bonnetheads tend to use the same types of waters as redfish, and Waits has fished extensively for redfish for as long as he has been able to hold a fishing rod.
Small sharks in the hammerhead family, bonnetheads are found in shallow coastal waters from New England to the Gulf of Mexico.
However, their numbers are far higher through the southern portion of that range. They like shallow water over sandy or muddy bottoms and feed on a variety of critters, including crabs, shrimp, mollusks and assorted small fish.
Bonnetheads range in size from 5 to 25 pounds, with the largest number of landed fish somewhere in the 12-pound range. A 20-pounder is a trophy.
Bonnethead sharks are easily distinguished from Atlantic hammerheads and all other hammerhead species because their heads are shovel shaped, not hammer shaped. In fact, "shovelhead" is a common nickname.
Bonnetheads are brown to greenish gray and speckled on their backs. They have light-colored undersides.
Finding, Catching 'em
Bonnetheads can be caught at nearly every S.C. coastal location, but some of the best fishing occurs in the Charleston area.
Bonnethead waters at Charleston include the Intracoastal Waterway, tidal creeks, big flats, beach fronts and the Charleston Harbor jetties.
Getting bonnetheads to bite is rarely a problem, Waits said, if a fisherman is able to locate them. He pointed toward the Intracoastal Waterway as a fairly easy area to zero in on potentially good spots, noting the sharks typically will be at the tips of points in the marsh grass, at the mouths of flat-draining creeks and on the edges of flats that drop into deep water.
"Typically, you find bonnetheads in the same type of places where you would find redfish," said Waits, who often catches the two species together during the warm months.
Shallow water in the immediate proximity of deep water and concentrating features such as outflows of shallow creeks are important pieces of the location puzzle. Such features become extra visible at the bottom end of the tide cycle.
Some of the finest areas during outgoing tides are small creeks and cuts that drain broad flats, especially flats that are inundated only during the high tide.
Currents that form in these cuts typically carry a steady flow of food, so bonnetheads hold just out of the current in ambush position. There's no "good" or "bad" tide for bonnethead fishing. An angler simply has to adjust locations according to the level of the tide and the direction of the flow.
Oyster bars typically make an area more productive, Waits said. Beds of broken rock are also likely to hold bonnetheads, as are small channels that cut through otherwise even bottoms.
"If you've caught bonnetheads from a spot once, go back to that spot under similar conditions," Waits said. "Chances are good that you will find them there again."
Similarly, if an angler searching for bonnetheads catches even a single fish, it's important to slow down and work that area thoroughly. Bonnetheads commonly swim in groups of five to 15 sharks, so where there's one, there typically are more.
Anglers normally find bonnetheads by testing potentially productive spots and waiting for bites. However, bonnetheads sometimes reveal themselves, sparing anglers the trouble of having to search. They sometimes will swim through grass or along grassy edges in less than a foot of water, with their pointed dorsal fins sticking out of the water.
Waits generally baits his lines with shrimp or blue crabs.
For crabs, which must be fresh to be effective, he cracks the body, pulls off the pinchers and shell and breaks each crab in half. Either shrimp or crabs work well, but crabs stay on the hook a lot longer, Waits has found.
He strings each shrimp or crab chunk on a 9/O or 10/O heavy circle hook, which he ties to the end of a piece of 15-pound to 40-pound-test monofilament leader. The only weight he adds, given moderate currents and light winds, is a split shot or two.
Crabs provide enough casting weight with spinning tackle, and just a few split shots provide enough weight to put baits on the bottom where the bonnetheads are apt to be.
"Use as light a weight as you can get away with," Waits said.
Waits targets bonnetheads with fairly light spinning gear. He likes an Ugly Stik spinning rod with medium-light action and a Shakespeare Intrepid reel. He spools up with 12-pound-test line, in most instances.
He casts out his baits, closes the bails and sets the rods in holders. Because Waits uses circle hooks, a shark typically his hooked by the time an angler gets the rod out of its holder.
Mark Davis, who joined Waits and me on my inaugural bonnethead outing, is also a big fan of bonnethead sharks and finds some of his best action in waters Waits rarely visits.
Davis wades in the surf off Isle of Palms and other Charleston beaches during the summer and casts crab baits or pieces of cut bait into the shallow ocean waters for bonnetheads
Similar to Waits, Davis basically puts out his baits and waits on the sharks. However, he does so with a more heavy-duty rig because wave action and ocean currents otherwise would move his baits too much.
Because he uses more weight, Davis also uses a little heavier tackle when he targets bonnetheads in the surf. He spools his reels with 15- or 20-pound-test line and uses a shock leader of 40-to 80-pound test He anchors his line with 4 to 8 ounces of lead to get his bait into prime areas and to keep it in place.
Davis prefers the last few hours before high tide for surf fishing. He avoids outgoing tides completely, having found the fishing to be generally unproductive during that time.
In the surf, Davis' favorite areas are sections of beaches that wrap around into inlets.
Similar to Waits, Davis doesn't expect to wait long after he puts out his baits. He typically can catch and release several bonnetheads during the last few hours before a high tide.
Federal shark regulations create a virtual catch-and-release requirement for bonnethead sharks.
While bonnetheads aren't among the species for which no harvest is permitted - instead falling under the one-per-vessel-per-day regulation - the same regulations also includes 54-inch minimum size, a size bonnetheads virtually never reach.
A few things are worth keeping in mind concerning the handling and quick release of bonnetheads. First, a dorsal fin makes a very handy "suitcase handle," as Davis termed it, for grabbing them to bring them into the boat. Second, flipping a bonnethead to belly-side-up temporarily immobilizes it, sort of like getting a lip lock on a largemouth bass.
Finally, circle hooks provide a huge advantage, both for catching a higher percentage of fish that strike and for releasing sharks in good condition.
Circle hooks usually hook fish in the corner of the mouth, which makes a quick and safe release much easier.