One hot-weather opportunity that offers great potential for enjoyment is shark fishing. Even in the dog-day heat of August, a variety of sharks stands ready to make your trip enjoyable.
There are many different species and almost unlimited size-classes of sharks available to inshore fishermen. The same boats that are used for redfish and trout will suffice in most instances for chasing sharks.
Charles Robinson lives in Sumter, but he grew up in the Charleston area and has been a shark-fishing fanatic for years. He worked with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at the Cape Roman National Wildlife Refuge and learned a lot then about sharks and how to catch them.
"I'm more of a recreational shark fisherman these days," Robinson said. "Some of the shark species are great to eat, such as the bonnethead. But we simply enjoy the sport of hooking and catching these hard-fighting fish.
"In late July and August, there are a lot of sharks in the area around Charleston. Odds of hooking up with a bunch of sharks on most any given day during August are very good."
Robinson said that tackle, rigging and baits are all fairly simple for most inshore species.
"We don't specifically target the huge fish, although we do usually hook some fish we simply can't handle," he said. "Generally, we'll rig a variety of baits and be prepared for several different species of shark. One of the keys to success is the place you fish - the process is actually quite simple.
"The biggest factor we've found for successful inshore shark fishing is to have a strong tide movement," Robinson said. "The middle part of the tides, when it's moving the fastest, is when we hook most of our sharks. Sharks are scent feeders and can detect minute traces of your bait scent in the water. The current will help get the scent of your bait out, and the sharks will come."
One of Robinson's shark-chasing buddies is Cory Whitfield, another Sumter resident who, like Robinson, is frequently drawn to the coast for shark fishing.
"There's really not a lot complicated about shark fishing," Whitfield said. "There are certain types of structure and bottom terrain that tend to hold or attract sharks. The basic strategy is to get in these areas, get the bait out and get ready to hook up and fight sharks."
Whitfield said that in recent years, he and Robinson have gone to using circle hooks when shark fishing.
"Since most of our fishing is catch-and-release, this works better for us and the fish," Whitfield said. "Plus, the hook usually imbeds in the jaw of the fish, where the regular J-hook style will often hook the fish deep in the stomach. This makes getting the hook out to release the fish much easier for us, and it's better for the fish."
Robinson said it's easy to identify places where sharks feed. The key is to give a potentially good area enough time to produce, but not to stay too long if there's no activity.
"The places we look for are inlet points such as Dewees Inlet, Prices Inlet and most any of the other similar-type places around Charleston," Robinson said. "The deeper holes around the jetties in the Charleston harbor are often very good. The same is true for junctions of creeks with the larger bays, such as in Bulls Bay. Deep holes in the larger creeks that feed into bays or the ocean are prime places for a lot of sharks to literally hole up as well.
"Generally, we'll anchor right on the ledge of the drop," Robinson said. "This enables us to fish both toward the shallows as well as the deep water. However, successful patterns, once established, can change quickly on any given tide when shark fishing."
Robinson said that a shark-fishing trip last summer illustrated this perfectly.
"Our setup was on the point where two creeks intersected, the currents combining to create an eddy around the mouth of the point," he said. "We anchored in about twelve feet of water, where we could cast towards the shoreline as well as to the deeper water. We baited with cut mullet, the bloodier the better that day, and whole shrimp, and we didn't have to wait long for the action to begin.
"The first fish we hooked turned out to be a hammerhead," he said. "The next was a blacktip, and soon we'd hooked and landed a sandbar shark. We were releasing all the fish that day, which, as you would expect, has to be done very carefully to keep both the shark and the angler in good condition.
"We'd started fishing just after the tide had begun to steadily rise, and the action stayed excellent until the tide got high enough to get back into the grass."
Whitfield said they did have to change their strategy to keep up with the sharks' feeding pattern as the tide continued to rise.
"The pattern will certainly change from one trip to the next, and it can change during the same tide," Whitfield said. "We began catching our fish on the deep side of the boat, but as the water rose, the action got much better on the shallow-water side. In fact, we were located adjacent to a very deep hole in the creek, and the fish fanned out from that deepest water as the baitfish made their way toward the grass.
"However, that pattern could be reversed the next trip. The bottom line is to keep bait shallow and deep until you establish the pattern for right now."
He said that he'll typically give an area an hour or so to produce before moving.
Robinson and Whitfield use simple bottom-fishing rigs that work well for most shark-fishing adventures. Robinson prefers heavy baitcasting equipment and uses an Ambassador 6000 reel with 20-pound test. He will also use heavy spinning tackle as well. When he sets up on a really big fish, he has some heavy duty trolling outfits that he'll bait with big chunks.
"It's essential to use a big, very sharp circle hook along with a wire leader," Robinson said. "The size of the hook should be in relation to the size fish you expect to catch. A lot of sharks get really big, so you need a very big hook with a huge gob of cut mullet for bait. However, you need to scale it down when fishing for more moderate-sized sharks; we often use 2/0 to 6/0 hooks.
"The hook and wire leader should be attached to a barrel swivel, with a sliding sinker above the barrel swivel. Again, the size of the sinker will vary with the depth and current where you're fishing. You'll want to keep the rig on the bottom."
Bait is a key, and Robinson's favorite is not cut bait, but a live whiting.
"Generally, people are surprised when we start out by catching some whiting, and then hooking them up as bait," Robinson said. "However, this is a great bait for a variety of shark species. Not only do we hook up a lot of fish that we can bring to the boat and release, we'll almost always hook one or two each trip that we cannot simply turn. It makes for great fun, however."
He said that other productive baits include mullet, menhaden, shrimp and cut whiting. The size of the bait will generally match the size of fish hooked. For a lot of action on 2- to 4-foot sharks, use smaller bait, Robinson said. If you're wanting to hook a huge shark, the bigger the bait, the better.
Robinson said the bonnethead shark is a prime target for inshore fishermen. Bonnetheads are relatively easy to find, great fun on medium tackle and make great table fare.
"Bonnethead sharks are very popular species for a lot of inshore anglers," he said. "These fish are often caught in the 10- to 15-pound class, which make them excellent fighting and eating size. Bonnetheads seem to prefer a different type of bait than most sharks. They prefer fresh bait over bloody cut bait. Whole mullet, whole shrimp and perhaps their favorite, fresh crab, are all excellent choices."
Guide Peter Brown of Charleston said he sees a lot of bonnethead sharks in creeks when he's out with parties, looking for speckled trout.
"Bonnetheads are frequently the species of shark you see cruising the edges of the creeks and waterways," Brown said. "There are often spotted with their dorsal fins protruding from the water. If you want to target this species, get up current from the fish quickly, rig a bait rig with one of the type baits they prefer and cast it near the shoreline. Often, you'll be able to mark their progress as they cruise the edgelines searching for food.
"Also, don't worry about them failing to detect your bait," Brown said. "If you've got a crab hooked up anywhere near their line of travel, they'll pick up the scent and engulf the bait. Then, the game is on."
But as Robinson said, you don't always see bonnetheads. But there are several things you can do to improve your odds of a hookup.
"Anytime I see one of these sharks patrolling an area, I make a mental note of it. I may be fishing for something else that day or not be rigged, but I'll go back to these areas.
"Bonnetheads will move along the edges looking for something to eat. Anyplace there's a break in the shoreline - a creek junction, a well-defined point where there's a good eddy current, a slightly deeper hole - all are prime areas for a bonnethead to feed. More than any of the sharks, you can often catch bonnetheads in fairly shallow water. Essentially, if there shrimp and crabs are abundant, you've got a good chance to have bonnetheads.
"One proven tactic is to set up on a point and give them an opportunity to come to you," he said. "I won't give them a long time, but I'll stay in a potentially good spot for 30 to 45 minutes before moving. There are simply too many potentially good places to stay anchored at one location for a long time. I do put out several rigs with different baits in each location. Usually, if you catch one bonnethead from a spot, odds are good another one will be along shortly."
There are very specific regulations regarding sharks and restrictions for keeping the different species. Fishermen are allowed to keep one bonnethead per day. Release is required of most other species. To do so, you'll need to treat the fish with some care.
Before targeting sharks, check the S.C. Department of Natural Resources regulations very carefully. There are very clear guidelines for different species. If in doubt, carry a copy of the regulations in your boat for reference.
Robinson said that if you catch a species that's legal to keep, sharks do make excellent table fare.
"Many of the species have a texture of meat that make them great for cooking on the grill, as well as for broiling, baking or frying," he said. "If you enjoy cooking on an outdoors grill, I highly recommend you give the grilled version a try. One simple technique is to marinade them in Zesty Italian dressing, salt and pepper to taste, and put it on the grill."
You can think as big as you want in terms of sharks around Charleston. The SCDNR saltwater gamefish records include 13 species of shark; nine of those state-record fish have been landed in the Charleston- Mt. Pleasant area.