Most fishermen and others familiar with the ocean don't really fear sharks but certainly respect their raw power. They are quite simply swimming eating machines, marauders of the sea, prime predators, killers - pick your favorite word.
Sharks can hurt or kill humans, but they rarely do. Fishermen, wading and targeting bonefish in Florida's Keys or the Bahamas, often share the shallow water with cruising sharks - even having to tap their rod tips in the water to get their attention and keep them away.
Fishermen in the Beaufort/Hilton Head area face two options for having fun with sharks. You can go light and shallow for the smaller ones or go a little heavier and deeper for some real bruisers.
Ralph Davis and Frank Wood have probably caught as many sharks as anyone in the shallow waters around Beaufort, but on one bright summer day, they were looking for bigger sharks in Port Royal Sound.
Putting in at the Sands landing in Port Royal and heading out past the Paris Island Depot to the Paris Island split, they stopped near the G-27 buoy to drift and catch some bait. The fact that they couldn't catch anything with their frozen shrimp or baby finger mullet did not bode well. Finally, Davis caught a tiny shark that would have to do for bait. He sliced it several times across the back to flood the scent of blood into the water, and Wood impaled it on a big circle hook on a bottom-rig of 100-pound mono attached to a heavy spinning outfit.
The monofilament proved to be a big mistake.
A big strike was so sudden, it almost jerked the rod out of the rod holder, but the point of the circle hook missed. When Wood reeled in to check their only fresh bait, only a small portion was missing, so back into the water it went. A few minutes later, a gigantic strike almost stripped all the line from the reel. After the boat was quickly backed down on the fish to gain some line, Wood moved to the bow and the boat turned to follow the fish.
Wood fought it for 20 minutes, never getting the fish to the surface. When he tired, another fishermen took over the rod. Over the next 15 minutes, the fish was reeled to within a few feet of the surface more than once, but it remained unseen. Every time it got near the boat and the surface, it sounded, and the leader finally wore through. It was surely a big fish, and almost surely a shark, since it did not act like a big ray. It may have been a big black drum, but whatever it was, it just hit the wrong rod.
Davis has been fishing for big sharks since the 1940s. "Back then, (we) fished on Seabrook's Beach in the little cut between Seabrook and Kiawah islands," he said. Their approach required an innertube from an automobile tire, a quarter-inch line, a glass bottle, a length of chain and a big hook with a stingray impaled on it - and also a board. The loser of the draw loaded everything on the board and swam 100 yards out into the deep channel, dragging the line behind him, then dumping the contents and swimming back to shore on the board.
Davis then attached the other end of the line to the innertube, and that to the bumper of their old Ford. The teens hopped back into the truck to listen the radio and watch the bottle. When it began bouncing rapidly, they would put the truck in reverse and back the shark out of the water. They caught some monsters that way - far bigger than a man could haul ashore by hand. Once subdued, they would carry the shark off to Charleston and sell the meat.
Summertime fun was different for young men back then.
On another outing a few days after the first, Davis and Wood targeted smaller sharks in shallow water, this time near Bull Point in Trenchard's Inlet. The cut between St. Phillip's Island and Bull Point is a popular fishing spot for all summer species, including redfish, trout, whiting and flounder, but it is also a good spot to target smaller sharks on lighter tackle.
Typically, the flats on either side of the channel are home to bonnethead and Atlantic sharpnose sharks. They often cruise in water less than a foot deep and are easy to spot with their dorsal fins and tails out of the water.
Woo and Davis quickly got a small skate for bait, and they were well prepared with heavy tackle and strong wire leaders in case they ran into a bigger specimen, but they were really after the smaller, 3- to 4-foot long sharks roaming the shallows. The flats boat allowed access to very shallow water, and it was anchored in the shallows within range of the visible fish - but still close enough to toss baits to the deeper water near the channel dropoff.
Davis and Wood both use heavy spinning tackle and level-wind boat rods, but they both prefer the level-winds for the bigger fish. The first action came from the shallow side when a small Atlantic sharpnose hit Wood's spinning rod and was quickly brought boat-side. Davis grabbed it behind the pectorals, unhooked it and released it. A good start.
Soon, Wood scored again with a hit on the deeper side. This time, a very strong fish hit the heavy outfit and put on a great show. Wood had a Carolina rig as terminal tackle with a slip sleeve and pyramid sinker behind two feet of heavy wire. After putting up a nice fight and circling the boat a couple of times, the fish was ready to handle - maybe.
The plan was not to keep the shark, so Davis tried several times to control it by the leader and tail, but the shark was too large and powerful. They made a slip loop from the end of the anchor line and lassoed the tail, which produced even more fun. Wood handled the tail line and most of the weight, while Davis took over the rod to position the shark's head so the boat's captain could remove the hook. The big shark that swam away was a legal size (over 4½ feet from nose to tail fork) blacktip as indicated by the black fin tips and the white anal fin, which is a unique identifying feature.
Finally, another shark picked Davis's skate wing for a meal and the sharpnose, which was between three and four feet long, gave him some exercise before Wood boated and released him.
Their favorite baits are stingray wing, mullet, baby shark or any other legal, live fish. When fishing live baits, they slash across the bait's back to draw blood for an extra attractant - without killing the fish. Both Davis and Wood like to drift while bouncing baits along the bottom in bigger, wide-open waters in order to cover more area, and they tend to anchor in the smaller waters.