Thrilling action with heavy rods and 80-pound test line is often thought of belonging to the offshore arena with finicky marlin, tuna and wahoo on the other end of the line. But fishermen have an ultra-powerful, unscrupulous opponent lurking in lavish numbers close to pristine shorelines - really close - and ready for battle.
Whether patrolling near the surf zone for tourists or inhaling by-catch behind the local shrimping fleet, combative sharks await willing anglers just a short ride from shoreline in Bulls Bay.
The largest estuary along South Carolina's coastline, Bulls Bay is nestled between Georgetown and Charleston, comprising more than 60,000 acres of saltmarsh, oyster beds, mud flats and intricate, connecting waterways - all overflowing with sea life and many within the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. These rich estuaries nourish huge schools of menhaden, mullet and juvenile fishes, offering food and protection from toothy predators.
But tidal forces frequently compel these schools of fish to evacuate, moving into waters where they're vulnerable. Usually first in line at the buffet and ready to eat under almost any condition are sharks, which are not known for being choosy, rarely turning away from any bleeding body part marinating in the water column.
Nearly 40 species of sharks patrol the waters of South Carolina's coast, with many small sharks stealing baits within the confines of the estuary and huge, quarter-ton beasts patrolling the crystal blue waters well offshore. Many 50- to 200-pound villains live in inshore or nearshore waters available to the well-rested angler.
Capt. Jay Nelson of Winyah Guide Service commonly encounters three main species of sharks in Bulls Bay.
"Black nose, black tip, and spinner sharks make up the majority of the larger sharks in our area," said Nelson (843-817-8508).
However, the shark enthusiast may get the chance to tug on some not-so-common species, including larger bull, hammerhead, lemon, sandbar and even tiger sharks relatively close to shore. In fact, Walter Maxwell's 1,780-pound tiger shark, which continues to hold the all-tackle world record, was wrangled from the Cherry Grove Fishing Pier in nearby North Myrtle Beach. South Carolina's coastline offers plentiful groceries for many large sharks swimming in the Atlantic.
Nelson looks forward to summer shark-fishing for the chance to hook a powerful, 100-pound behemoth leaping in and out of the water, repeatedly stretching a 150-pound monofilament leader to its limit. While fishing for shocks doesn't draw the attention of many local and visiting anglers, its physical rewards are unmatched.
"Our shark fishery is nothing less than explosive in summer, and Bulls Bay offers sharks classic ambush positions for the huge bait fish populations nestled in the bay," he said.
Sharks have a stout food budget and will live in deep channels, holes or creek mouths within close proximity to large, shallow, protected zones of the estuary. The large sharks generally avoid pushing onto shallow flats during high water, choosing to park along the margins of these areas to ambush bait on ebb-and-flow tidal conditions.
The majority of predator fishes in inshore waters gain an advantage on falling tides, and sharks are no different. Nelson prefers these deep areas close to an inlet, major creek or river feature, especially on a falling tide.
"The big creeks and river mouths in Bulls Bay connect to many smaller creeks linked to huge flats gorged with baitfish," he said. "The Bulls Bay area has a significant tidal swing with strong currents. These currents sweep out baitfish, and many of these creeks and flats become extremely shallow or dry on low tide."
Mouths of main creeks and their deep, interior channels become flooded with disoriented mullet, menhaden and other juicy fishes. Black tips, spinner and Atlantic sharpnose sharks fill their bellies quickly on those baitfish buffets. Nelson fishes the Harbor River, the entrance to Five Fathom Creek, Lighthouse Inlet and Key Inlet. Creek mouths vary in depth, with the mouth of Five Fathom being 25 to 30 feet deep, but the mouth of the Harbor River only 10 to 15 feet at its deepest point.
"While sharks are not too selective and will generally eat any bleeding piece of flesh in the water, a natural presentation always helps, even for sharks," said Nelson, who anchors his boat in the shallows and will fish back to the drop-off during high-current situations. Main creeks funnel huge schools of baitfish from adjacent flats and smaller feeder creeks towards the ocean. Baitfish are swept across these shallow points and shoals, quickly becoming disoriented and vulnerable to awaiting sharks.
While anchored in the shallows, Nelson casts his baits behind the boat along the break from shallow to deep. Sharks will patrol the deep side of channel breaks, and Nelson places his baits along these breaks. Not only does this technique mimic a natural presentation of bait tumbling from shallow to deep, these places are where sharks are concentrating to ambush bait.
Nelson will only fish three rods when he sets up for sharks, two weighted baits on the bottom and one free-floating swimmer on top.
"The triple combination of a cut chunk anchored to the bottom. a free swimmer on top and (another) on the bottom offers almost every presentation to appeal to a passing shark," Nelson said.
Capt. Robert McCarley of Reel Tight Fishing Charters out of McClellanville frequently connects to huge sharks in Bulls Bay. He prefers areas with high current and abrupt relief, including jetties and nearshore shoals, including the Romain Shoal (6 CR) and the shoals off Santee and McClellanville. These shallow, sandy areas provide refuge and harbor baitfishes until currents flush stragglers into the deeper waters just off the edges of the shoals into the mouths of awaiting sharks.
"Sharks are high-end predators, but look for areas abundant with baitfish that take little effort to catch," said McCarley (843-458-4157), who casts live and dead baits to the bottom and surface, offering multiple presentations to entice sharks to bite.
"Sharks are not too choosy, but placing the baits within their most-common travel routes will reduce search time by the sharks, increasing your chances for a quick hookup," he said.
Sharks are no different than from most predators, with the exception of their non-selective feeding habits. They will eat anything in the water column that provides energy, and while most available forage is free swimming, sharks have no problem gobbling up any parts or leftovers from other causalities in the ocean.
With this in mind, sharks have evolved to detect blood and stomach fluids of fishes at great distances, leading to their ultimate weakness. Sharks fall quickly to chum, leaving all of their inhibitions behind.
McCarley uses lots of chum when fishing for large sharks. Since he generally runs his charters out of Jeremy Creek in McClellanville, he coordinates his chumming resources from local trawlers.
"There is nothing better than a couple of 5-gallon buckets filled to the rim with by-catch from the local shrimp fleet," he said. "The shrimp trawlers scrape up all of their favorite foods, including, menhaden, small flounder, mullet, and croaker. "
Due to their unselective nature, almost any local fish, alive or dead, will suffice for catching sharks, locally-caught fish on the fresher side function well for sharks in Bulls Bay. McCarley nets live mullet and menhaden for bait and for chumming when by-catch is not readily available.
He cuts up several fish and tosses them into the water to start the chum slick, and he will toss out a handful of fish parts every few minutes to maintain a constant flow of fresh carrion. A mesh bag full of fish parts can also be dragged along the edge of the boat to provide a continuous scent trail as well.
McCarley prefers by-catch or freshly-caught menhaden or mullet for chum, but he will use frozen, ground fish chum when trawler by-catch is not available.