I went on a shark fishing charter once several years ago during a trip to Florida and caught some and it was fun. Yet it just didn’t satisfy the itch I get when I think about catching sharks. For one thing, it was mid-summer and it was hot. REALLY hot. The trip started in the morning and continued into the afternoon, and we absolutely baked in the midday sun. It felt like I was melting as I sat there waiting for a shark to pick up the scent from our chum line. Although I caught two sharks that day, each bite was separated by hours of waiting and sweating.
So when I had the chance to go shark fishing again earlier this year – this time during spring – I jumped at the chance. My brother Mike and I were fishing in the Florida Keys in May, and the weather was perfect. Not too hot and not too windy. We stayed at Pines and Palms Resort on Islamorada (www.pinesandpalms.com), and I had scheduled a shark fishing charter with local guide and shark expert Capt. Rick Cannon. Capt. Rick is based out of Robbie’s Marina, just down the road on Islamorada (www.robbies.com).
Smile! A big lemon shark comes to the boat
We talked to Capt. Rick in the afternoon after he had finished one of his daytime charters, and he said we would meet the following evening, about an hour before sunset. He explained that the shark fishing didn’t really get good until the sun started to go down anyway. That sounded good to me!
The next day Mike and I met him at the dock at Robbie’s Marina as the sun started heading for the western horizon. We climbed aboard and asked him what species of sharks we might expect to catch. He said there were bull sharks, lemon sharks, spinner sharks and nurse sharks in the area but you never know exactly what will take the bait. When we asked about bait, he opened a large cooler and showed us a heaping pile of fish carcasses he had saved from the marina’s fish cleaning station. There were mangrove snappers, mutton snappers, white grunts and dorado, just to name a few.
We motored out to one of the channels off Islamorada and found a good place to anchor. Capt. Rick chopped up some baitfish and threw the pieces overboard, then dropped a few fish carcasses over the side to start a good chum line. We hoped the scent of all that bait in the water would quickly attract some sharks.
Mike Berg holds on as a big lemon shark surges away during an after-hours shark charter.
There was a nice breeze blowing down the channel as the captain baited one of the hooks with a whole fish carcass. He cast the bait out and handed the rod to me, then baited another rod and handed it to Mike. He explained that as soon as we felt a fish pick up the bait, we needed to drop the rod tip and move to the back of the boat so the fish would have time to get the large bait all the way into its mouth before it felt any resistance from the line or rod. A large circle hook would do the rest.
It took almost an hour for the first fish to show up, and the sun was setting when Mike felt something pick up his bait. He followed Capt. Rick’s instructions and soon had a big fish on the line! The drag screamed as lined peeled off the reel and the fish headed up onto a very shallow flat. Capt. Rick said it was probably a big lemon shark because that's what they typically did when hooked.
Mike fought the fish for a good 15 minutes and got it to within 10 feet of the boat. We could see its primary and secondary dorsal fins and tail sticking up out of the water. Capt. Rick said it was definitely a lemon shark and it was big — definitely over six feet long. Just when we thought it was ours, the hook suddenly popped free. Aarrrggghhh!!
We re-baited and watched as the sun disappeared. Staying at that spot for another hour, we had no more bites. Capt. Rick pulled up the anchor and said we would try another spot which often held sharks. We motored over to a small bay and set up shop again. It was dark now and Capt. Rick threw several fish carcasses overboard to get the resident sharks interested.
One of Berg's lemon sharks at the surface, soon to be released.
Our two rods were re-baited and hadn’t been in the water for more than a few minutes when the first shark hit. It grabbed my bait and instantly I was hooked-up with my own shark. The line peeled away in the darkness and I could tell it was not a giant fish. It only took a couple of minutes to fight it up to the back of the boat where Capt. Rick used a powerful spotlight to illuminate the water around the stern. It was a beautiful shark, yellowish-tan in color and about four feet long. My first lemon shark!
Unfortunately, Capt. Rick would not allow us to bring the fish into the boat for photos. He said lemon sharks are notoriously flexible and if you grasp them by the tail like other sharks they can easily swing around and bite you. That was good enough for us! No one wants to be bitten by a shark, especially at night and far from help! We cut the steel leader and watched as that shark disappeared into the darkness.
We had just released that fish when another one hit Mike’s rod. Capt. Rick quickly rigged my rod with a new leader and hook while Mike fought his fish. I grabbed my camera and started snapping photos while the captain opened the cooler and threw three or four more fish carcasses overboard. After a few minutes Mike had fought his fish up to the side of the boat, and we saw it was another lemon shark.
This fish was closer to five feet long and it went berserk when Mike pulled it up to the surface. It splashed water everywhere in its bid to escape and circled the boat as it tried to stay away from us. The fish was difficult to control and the line almost hit the motor when the shark circled around to the back of the boat again. Finally, Capt. Rick was able to grab the leader and pull the fish back up to the surface so we could get a good look at it with his spotlight. The instant I yelled that I had gotten the photo, Rick cut the leader. With a mighty splash, Mike’s fish vanished from sight.
As soon as both of our hooks were baited again, Mike and I got ready for the next bite. We waited for less than 30 seconds! I felt a fish take my bait and I slid over to the back of the boat. As I did, I noticed that Capt. Rick was dumping more fish carcasses into the water! He was creating a real feeding frenzy! As soon as my fish tightened-up on the line, I leaned into it and started cranking again. Another fish on!
Mike didn’t have time to say anything about my hookup because within a few seconds he was hooked up too! We had a double going with big sharks on the line – in the dark! It was mayhem! And it was wonderful! My fish was smaller than Mike’s so I was able to fight mine to the back of the boat fairly quickly. His fish stayed farther out which allowed Capt. Rick and I to take care of my smaller shark. After mine was released, Mike got his fish up to the boat and it was released, too.
The fast action continued for the next hour or more until it was time to call it a night. We had one more double, although one of those fish got off fairly early in the fight. We each caught several good-sized sharks with most of them measuring 4-6 feet in length. My largest was just over six feet long. Surprisingly, all of the sharks that we brought up to the boat that night were lemon sharks.
It was an epic night of fishing and one that I will never forget. There must have been dozens of sharks swimming around in that bay by the time we quit and they were all very hungry. One thing is for sure: if anyone would have fallen overboard that night they would have quickly become shark bait!
To schedule your own trip with Capt. Rick Cannon, call him at 305-684-0067 or check out his Facebook page “Florida Keys Tarpon Fishing Charter”. For more information about the fishing around Islamorada and the Florida Keys, check out the Florida Keys Visitor website at www.fla-keys.com.