Baits for Beasts

Baits for Beasts
Preparing to release a giant bull shark that hit a jack crevalle bait.

As apex predators in the world's oceans, sharks have ruled the earth's marine ecosystems for millions of years.  Generally, the ravenous appetites of these opportunistic and highly skilled  hunters motivate them to take just about any available food source.  Sharks aren't picky eaters.  For this reason, anglers find them fun and easy to target, compared with some of the other big game species.

In the realm of land-based shark fishing, our bait choices can be just as important as the high-end tackle and gear we use.  While sharks will sometimes eat most anything, some baits attract more attention and earn quicker strikes than others.  Size and freshness of baits play an important role, though some stale, seemingly rank baits also appeal to the toothy critters.  As we approach big shark time on the Texas coast, reviewing a list of preferred and proven baits makes good sense.

When deciding which baits to rely on during prime time, one must know which species are present in our waters in the peak summer season.  For much of the year, we can successfully target about ten species of sharks in the waters of the Lone Star State.  But in the hottest season, when conditions allow, the number of available species jumps to around fifteen.

As I type, we've entered BIG shark season along the Coastal Bend of Texas.  Several smaller species are present and abundant, but more importantly, the beasts are moving in to feed. Over the coming months, we can target bulls, tigers, lemons, and great hammerheads, all of which rank among the largest sharks people expect to catch in the surf.

In addition to the big four, anomalies like dusky and mako sharks also occupy the list of monsters available to Texas sharkers this time of year.  Each shark species has a characteristic feeding pattern. At times, they all venture into the shallows where anglers can hook and fight them.  As the sport of sharking gains more popularity, anglers put out a metaphorical smorgasbord of different baits while trying to catch these brutes.  Some of these baits work better than others.

Over recent years, increasing numbers of new, active sharkers have generated a growing demand for big baits.  These days, nearly all the new anglers coming onto the scene drop big money for prime gear from square one and start targeting the biggest sharks.  Almost all of them want to post pictures and details about a trophy catch on social media as soon as they begin soaking baits.

Equipped with all the expensive, top-notch gear, many anglers are ready and willing to pay top dollar for the right big baits.  Mostly, they spend their cash on whole jack crevalle and stingrays.  The jacks are perhaps the best all-time big baits, due to the attractive qualities of their smelly, bloody flesh.  To a shark, a jack crevalle is like a rib eye steak with fins.  Complicating the issue of using these effective fish as bait for big sharks, the Texas law requiring sharkers to use circle hooks makes rigging half and whole jacks tricky at best.

Rays also make productive baits for big sharks.  The most commonly bought and sold ray is the cownose ray, which works nearly as well as a jackfish, and they're fairly easy to find, since they populate the bays in pretty high numbers.  One main negative factor makes using the cownose rays for shark baits risky at best.  A cownose ray is a really bloody and oily ray, with soft skin and flesh, so hooks are prone to pull out of the bait when a medium-sized shark starts munching on it.  If the shark is big enough, and swallows the ray whole, this problem becomes irrelevant.

Both jack crevalle and cownose rays are more common in the surf in spring and fall than in summer.  Since summer is the peak season for targeting big sharks in Texas, another type of big bait perhaps exceeds either jacks or cownose rays in terms of producing bites from the biggest brutes.  Both southern and roughtail stingrays inhabit the waters close to the beach in great numbers while temperatures reach their zenith.  Both these species can reach weights of over 200 pounds, and big sharks love to feed on them when they can.

The majority of roughtail and southern stingrays found in the surf in the summer are pregnant females.  They take advantage of the generally light winds and calm waters to scavenge or hunt fish, crabs and other crustaceans with less stress.  But they face a regular danger—when night falls, giant tigers and great hammerheads move into the shallows to prey on them.  These sharks attack the pregnant rays and consume them, sometimes despite suffering wounds during the process.  It's not uncommon to land a big shark and find stingray barbs sticking out of both sides of its mouth.

As a personal preference, I use some type of ray about 90% of the time when targeting big sharks. Jacks work well, but large blacktips will take them too, so I only run jacks when most of the smaller sharks get pushed out of the area by bigger ones, usually in July, during the shrimping season.  The recently adopted circle hook law has rendered jacks less useful as well.  Rigging them on J-hooks in the old fashioned way worked well, but they're extremely hard to impale on circle hooks.  Rays are easier to rig on circle hooks, either half or whole, or using pieces of the wings cut into thick, long strips.

Regardless of which bait is chosen, rigging is important.  With any big ray, I like to stick a single 24/0 Catch Sharks Viper circle hook through the end of the bait.  By doing this, a big enough shark will eat the whole bait and get hooked, but a smaller shark that hits the bait usually doesn't get hooked, so the bait remains useful. When using whole rays, I like to place the hook at one end, usually the head.  I have tremendous luck with southern/roughtail baits. 

One productive trick is to let these baits sit in the sun for several hours to dehydrate.  This seals in the scent, displaces natural water, and keeps the bait quite firm.  Many times, I've deployed freshly caught ray alongside sunbaked ray-jerky and the nasty, shriveled stuff usually gets smashed first.

Many baits can legally be used to produce bites from giant sharks, so there's no real reason to fish exclusively with jacks and rays.  I've caught dusky sharks, hammerheads and tigers on gafftops and other unregulated species, sometimes deployed  as "multi-bait tacos."  It's always wise to match the hatch, so I will try just about anything of the right size that's abundant in the waters in front of me, including barracuda, tuna, Bermuda chub, and other species.  Whatever bait is chosen should be rigged properly on a circle hook and allowed to soak for hours, sometimes for even more than a day, because in the big shark game, patience pays.
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