Winter Sharking Preview

Winter Sharking Preview
It is no secret that many shark species dominate our shallow gulf waters during the scorching hot months months which seem so endless to us coastal residents. And when the temperatures do begin to drop, it has long been thought that the arrival of winter means a several month break for the inshore sharks of our temperate waters. This has been a fishermans myth since the 1950s. As with most myths, it was based more on belief than fact. Much of the general public and angling community were content in the idea that sharks leave the cooler waters, in particular the winter surf zone, preferring warmer habitat. Until the advent of kayaks for bait deployment, and add a few years very few people fished for sharks during the chilly season. Even until recent, there wasnt much to go on other than the casually passed myth. So what is the actual verdict of this toothy matter? Do we indeed have a resident winter shark fishery at our local beaches?

Being the apex predators they are, sharks roam the waters on their life-long mission of seeking prey. As long as there is an ample supply of food within an area, they will be lurking unannounced. So in short, the answer to the question is yes, we have sharks cruising the shallows year-around. Conditions along the Texas coast rarely get cool enough to completely push out all the sharks. Come December, the water temps begin to cool rapidly. This change does indeed drive many shark species away. In south Texas, the hammerheads have already migrated with the tarpon and the abundant bull and blacktip sharks begin to move out as well. The larger of the breed, the tiger sharks, also begin to disappear with the colder water. Depending on the conditions, some of these sharks may stick around longer than others though the vast majority of these species do move out of the shallows.

Now there is a quiet disclaimer regarding our winter sharks. While it is true many of them hit the road, the arrival of the cold water actually greets another species Carcharhinus plumbeus, the sandbar shark. During December when the bull sharks move out, the sandbars begin moving in. Sandbars are an incredible shark species. They are fairly large (upwards of 7 and over 200lbs) and possess a very aggressive attitude. They are the large bulky versions of blacktips on steroids. One of their distinguishing features is their massively broad dorsal fin. Sandbars have a particular taste and enter our waters to feed on pompano, whiting, and black drum. Shark enthusiasts duking it out in the cooler conditions will certainly not be disappointed when hooking into this species. Sandbar sharks are the dominant wintertime shark species in our waters and will often arrive in schools to feed and mate.

Even today not a whole lot is known about this particular shark other than they are a highly-migratory species. Some specimens have been known to travel between the gulf and up along the east coast to New England during the course of the year. I have also tagged sandbar sharks in south Texas only to have them recaptured during the same time-frame the following year(s) in nearly the same general area. While moderately known to the scientific community compared to other species, these sharks are found all around the world from Australia to Africa and throughout much of the Atlantic. Unfortunately they have been impacted like all the shark species by illegal finning activity. It is important to note that this shark species (while abundant in the winter) is now protected in Texas and may not be harvested.

Over the 10 years since the discovery of our solid sandbar fishery, more anglers are braving the cold for their chance to encounter one of these awesome sharks. Fishing for sandbar sharks is quite similar to your traditional sharking. Despite their size, they will often be a sucker for a whole whiting or fresh pompano. The key is to have a low-profile presentation with a single circle hook in a small/medium sized bait. I have had them hit any hour of the day, and also had several breach, high in the air, like your traditional blacktip. On several occasions Ive had multiple hookups on these energetic sharks. Out of all the shark species Ive caught from the surf, I would consider these one of the most dangerous to handle when they hit the sand. They have a large mouth with impressively large teeth to boot! You must exercise great caution when handling and releasing sandbar sharks. Several years ago I targeted this species for their fun factor. In the course of about a year, I caught and released 18 sandbars, with several over 7 long. They are truly a fun shark to catch, especially if you are bored out of your mind with blacktips.
Now that we have discussed the sandbar sharks, are there any other species present in the winter? The answer is yes to that as well. The pesky Atlantic sharpnose are not bothered by the cool water at all. While maxing out at 4, they pose very little sport value though, and on occasion some people do harvest them for food. The smaller bonnethead sharks (up to 3-4, part of the hammerhead family) are also found in the cooler waters at times, though like the sharpnose, have virtually no sporting value. But there is hope for something more exotic. If the conditions are absolutely perfect and the proper bait source is present, there is an extremely small window for the mako shark. The mako (Isurus oxyrinchus) is a pelagic species and any encounter inshore is simply baffling. These are the quickest of the sharks and some of the fastest swimming fish in all the worlds oceans. They obtain unfathomable sizes, up to 1,000lbs, and are notorious for leaping many feet in the air when hooked.

It is another myth that the cooler the water, the better your chances at inshore makos. This is completely false. Makos are extremely particular with their inshore water temps. Offshore they can be abundant all winter long, however inshore, you only really stand a chance if the water is clear/green and between 65-70 degrees. The one true factor with this species is their uncanny desire for jack crevalle. If there are jackfish inshore or just offshore during this period, then there lies a better chance that a mako could be present. There have been three publicly documented catches of shortfin mako from the Texas surf. I have caught and released one myself, and was present for another. All specimens have been between 9-10 and within the conditions previously mentioned. They are considered the Holy Grail of sharks when caught from the surf due to their rarity and iconic finesse. A mako is a true gem.

Fortunately winter is not the last chapter of the shark fishing saga from the beach, in reality it is a new beginning. If the upper coast is slow or the water is below 60 degrees, a road trip to a south Texas beach could prove fruitful. One of the great aspects of shark fishing is you never know what you may hook into, and this is also greatly expressed in winter sharking. You may have your shot at winning the Super Bowl with an epic 400lb mako of your own, or resort to doing battle with a fierce 200lb sandbar shark. At any rate, be very careful when handling any shark species on the beach. Wearing a PFD when deploying baits and a wetsuit is highly recommended for winter months. Shark fishing is all about enjoyment within the elements and the interaction with the different aspects of nature. Having fun and being safe while putting in the relentless effort often leads to the rewards at the end of the challenge.