Lemons and a Way of Life

Lemons and a Way of Life
Oz posing with a very nice lemon on a South Texas beach.

Despite the fact we don't have crystal clear waters year-round like some famous places in the Caribbean, the strip of sand fringing the Gulf of Mexico and forming the Texas coast captivates anglers with its raw, natural beauty. Our often-murky nearshore waters rank high on the list of the shallowest in North America, due to an extremely gradual decline in depths out to the continental shelf. In addition, our weather patterns don't provide as many calm days and slick seas as those prevailing in Florida, our primary rival for best coastal fishing in the United States.

So far in 2024, the weather and water conditions on the beachfronts of Texas have been about as good as they get. While most places in the Atlantic Basin have experienced abnormally warm water temperatures, ours have been about normal, or a bit below average. As I type, the calendar lies smack in the middle of the peak windy season. If historical trends hold, these winds will blow with seemingly relentless strength until sometime around the middle of summer. The effects of steady winds create issues for both the fish and for the anglers who target them. Rest assured, despite the sometimes-marginal conditions, the fish are out there, hungry and hunting.

Hostile weather and water conditions do one supremely beneficial thing for the fishery, and those of us who love it―they protect the fish from people. This truth had even greater significance in the past, before innovations in gear and technologies began helping anglers cope better. During the golden age of Texas shark fishing, our waters teemed with a multitude of toothy critters, some of them truly gigantic. From about the 1950s to the late 1970s, the numbers of sharks and the quality of the fishery remained much the same. More recently, the effects of recreational and commercial fishing (and of course some poaching) have taken a toll.

During the 1990s, our numbers of sharks and other prized predators like tarpon plummeted to all-time lows. Many of us who love surf fishing felt the stinging effects of this, and the general attitudes of coastal anglers in the state began to change. To maximize the effects of this new mindset, we needed an explosive spark to help convey the critical messages related to the need for conservation. Luckily, forums on the internet came along at the precisely right time, giving the voice of conservation multiple platforms in which to express itself. Online forums spawned my original shark fishing desires and eventually I created one of my own. These interactive chat boards began to accelerate the pace of positive change.

Decades later, well into 2024, we can readily observe how conservation has enhanced our coastal fishery. Tarpon numbers are currently rated among the best we've seen in our lifetimes. Offshore, red snapper have become concentrated at some locations at levels not seen in many years. But while slowly rebounding, sharks currently lag other species, mostly because of senseless and illegal finning efforts carried out by foreign interests in our waters. If this practice isn't eliminated, we may never see shark populations return to what they were in the heyday of the sport.

Florida has fared better than us in this area, despite the presence of bad actors in their waters. Their shallows teem with massive bulls, hammerheads of nearly mythical proportions and periodically, hordes of lemon sharks. Here in the Lone Star State, we don't see too many lemons in the waters south of Port Aransas, but the numbers are better around Matagorda and on our northernmost beaches. These days, Texas anglers generally consider any lemon shark they catch to be a trophy. However, along the Upper Coast, a respectable fishery for lemons has developed over recent years. On our southern beaches, for the past decade or so, anglers normally report catching just two or three lemons per year on average, though numbers can run up to around ten, or drop to zero. The low catch-rate for lemons on Padre Island is a fairly new phenomenon.

Back in the 60s and 70s this species was abundant seasonally in the waters close to our southern beaches. During this time a large specimen was caught by Dale Whitehead at Indian Point Pier, well away from the Gulf in Corpus Christi Bay. Down in Port Isabel, people once encountered lemons regularly in the Intracoastal Waterway. While not ferocious or physically menacing, lemon sharks are a remarkable species. They're not as fast and aggressive as some of their cousins, but they're determined, persistent, successful predators. Visually, two dorsal fins of equal size and a pale, yellow/greenish color make them readily identifiable.

The month of May has traditionally been the most active one for encounters with these sharks. Anglers often report catching them on baits deployed for blacktips. Sharkers like me appreciate our abundant blacktips, but lemons strike a stronger chord. Lemons reach larger maximum sizes than blacktips; they can attain 10 feet in length and weigh over 500 pounds. The largest lemon I've personally caught taped out at 10' 1", and it had impressive girth and mass. While the shark was a solid contender to become the new state record, we tagged and released it unharmed. All lemons, like many other species of sharks, should be released if they're caught, due to their diminishing numbers. For many anglers, the thrill of seeing their first live lemon on a Texas beach rivals the excitement generated by a tiger or hammerhead.

Because of their scarcity, lemons prove difficult to target successfully, especially in South Texas. While seeking to tangle with other species, I've caught lemons on both large and small baits, some deployed amazingly close and others well away from the beach. I've also caught some in Florida and in the Caribbean. In those places, lemons almost always show up in the shallows, either along the beachfront, or in inshore lagoons. I've tagged some of these sharks in shallow water in Texas, but to date, we haven't learned much by recapturing lemons tagged in our state. So, we really don't understand all the details related to their life-habits and patterns, though we do know Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands serve as a breeding ground for these attractive sharks.

Like other species, lemon sharks need our respect and support to ensure their future survival. Anglers who care about the resource must do everything we can to help these species overcome the barriers they face. Sharkers have been labeled with stereotypes like ruthless, uncivilized, about as crusty as anglers come. Shark anglers are however also passionate, the acknowledged stewards of a controversial sport. At our best, we look after our targets and do what we can to protect the fishery, so future generations can experience the same kinds of joys as we have. With persistence and the right mindset, today's recreational shark fishermen can play a vital role in preserving not only these splendid species, but also a cherished way of life.