Running With the Bulls

Running With the Bulls
Author Oz with a large May bull shark – released!

Dozens of species of sharks prowl the waters off the Texas coast.  Some, like the cat sharks, average only about a foot in length, while others, like the great hammerheads, can attain lengths over 14 feet and weigh more than half a ton. I've been lucky enough to catch many kinds and sizes of sharks in my fishing career, which now focuses primarily on targeting them.

The natural dynamics affecting the coastline, driven by winds, weather and currents, sculpt an ever evolving beach. The creatures roaming the nearshore waters change with the seasons too.  Come the month of May, a fierce monster invades the shallows. Responsible for more attacks on humans than any other species around the world, the iconic bull shark is one of the most robust and versatile predators in any ocean.

If Texas were to name a “state shark,” the bull shark should certainly be it. Our population of these sharks runs the entire size spectrum; juvenile pups roam through inlets and into all parts of our bays, while giant, mature breeders rule the surf-zone.  The most massive adult female bulls push the scales toward the 600 pound mark and stretch to ten feet in length. 

These carnivorous, cannibalistic beasts devour most everything they bite, including members of their own kind; the biggest bulls easily eat medium-sized bulls. All sharks have healthy appetites, but bulls tend toward gorging themselves excessively. Their ravenous feeding habits contribute to the maintenance of their bulky body mass. Consequently, anglers commonly catch six-foot bull sharks on twenty-pound baits rigged for huge tigers or great hammerheads. 

Bull sharks occupy an expansive range globally, occupying both tropical and subtropical waters.  Additionally, they're one of only a few species of sharks capable of tolerating freshwater. Across the world, they often show up in large rivers and around the deltas where the streams merge with saltwater. Legends suggest bulls sometimes venture hundreds of miles upriver.

Reliable evidence shows bulls have pushed as far up the Mississippi River as the state of Illinois. Closer to home, these versatile predators commonly swim through channels and passes into our back bays, coves and lakes. The state record bull shark was caught not in the blue waters of the Gulf, but in the shallow waters of Aransas Bay, behind San Jose island. For as long as anyone can remember, anglers who choose to wade in this area have described encounters with bulls raiding their stringers and picking them clean.

But though bull sharks could show up in just about any place where water connects to the ocean, most of our encounters with them happen in the surf. Mostly during the seasons of spring and fall, large numbers of bulls run the guts fronting the beach. A trickle show up in March. By April, their numbers rise, as the jack crevalle and other fish come through. In May, the large breeders make their way in, to take advantage of the bountiful buffet.

Most of the big females enter the surf-zone carrying pups. They like to drop their young in the shallowest areas, close to the sand. The water in the inner guts becomes a kind of nursery to these pups.  Their main threats come from other, larger sharks. If they survive the summer, they often become part of the feeding frenzy of fall, taking advantage of the copious amounts of prey concentrated along the beachfront then.

Among sharking enthusiasts along the coast, any bull shark measuring over eight feet in length is considered a really fine catch. Anything over nine feet certainly meets the standard definition of trophy, in Texas. The late-spring bull shark run can be an adrenaline pumping affair. Hooking up with a 400-pound bull shark feels much like hooking a tank. 

While not the fastest man in a gray suit, bulls adeptly use their ample girth to do what they want, when they want. For this reason, a fight with a nine-foot bull can last longer than one with a similar sized shark of any other species. Seemingly fearless, these creatures fight as though they know they rank high on the list of the ocean's baddest killers.

When I target bulls, I use the biggest baits possible. Whole jack crevalle or large chunks of stingray have provided my best results. Both southern and roughtail rays will work, and of course, cownose rays are exceptional. Oversizing baits also provides the benefit of the possibility of a large tiger or hammer picking it up instead. 

Rigging for bulls can be quite simple; I utilize a single circle hook (20/0 or 24/0) at the end of a big bait and just let the shark eat it.  They may hit the bait more than once, but the good thing about bulls is they usually continue eating a bait until it is completely devoured. My leaders of choice are the—Incognito series setups with Tru-Sand hooks. This highly recommended pairing results in incredible success, not just for bulls, but for all shark species.

I enjoy fishing for these mammoth brutes because of their ample girth and obvious ferocity. My charter clients get a kick out of seeing how truly predatory this shark is. Bulls always display a menacing presence in a close encounter, partly because they have the widest heads and mouthfuls of some of the biggest teeth of any fish their size.

When caught, bulls battle to the bitter end. Males in particular have hellish reputations for being hyper-aggressive when dragged onto the sand. Studies indicate male bull sharks possess as much or more testosterone per pound as any living creature. I can attest to this first hand, after witnessing them practically walking on their pectoral fins across the sand to return to the water. 

Big bulls are indeed dangerous both in and out of the water; they're also extremely fun to catch.  Anglers can experience quite a rush handling these feisty critters, and all who attempt to do so should exercise caution.  Running with the brazen bulls provides an elemental and exhilarating thrill to shark hunters up and down the Texas coast.