As the summer sun heats the sands of our coastal beaches and predictable weather patterns settle in, big shark action simultaneously awakens. The weather patterns so far this year have certainly dealt coastal anglers some bad hands with the good. Interrupting the benign conditions, heavy rains, high winds, wildly fluctuating temperatures and an influx of sargassum weed have all confounded anglers' efforts at times. Perhaps the most predictable thing about Texas weather is its variability. Conditions change rapidly, often in unpredictable ways. Among the most reliable aspects of Texas weather are the relatively stable conditions which typically prevail during the year's hottest season. Barring the presence of tropical storm systems, summer weather in the Lone Star State means light winds, calm surf, green water and plenty of fun for people who want to catch some fish.
Many old-school sharkers saw June as the first full month in their fishing season; they thought of their sport strictly as a summertime activity, beginning about Memorial Day and lasting through Labor Day. These days, the use of modern techniques and technologies like drones, highly maneuverable kayaks, and jet-skies have helped sharking evolve into a year-round activity. By comparison, the decades of the 1960s and 70s, what I consider the "golden era" of Texas shark fishing, methods were somewhat primitive by today’s standards. The old-timers had good reason for thinking of summer as sharking season; the hot months provide the best chances of encountering four of the most revered species: lemons, bulls, tigers and great hammerheads. Like the sharkers who came before me, I look forward with eager anticipation to summer, hoping to do battle with truly big sharks.
Among the "Big Four" the lemons usually hit South Texas beaches first, though they're typically present for only a fairly short period of time. Along Texas’ southernmost beaches we see them first in April and they linger until around the first week of June. On the Upper Coast, giants up to about ten feet in length call areas like Matagorda home for the entire summer. Lemons are highly prized, partly because they're known to attain the greatest length of sharks likely to be hooked and landed on baits cast from the beach.
Lemons sometimes venture quite close to shore when foraging, like the night I hooked one while fighting a big bull. I had to reel in the line on a second rod I had out, to untangle it from the one on which I was fighting the bull. When the two lines separated, I left the second one out while I continued to battle the bull. After releasing the bull shark, I realized something had taken off with the bait I'd left out in the shallows atop the first bar. I picked it up, won a thirty-minute fight, and landed a large lemon which had snatched my bait in water barely deep enough to cover its back. Early in the prime sharking season, lemons can provide these kinds of thrills.
As the calendar strides into July in the Coastal Bend and places south of there, the Big Four devolves into the Big Three. Many of us wait for the arrival of the summer doldrums with bated breath; putting out giant shark baits becomes our singular obsession. We call the array of big baits we deploy from the beach our "spread." The most common plan is to stagger three to five big baits out over a fairly long distance, leaving ample space between them. Some folks like to deploy more, but I feel like trying to manage more than four or maybe five baits from a single camp becomes counter-productive. More baits means more risk, specifically of tangling multiple lines while fighting a big shark, which increases the potential for losing the fish. While four big baits perhaps optimize opportunity, one is enough to get the game started.
Two baits stand alone at the top of the list for attracting big sharks—jack crevalle and stingray. Big sharks typically cannot resist a thick, bloody hunk of the meat of a crevalle jack, but they're typically not feeding on the fleet and powerful fish during summer. The biggest predators prowl the shallows in summer to hunt mature stingrays. Both southern and roughtail stingrays move into the warm shallows to give birth to their pups. The large sharks come in at night to cruise the sandbars and guts close to shore and feed on these massive rays, which sometimes meet or exceed the 200-pound mark. Monster sharks consume the rays' wings bite by bite, until they're full. Consequently, my preferred bait for the summer doldrums are whole stingrays rigged on single, giant circle-hooks.
Those of us who love to battle big sharks respect both bulls and tigers; these brutes use their mass to their advantage during a fight. Though not the fastest swimmers, they often cruise at medium speed relentlessly after they're hooked, sometimes riding the side-shore current. When this happens, anglers become helpless until they force the beasts to turn and swim the other way. Whether a fight lasts for thirty minutes or three hours, an adrenaline surge occurs once the shark comes onto the first bar and hands reach for the leader. The first glimpse at the opponent makes all the effort worthwhile; looking into the moonlit eye of a twelve-foot tiger leaves a durable impact on the soul. Bulls are admirable creatures, truly impressive, but tigers are the kings of the beach, the very definition of apex predators. Both species are fairly hardy and when managed responsibly and in a timely matter, with the greater majority surviving after being released.
The shark of sharks, the one that has the most prestigious reputation as a fighter, though, is the great hammerhead. These are potentially the longest sharks we target in our land-based careers. My personal best, ranking among the top five in the U.S., measured 14 feet 8 inches. All hammerheads are speed demons. The giant great hammerheads take speed to an almost unearthly level; evolution designed them for speed and power. A monster great hammer, perhaps the pinnacle land-based sportfish, has the ability to strip all the line off almost any fishing reel.Certainly, catching and releasing such a regal creature can rank as the achievement of a lifetime. On a charter last summer, we successfully released the largest great hammer ever caught and released alive in the Texas surf, measuring thirteen feet. Anyone attempting to repeat this feat should keep the shark in the water the entire time it's handled, and the hook should be removed as immediately as possible. Best bet is to save time by skipping tagging and making only a single measurement to get the total length. Every second counts for the shark, and if it swims off with ample strength, the euphoria of the moment is truly monumental. Moments like these make Texas summer sharking the stuff of legends and dreams.