July 16, 2012
Two men stand tall in the weathered flats skiff, hat visors pulled low, staring intently through Polaroids into the crystal waters of the flats north of the Marquesas Keys, the water over the flats gradually sucked away by outgoing tide, the tidal flow consolidating until one can imagine rivers on the flats, the water finally flowing through channels into the Gulf beyond. If they're not already here, this is when the sharks are certain to come, nosing into the scent trail, the blood trail from the dead barracuda tethered off the bow.
Once eyes adjust to the challenge, one catches them moving in the distance, slowly at first, mere shadows over stretches of sand. There, one angler says, pointing. Yes, the other says. I see them. A hand drops, nervously, grabbing the line in front of the casting reel, pulling a bit, testing drag. The plug, a hard plastic crankbait with a shallow-diving lip, hangs ready just below the rod tip, connected by wire to shock leader connected to 400 yards of twenty-pound line.
Yes, they're coming, the scent trail leading through water so thin their backs break water, hounds headlong on the hunt, relentless, blowing up sand and water as they push through the shallowest water. Closing in, scent evermore intense, they "light up," moving faster and faster, bouncing excitedly, crazily left-right right-left like a knuckle ball gone bad, as they seek the scent source. Holy Moly, the angler thinks -- or maybe he says it out loud. Here they come. Moving so fast. So intense, such intensity is all about life and death, the ancient game played so well that sharks have been on earth for hundreds of millions of years.
At such moments, sharks may seem mindlessly intent, but so too are they innately wary. One cast. An angler gets one cast, pick a fish, make the cast. The cast must not land too close, must then quarter directly in front of the shark as it approaches in its frantic search for food. Too close and the shark spooks. Again, call it intelligence, call it instinct, just call it wary.
Cast made well, the shark, a large spinner, takes. No fish is so fast on the flats, not permit, not tarpon, nothing, nothing comes close. This fish has eaten the lure, turned 20 feet and already is six feet above the water, a hundred and a quarter pounds of wheeling, spinning flesh that touches down and then, an angler will swear to it, is in seconds 150 yards distant and in the air again, spinning, not head over heels, but spinning like a bullet -- the reason they're called spinner shark.
Can't believe it, he says. He's off.
No, his friend says, standing along the gunnel, eyes intent on the line hanging off the rod tip. Pick up line. Pick up line. Reel.
The fish has turned. Seconds have passed and, it is the truth, so help it, no one could make it up, the fish is out of the water 200 yards opposite the point where it was last seen, a 180-degree turn and impossible sprint. Now, unbelievably, the fish is in water so thin it can hardly swim down and come up, but it is, porpoising and spinning, porpoising and spinning, porpoising and spinning, seven times in rapid succession, this sprint taking the fish another 100 yards along a line perpendicular to the boat and across the flats.
Again, the line hangs limp at the rod tip.
Heads shake, the anglers look at each other, searching for an answer.
I said, Pick up line. Pick up line.
I did. I did. No one can reel that fast.
Then silence. They rerig. The wait begins for another shark.
Continued -- click on page link below.
Spinner sharks, apparently a larger version of the black tip shark, are the most spectacular of the sharks that hunt the flats. The other sharks won't disappoint, though, for in shallow water they all, with the exception of the nurse shark, fight like demons, just with different intent. Indeed, the character difference between the sharks adds excitement to the mix.
The black tip, probably the most common flats shark during most seasons, are just about as lightening fast as the spinner, but not so wild in the air. Some black tips don't jump. Those that do make headlong leaps, head twisting, turning, shaking, as the body continues to swim through the air. Most black tips weigh in at 50 to 80 pounds. On light tackle, they're one of the greatest sportfish in the world.
Lemons, sleek sharks, may weigh 200 or more, come in fast and hot, fight long and hard, making long runs, but usually stay subsurface. They, too, are one of the most common sharks of the flats in the Florida Keys and are present year long.
Bull sharks are brutes that may surpass 500 pounds, though most bulls on flats in the Keys seem to weigh up to about 250. The best fishing for them is during winter, from January through March. They swim steadily and strongly, never really exerting themselves in an instant, like the spinner shark, and therefore fight long and hard.
Very hard. We once stayed right on top of one, that is, kept the boat almost over a bull after it ran off the flat, sounding into water 20 feet deep, and fought the fish for an hour with intense pressure from 50-pound standup tackle, before the captain said, Hang on! And we ran full speed a hundred yards ahead of the fish, kept moving forward as we tightened up and then began fighting the fish forward. The fish planed toward the surface and once there we were able to touch leader and pull the hook on this 400 pound fish. Without this trickery, I believe it would have taken another hour to land this fish.
It's possible to encounter a monster on the flats, one of the Big Moes that swim the waters from Key West up to Marathon and beyond. Occasionally, someone will see a 20-foot hammerhead. I've had one 12 feet long -- a fish with a dorsal fin that stuck almost two feet out of the water -- eat a 100-pound tarpon at boatside -- blood, scales, and gore.
Most of the hammerheads I've seen on the flats have been the most wary sharks of all, almost impossible to tempt. Then one did the opposite one day, sneaking in -- they're extremely fast -- and grabbing the 'cuda hanging on the tether line from the bow. Poking the fish with my rod tip was the wrong thing to do, for it went ballistic and, jaws snapping, almost came into the boat. That one measured about 7 feet, a common hammerhead on the flats.
The water is too warm for cold-water sharks like the Mako to wander so shallow. I also haven't encountered tigers, although Keys guides suggest they swim shallow shoals during midwinter, just before spawning. Big tigers are built like battle cruisers, but apparently run much faster and fight much harder and longer than even bull sharks.
So I tell you this cast of characters are of substantial substance and character, fish fitting of the environment in which they swim, which is spectacular, one of the greatest sportfishing venues of the world. I could attempt to tell you, but go see for yourself.
A fine angler named Romney once said that, "Fishing's purpose isn't to kill time, but to make time live; not to help the individual make time, but to make time serve him . . . " Shark time is some of the best time of all, an exciting diversion from our common freshwater friends.
SHOULD YOU DECIDE TO GO . . .
The Marquesas lie some 20 miles due west of Key West, at the western end of the 120 miles of continuing keys that run from Key Largo to Key West. Two of the best captains in the area are David Esquinaldo (305-294-5670) and Nick Malinovsky (305-745-2326). Depending on the season, sharks may inhabit shallow shoals all along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.