Lemons on the Flats
By John Tulp
When you first come down from the north to try Keys flats fishing, you’re likely to bond with a particular guide who will become your mentor and flats god, and you’ll latch onto everything he tells you. On my first day out with Todd Bowen in 1980, he said, “You won’t hear this from everyone, but the lemon shark is the most underrated gamefish there is--provided you catch him on a shallow flat.” In the 35 years since, I’ve often thought what a great gift that remark has been for me. I could easily have been told something very different: “There are three great gamefish on the Keys flats--tarpon, permit, and bonefish. Anything else, except maybe a redfish, is beneath the attention of a serious flats fisherman.” If I had heard that from my guide as a rookie, I’d have accepted it as gospel truth...and my fishing life ever since would have been far less rich as a result. Lemon sharks have often given me a great day’s fishing when there was nothing else around. There have also been luckier days when I caught a variety of flats species, but sometimes it was still the sharks who put on the most memorable show.
Todd’s stipulation that they be caught on a shallow flat counts for a lot. A lemon hooked in 7 or 8 feet of water or deeper may give a slow, drawn-out fight, but one hooked in 2 feet with nowhere to dive goes wild and tears off runs that would do credit to any bonefish or permit. Small ones of 2 ft or so will give a fun fight, with more power and speed than a redfish of the same size. A 6 or 7 footer in the 100 lb range will give you a serious lesson in what you’re able or not able to manage with light tackle, especially if, like me, you’re getting towed around in a canoe at the time. For an overall cool fish on the line, though, my ideal size is 4-5 footers in the 40-70 lb range.
We tend to view sharks through a lens conditioned by “Jaws” and the like, and as a result they are a very misunderstood fish, especially when they visit the flats or mangrove shorelines. For example, most people assume they are the most violent of fish. I would say they are the most graceful, and when they reach a certain size the most ominously dramatic; but no, not violent. Consider the mouth of practically any predator fish. It takes up the direct front of his body and opens very wide. When he lunges at individual prey or a school of forage fish, he turns himself into a living spear. That’s what produces the jolting strikes we get from them on lures or trolled baits. Now consider the mouth of one of the lemon sharks cruising our flats. It is designed as more of a slit and is recessed well back on the underside of his head. If he crashed full speed into a school of mullet, all he would succeed in doing would be butting one or two of them with his nose. Instead you see him gliding along, more scavenger than predator, looking for some slow moving quarry that he can follow, investigate, and perhaps eat, in a quiet motion after careful consideration.
People also assume that sharks are gluttonous fish, eager to devour everything in sight. Again, not so. Of course, you can turn sharks into aggressive feeders by chumming, as you can with most fish, but that’s not their normal nature. (I’m struck by the way most flats fishermen would be appalled by the idea of attracting bonefish or tarpon with chum, but if they think about sharks they immediately head for deeper water and pull out the cooler of chum, instead of treating sharks as they would other gamefish on the flats.) A worker at Key West Aquarium told me a couple of years ago that a lemon shark can go 48 hours from one meal to the next. The one you meet cruising a mangrove shoreline might be looking for something to eat, or perhaps he couldn’t care less. In fact, a given, individual flats shark is far more likely to refuse a well presented bait than a bonefish or redfish, assuming they haven’t spotted you first. It’s still easier in a day’s fishing to catch a shark on the flats than a bonefish, because you’ll meet many more of them, and with their coloration and constant swimming motion they’ll be easier to spot in advance--but not because they are gluttons or pushovers in how you approach them.
These rather shy, reserved habits of the shark dictate more refined, precise tactics than you might expect for sight stalking them on the flats with no chum. The crucial zone of presentation is a circle of about 2 ft diameter right in front of the moving shark. Picture a beach ball balanced on the nose of a performing seal. Your challenge, using some reeling and an elevated rod, is to swing a small bait with a smooth, unhurried motion through that circle at his eye level. No fast or twitchy motions--he won’t like them. No casting the bait further ahead and letting it sit on the bottom in his path--he’ll swim right on by it. If your cast lands to either side slightly back of the circle, he’ll never turn around for it. Reel it back in as quick as you can and try again. If you cast into the center of the circle and he is ravenous, he might grab it. More likely he will spook. If you overshoot and speed reel the bait to get it into the circle before he passes, he’ll be alarmed by this thing rushing in at him and will spook. Flats sharks aren’t thugs, they’re shy and picky. If your cast lands a nice foot beyond that circle and then glides through it slow and smooth at his eye level, you’ll still get refused more often than you might expect; but you’ll get takes too, and with the fair number of shots you can expect on a normal day, you’ll get some fun hook-ups.
The tackle you want or this fishing is far from the stiff boat rod you might use chumming for sharks. You need a rod comfortable making accurate casts in very shallow water at 20 to 40 feet. The size of your quarry is also an issue. Most species have a fairly predictable size range, but with lemon sharks you might have some light tackle fun with a 10 lber and then a few minutes later in the same water be taking on a 100 lber with the same rigging. My suggestion for such a size range is to go light with the rod and heavy on the reel. The rod I use has backbone but isn’t heavy. A rod you’d use casting cuda tubes is about right. However, I use a Stradic 8000 reel, which is quite a bit bigger than that rod would usually take. The rod lets me enjoy a small, sporty shark; the reel has the strength and capacity to take on a jumbo, and the rod hangs in there okay. Big sharks have a distinctive way of jackknifing their body when fighting, and I find the elasticity of mono line comfortable for that, so I spool the reel with 12 or 14 lb mono. 20 lb braid would also be a good option.
You don’t need to go overboard with your wire leader. A long wire leader is awkward to cast precisely and becomes a twisted mess after a single hooded fish. I use just 6 or 7 inches of #5 wire, with a 4/0 hook at one end and a medium swivel at the other. Bite offs above that piece of wire are rare even with big sharks. However, they are quite likely to break you off by rolling on the line with their rough skin, so I use a 6 or 7 ft length of 80 or 100 lb braid between the leader swivel and the regular line. The bigger sharks still find ways to break off fairly often; that’s just part of the game. But this rigging is the best I’ve found so far for light spinning tackle, and it works well.
For bait I use a filet cut of whatever forage fish I have on hand---jack, blue runner, mullet, squid perhaps. I cut the piece about the size of 2 fingers extended side by side; nothing bigger is necessary.
Without trying to be particularly realistic I taper them to something like a fish shape. It hovers and undulates a bit as you draw it past the shark’s nose. Just a chunk of fish meat is another thuggish touch and doesn’t work as well. If a shark has mouthed a bait even slightly, I replace it. As I said, they’re picky. You can store 10 or 12 such baits in a baggie in the freezer, then keep it in a cooler in the boat through the day, and put it back in the freezer when you return home. One such bag can do for several trips, and you can replenish it out on the water as you go along.
There seems to be a widespread bias against lemon sharks as a target for light tackle sight fishing on the flats. Undoubtedly that’s a happy situation for the sharks, but it’s too bad for the many fishermen who would enjoy the sport they offer. Todd Bowen’s unusual advice has given me years of fun and excitement, so now I pass it on to you.
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