06. Shark Bait
Baits for Medium Sized Sharks, 5′ to 7′
A key factor in your system for catching and releasing a good quantity of medium sized sharks, producing almost every trip, will be getting your bait right. Never take your bait selection for granted, and never overlook how you take care of your bait.
Medium sized sharks can be much pickier eaters than largers sharks. A large shark will eat a big chunk of rotten jackfish, while a hungry blacktip will pass a fresh bloody whiting during late August to hit the chunk of ladyfish dropped thirty yards away. Sometimes sharks are very particular in their feeding preferences.
Having mentioned the importance of bait selection, it makes sense do discuss this further and develop an awareness and rational in selecting and using various baits. Let’s cover some patterns that I have observed fishing in Texas. If you are fishing other areas, just follow the examples covered and then think about the food chain in the surf where you fish and how that varies with the difference seasons of the year.
2002 Texas Sandbar Shark Case Study
As a new shark fisherman I knew sharks were picky, but it really became clear when we first started catching sandbar sharks during the fall of 2002. Sandbars are very discretionary in feeding preferences. I learned Sandbars would eat sheepshead, as one good angler reported a 7′2″ sandbar February 21st, 2002 about 9:00 pm on a sheepshead dropped 250 yards out off the Padre Island National Seashore.
During the fall of 2002, I caught my first sandbar sharks. I got a 6′9″and a 7′2″ sandbar on back to back casts November 11th, 2002 on chunks of cownosed ray about the size of my fist. These were the second and third sandbar sharks reported on the internet in Texas during 2002. These sharks were not common catches before 2002. We were actually shocked by these catches, and wanted to understand how to catch them consistently, We were trying to figure out what they ate, as well as the rest of their behavior patterns.
Next trip, we were fishing the jetty all night long. I remember my fishing partner sleeping on the rocks soaking wet. I had been casting out chunks of jackfish on two surf rods all night long looking for the next sandbar. The water temp was moving to the lower sixties. My fishing partner was starting to run low on bait by about 4:00 am; he had been casting mullet and jack out all night with no pickups. He had one small sheepshead in his icechest. He rigs up a chunk of this sheepshead, and chunks it out into the darkness. Within 15 minutes he has a nice 6′1″ sandbar stripping line off his Penn 9500. After we released the shark, he put what was left of the sheepshead bait on the hook, stepped on it to get it to bleed again, and casts it back out there. Thirty minutes later he gets another run. During this time, my rods sat still with nice fat chunks of jackfish on them. The sharks were obviously feeding on the sheepshead and ignoring the jackfish.
Next trip down, Bull Red Jim joins me. Jim brought a mountain of frozen bait. We set up and I kayak five rigs out with this frozen bait. Not a click the whole night. During the next day, we get our hands on two fresh sheepshead and a pompano, and we run just those three baits out. The prior night was so slow I wondered if anything was even out there. About 7:50 pm, the 14/0 with the pompano rolls lightly. Small 5′9″ sandbar. We still had two rigs out with the sheephead. Come 10:00 pm, one of the 12/0 starts rolling steadily, and keeps running while I get strapped in. Ended up missing that shark; spit the bait. 10:20 pm, the other 12/0 starts rolling away. This was a larger 7′+ class sandbar which we fought to the rocks. We got the shark on a rock with leader in hand when the hook pulled and the shark slid back into the water. Point was three fresh baits were nailed, every bait which had been run out, where as five frozen bait deployed the night before in similar conditions did not produce one pickup.
Following trip, December 21st saw some interesting patterns too. On early Sunday afternoon, we were packing when Bull Whiting Bob shows up. He persuades us to run a few baits out to “see how shark fishing really works”. We did not have any bait, but some nice folks gave us a couple of sheepshead and two mullet. I kayaked out all four. By the time I was coming in from dropping the second sheephead bait, a the first rod starts to roll, but the shark drops the bait. Next I drop the two mullet out. Well the drill went like this: the two sheepshead produced sharks within thirty minutes, a 6′2″ sandbar and a 6′5″ sandbar. Finally after sitting an hour, one of the fresh mullet got zapped and produced a 7′1″ sandbar. The sharks were going out of their way to get the sheepshead. They would hit a mullet, but would aggressively hit a sheephead. This discussion highlights the importance of either knowing what the sharks are hitting or figuring it out. Either way, getting it right is critical.
The Sandbar Case illustrates how picky a species of shark can be for a specific food source. The sandbar sharks were hardly touching frozen bait, and they showed a marked preference for sheepshead over mullet. In fact, they would hit a small chunk of sheephead faster than a large chunk of mullet. Key point is getting the bait right is critical to your success. Also note that what works one season may change in a difference season.
The Bait Plan
What does getting the bait right mean? Getting the bait right also means having an adequate supply of shark bait. It also means having and adequate supply of the preferred baits. It also means knowing what to do as a backup plan, if you are having a hard time getting enough bait. Finally, getting the bait right means knowing how to take care of your bait.
Taking care of bait means keeping it cold. I have seen countless guys catch a whiting, a great shark bait, and leave it in a bucket under the sun until they use it an hour or so later. Then they wonder why they are not catching sharks while they are doing everything else right. You have to take care of your bait. If you catch a sexy bait, and you are not going to use it immediately, you need preserve that bait with more care than if you were going to eat it.
When you catch bait, you need to get your bait into a cooler immediately. Many folks just slide their bait into the ice slush, mixing the bait with the chlorinated ice water. Ice is made with chlorinated water. If you drop your bait in the ice slush, it washes out and looses much of its good juices and oil. The preferred technique is to put your bait in a plastic sealed bag and place it on top of the ice, not in the ice water. This is another reason to not break the bag your ice comes in. When your bait is in plastic bag on top of the ice, it stays cold, fresh, and is not washed out. Do the same thing with your shrimp. If you just slide your shrimp into the ice slush, they will be washed out as well.
Caring for your bait means: (a) bringing a separate cooler for bait, and (b) bring enough ice for your bait. If I had to choose between cold bait and cold drinks, I would pick cold bait and drink my soda hot. I am writing on and on about this, since many people do not seem to get this point. If you do not take care of your bait, you are dramatically cutting your production rate down.
Good bait is the beginning, middle, and end of getting pickups. Taking care of your bait is work, but I cannot emphasize how critical this step is. Some days, the sharks will eat anything that you put on a hook. Other days, good bait means the difference between catching a couple of sharks and coming back empty handed. Recap: (1) separate cooler for bait; (2) enough ice to keep your bait cold the whole time you are fishing; (3) keep your cooler in the shade the whole time; (4) keep your fresh bait in a plastic bag on top of the ice and not in the ice.
Acquiring Enough Bait
We always prefer fresh bait to frozen for medium sized sharks. Frozen bait is always a smart backup plan. Two baits that seem to be effective when frozen are cownose and southern stingrays. During the last several years, there has been enough demand for stingrays that some bait houses have started to carry them. Call in advance, or find out from our members on the website messageboard which bait houses stock stingrays near your destination beach. Stingrays are relatively inexpensive, and it is nice to carry several rays with you as a back up, or primary bait. Frozen cownosed rays are higher quality shark bait that last a long time on the hook.
When arriving at the beach it is time to start catching bait. It is always smart to have one or two surf rods for casting to catch fresh bait. A nice 12′ surf rod with 17 lbs line can come in handy, allowing you to cast out 60 to 100 yards to target a variety of surf species which make great shark baits, including the large jackfish cruising the far side of the first sandbar. Another key item to have is a nice large cast net. Cast nets come in handy to catch schooling mullet and stingrays.
The morning is the best time to catch bait. Make it a point to try to catch enough bait each morning to last you all day. Overall the early morning fishing is easily three times as productive as mid-day. This is when the stingrays, jacks, ladyfish, and other predators will be closed to the beach.
State Gamefish Laws
As you fish for sharks, you will find the are great differences across states on what you can legally use for bait. I would hate to see someone get burned for using something something they thought was legit, and then get busted by the Game Warden. Game laws also vary by season. Please do your homework and be up on the regs.
Whiting is a decent all around bait. Whiting can usually be caught on shrimp, fishbites, or other cut bait. A good whiting bait ranges from 10″ to 14″ long. This bait is the easiest to catch in the surf next to the hardhead, This is also a favorite bait for catching giant stingrays. This bait is excellent for spring and fall. It is not as effective in summer as a skipjack or fresh mullet.
The mullet is a good tough bait for mediun sized sharks. Mullet are tougher that whiting, making them a good long lasting bait. Mullet often range from 10″ to 18″. Mullet are caught in castnets. Best time for action is early in the morning. Bull Reds also love mullet, when used as cut bait. When finger mullet are in the surf, you can thread six to eight of the 3′ to 5″ finger mullet onto a 20/0 circle hook and fish that bait for sharks.
Skipjack is a great bait when available. Skipjack can often be caught early in the morning on south Texas beaches. A good skipjack ranges 14″ to 24″. I don’t like to rig a section of skipjack whole, I like to use parts. I like to cut a 24″ skipjack into two or three baits. Skipjacks need to go on ice immediately. Best when put into a plastic bag before icing down to keep the bait from being washed out. Skipjack is my favorite summer bait bar none.
Along the Atlantic Coast and Florida, Bluefish are a top choice bait. These can be caught on artificial early in the morning. People that have fished bluefish swear by it. Bluefish must be iced down immediately.
If you live outside of Texas, Spanish Mackerel is a top of the line super bait. Except when the water is cold in the early spring, this is just about the hottest bait on the planet. In Texas, Spanish Mackerel have been classified as a game fish. If you run a spanish mackerel out and you do not get a pickup in an hour, the bite is definitely slow. Spanish mackerel is good when it is fresh. Mackerel get soft quickly when left in the sun, so keep them on top of ice.
Sand Trout are a very good but delicate bait. Everything likes to eat sandtrout including giant stingrays and tarpon. The skin is soft and delicate, but the bait definitely gets picked up quick.
Sheepshead is a great winter bait, the winter bait of choice. Sheepshead have large thick scales and tend to last a long time as a bait. Sheepshead strongly prefer a live shrimp. They can be caught off the bottom or under a popping cork. Sheepshead frequent jetty structures during the cold water months of the year. Sheepshead is my favorite winter bait.
Pompano are another outstanding bait. Often caught on the other side of the first sandbar, these fish range from smaller one to fish going 12+ inches.
Under very turbulent conditons, with a heavy chocolate surf, sharks will take hardheads casted over the bar or into a deep gut. A hard head is better than nothing and is on occasion a very good bait when other baits are scarce….sharks need to eat something.
Of the rays and skates, a wonderful bait is the cownose ray. Juvenile cownose ray school together in the surf and offshore during the summer time. They vary greatly in size, with small cownose rays going about 8 inches all the way to big ones going 25 to 30 pounds. I like to fish cownose rays as chunk baits. If the ray is 12 inches across, we will usually cut it up into several smaller portions and fish it as chunk baits. This bait produces good results year round and lasts a long time before crabs and small fish maul it up.
Stingrays are common on all beaches. Most locations have several varieties, and all are good bait. They can often be caught in shallow water early in the morning on cut bait. Sometimes they will be caught in a cast net at sunrise. Small rays are fished whole and larger rays are also fished as chunk baits.
These are just a few of the common baits available. Other baits that are less common and very effective are large blue runners, guitarfish, spotted electric rays, and brown eels. In a bind, you can catch small fish like piggy perch and thread several of them on a hook at once.