Sharp teeth, aggressive feeding, big and plentiful—sharks give Alabama anglers a thrill.
When my cigar minnow bait splashed down into the clear Gulf waters off the end of the Gulf State Park Fishing Pier, my hopes were high for a bite from a king mackerel. That’s what I had in mind, but sometimes our hopes don’t come true.
It just seemed a moment that my bait was in the water, but it surely was longer than that. Far out where my bait drifted down in the green water, a dark shadow appeared, and then a strong, sharp pull as my cigar minnow was taken.
The line then began to melt off my spinning reel as something fast and strong decided it needed to be somewhere else quickly. All I could do was hold on and let my big hooked fish run.
I realized pretty soon that a king would run somewhat faster than this big fish was doing, and a king mackerel would not be providing me with such strong and determined head-shakes as it pulled against me.
When I worked my hooked fish close enough to the pier so it could be seen from the high deck, it became obvious that my intended target of king mackerel had been replaced by a shark. This powerful fish was about five feet long, and it was very angry.
The water frothed as the shark fought against my rod’s pressure. Finally, my leader— which was entirely too light for shark fishing, even if I could have legally been shark fishing from the pier—gave up the ghost.
Shark and I parted, both in fine shape from our early morning tussle. And even though the anglers around me loudly expressed their disappointment with my shark, I had a great time fighting with that powerful beast. Shark fishing is fun.
Where Are They?
It might be easier to ask where are they not? Sharks of all sizes are extremely common in Alabama coastal waters, and it won’t take many hours spent on the saltwater of Alabama for an angler to encounter a shark.
There’s a hardy group of anglers who target sharks, especially the bigger ones-, for the thrill of doing battle with one of the biggest and potentially most dangerous fish in the water. These big-game anglers use super-heavy lines, leaders, and rigs, and they often fish at night.
Beach megashark anglers will paddle a kayak carrying a big, bloody bait out past the second bar and drop the bait into the dark nighttime water for a big marauding bull or hammerhead shark to find and take.
Mobile Bay is well populated with all kinds of sharks. Dixey Bar holds some big, aggressive sharks. The passes which lead to the Gulf are full of sharks. The beaches where our tourists love to swim and soak up the sun so much are home to both large and small sharks…of all kinds.
The offshore waters hold some huge sharks for the angler. The biggest I’ve ever seen was a hammerhead, which one fine June morning ate our hooked 20-pound king mackerel like they were peanuts. Our crew on a private offshore boat unwittingly fed this beast all morning as we fished over one of Alabama’s many artificial reefs.
This 10-foot shark was an impressive animal, and watching it as it gracefully chased down and ate our hooked kings killed any desire I might have had for a quick dip in the Gulf to cool off.
What Kind to Catch?
Most of the time, anglers don’t really get to target specific species of sharks. What shows up is what bites. Some of the more common species encountered in Alabama waters are Atlantic sharpnose, black tip, bull, and bonnethead sharks.
There are a number of species of sharks that are protected, and anglers should be aware of the kinds which must be released. Please check the sidebar at the end of this article for complete rules.
When asked to describe the fight of a shark, Karon Aplin, biologist with the Alabama Marine Resources Division says, “I’ve had big bull sharks in the ICW just peel line off the reel. They’re very powerful and energetic; it’s pretty exciting!”
“All sharks deserve a great deal of respect when caught.”
Most anglers’ reaction to the fight of hooked shark is, “Wow!” Sharks are a strong and determined fish. One thing to keep in mind is that no matter what size shark is caught— even the little two-foot long bonnetheads and sharpnose sharks—they will bite. And it will hurt.
If a big shark (and that means anything over three feet long) bites a person, the result will most likely be that the rest of the day will be spent in the ER getting repaired. All sharks deserve a great deal of respect when caught. The great big ones deserve a whole lot of respect.
How to Rig for Sharks
Surprisingly, large sharks can be caught on fairly light tackle if things go well and a little bit of pre-cast rigging is properly done.
Some fairly large—four- to five-foot-long blacktips and sharpnose sharks—can be handled on regular king mackerel rigs. An eight-foot-long medium action spinning rig with 20- to 25-lb test line will wear down a shark if the reel holds enough line.
Sharks hooked in open water can be allowed to wear themselves down on their strong runs, and the light line will generally be adequate.
The big if in the shark fishing equation is the leader. A steel leader is absolutely necessary. Some sharks can be caught on mono-leader if the hook is caught outside of the shark’s jaws and teeth, but this is just a matter of luck. It only takes one little touch of a shark’s tooth against a mono leader and the fight is over.
Also, a designed shark leader needs to be longer than a standard king mackerel leader. Shark skin is very abrasive, and if a shark “tailwhips” mono line above the leader, the line will part instantly. The steel leader on a shark rig needs to be longer than the shark so the tail won’t hit the mono during the fight.
For mega-sharks, anglers will need specialized and super-heavy-duty rod, reel, and line. Much of this heavyweight shark fishing is done at night off the beaches, and the bait— usually a big bloody chuck of bonito or stingray—is kayaked off the beach and out into the deeper water past the second sandbar off the beach where it is dropped for the big beach cruisers to find it.
Most sharks are caught on oily, bloody bait. Big chunks of mullet work, as do chunks of bonito and even parts of stingray works well. A big circle hook is very effective, and it almost always hooks the shark in the corner of the mouth and avoids gut-hooking.
When a shark is caught, anglers should be very careful to avoid those snapping jaws and teeth. It is not recommended to try and remove a hook from an angry shark. If the shark is to be released (and most of them should be), just use pliers to cut the leader and let the shark go its way.
Most of the time, the hook will rust out and the shark will be free of it pretty soon. Trying to get a hook out of the shark takes time, and keeping the shark out of water as a hook is removed is hard on the shark. It lessens the chance that it will survive.
Also, removing a hook puts the angler and everyone else in some danger. It’s just the best idea to cut the leader a few inches above the hook (use long handled pliers, please) and let Mr. Tooth go his way.
How to Cook Them
Cooked properly, shark meat is very, very good. Sharks are not bony fish, so when properly cleaned they provide a lot of light, firm meat. However, cleaning a shark must be done properly or the results will be very bad.
First, any shark to be kept for food should be immediately bled out completely. Sharks’ particular internal chemistry causes their blood to hold most of the urea in their bodies, and if the blood is allowed to stay in the caught fish, this urea will start to convert immediately into ammonia when the shark dies. This ammonia gives a nasty, strong taste to the shark.
To get rid of the bad stuff, we need to get rid of the shark’s blood. The easiest way to do this is to simply gut the shark and get it on ice immediately. Be careful when doing this. It doesn’t take long to remove the inside parts of the shark, including the gills, so the fish can be put on ice.
After that, the shark can be cleaned like any other fish, and it’s actually easier to clean a shark because there are no rib bones and such to work around. A shark will provide a large amount of good meat.
Karon Aplin says, “I cut the meat in chunks. Make sure to remove all traces of skin. Then I soak the chunks in milk or beer. This removes any lingering off-taste. I love shark! It’s firm, and it holds up to different kinds of cooking. It doesn’t fall apart and get mushy. It also has a good flavor.”
Shark, if properly prepared, is good just about any way—fried, grilled, baked—you name it.
There has been a lot of rumors lately about a change in regulation concerning shark fishing in Alabama waters. Glen Cornegay of the Enforcement Division of the Alabama Department of Marine Resources tells us that it is indeed legal to fish for sharks off the beaches.
There are a couple of specific points which bear knowing. First, anglers can’t chum for sharks using fish parts or blood within 300 yards of the beach. Also, anglers can’t target sharks close to swimmers. Both of these points seem to be common sense. Chumming is a very effective way to draw sharks from long distances, but chum puts sharks in a very aggressive mood, and they will, when really aroused, bite anything they come into contact with.
Anglers are not legally allowed to fish for sharks from the Gulf State Park beaches or the fishing pier. This doesn’t mean that the sharks always obey this law. But again, anglers can’t chum or use gear specifically designed for sharks. If a shark takes a bait intended for a king mackerel, there’s no problem. The shark cannot be landed either from the pier or on the beach nearby, so most anglers play the shark, have fun with it, and then tighten down the drag so the shark breaks off and goes free.
Also, some sharks cannot be legally kept. There is a list provided by the State of Alabama that outlines the species which must be released unharmed if caught. Most shark species have a 54-inch minimum length requirement (except for Atlantic sharpnose sharks and bonnetheads). These may be kept at any lengths.