Updated: Sep 12, 2018
An introduction to Land Based Shark Fishing techniques, gear and tagging efforts: It’s unlike any other form of fishing, and much more complex than most people think.
For starters, many people don’t realize the abundance of large sharks that can be found within casting distance of the beach. Many species frequent the shallows in search of food – stingrays, for example, are a common food source for many sharks and tend to cruise the surf. Schools of larger baitfish like mullet, menhaden, and herring also can get pushed up along the beach, where sharks can easily target them. Weather you realize it or not, you’ve probably been swimming or wading near some pretty big sharks.
Like most fisheries, the local abundance of shark species varies greatly by season. Many species migrate hundreds, if not thousands of miles a year in search of food, comfortable water temperatures, and reproductive grounds. Granted, some areas hold shark year round, but places like Cape Cod may only produce sharks for two or three months out of the year. There are some amazing natural events that attract sharks as well, such as the mullet run along the east coast of Florida, where tens of thousands of Blacktip and Spinner sharks congregate to feed on the massive schools of mullet. Tiger sharks will come in very close to shore during sea turtle nesting season, which occurs during late spring in Florida. Sandbar sharks flood the beaches of Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard in July and August, then basically disappear by mid-September. Understanding what species are in the area you’ll be fishing is a big part of land based shark fishing. Worldwide, there are over 500 species of sharks.
“It begins with a click. You’ll almost feel it before you hear it… just a subtle, building, series of clicks as your body floods with adrenaline. Ask any seasoned shark angler, your senses are heightened beyond compare in anticipation of that first pickup, and the world stops moving when it happens.”
This next part is crucial: pinpointing the exact right second to throw 60 pounds of drag onto this mystery sea monster. It’s a big bait and the shark is hundreds of yards away from you, set the drag too soon and it may not have the whole bait in its mouth, wait too long and they may drop it. Let’s just say you got it right this time… as you slide the drag to full and crank down with all your might the hook sets and this thing takes off. Time to get strapped into the harness and lean back as hundreds of yards of line peel off like nothing.
Shark Fishing Techniques
The following techniques are derived from years of trial and error, experimentation with gear, and tips acquired from other established shark fishermen. How you target sharks depends greatly on location and species present in the area. As with any form of fishing, personal preference plays a big part in regards to gear selection and rigs.
Casting for sharks is relatively straightforward. In many locations, they can be found within 100 yards of the beach and targeted simply by casting chunks of bait on heavy surf rods. The goal here is to display 4 to 8-ounces of bait, held securely to the bottom, using gear suitable for handling medium sized sharks. Where this varies from other forms of “chunking” is the need for a high capacity of heavy line, wire leader, and a rod capable of tossing a substantial amount of weight. There are several styles of sinkers that work well, depending on current and bottom type, but anchoring large baits in heavy surf conditions can be tricky as well.
There are many surf rods suitable for casting heavy rigs. Between the sinker and bait, count on tossing anywhere from 6 to 12-ounces in total. I prefer longer rods, anywhere from 12 to 15 feet seems to provide the maximum casting distance. Heavy fiberglass rods, such as Ugly Stiks, are going to be the most affordable option; they are durable and work well. You can spend upwards of a grand on custom, carbon / graphite / TC4 blended surf rods, but they are not necessarily beneficial when it comes to shark fishing. Pick a rod you are comfortable with, check the ratings above the grip to make sure it is suitable for heavy baits, and remember to match the style to that of the reel you intend to use.
I prefer large spinning reels over baitcasters, though both work well provided they have the appropriate line capacity and drag output. I will say that throwing heavy baits with baitcasting reels can be difficult, especially if you do not have experience with them. At a minimum, the reel should hold 300 yards of 50-pound braided line and put off 20 pounds of drag. My favorite spinning reel is the Shimano Saragossa 20000, which holds close to 500 yards of 65-pound braid and puts out over 40 pounds of drag. I have landed hundreds of sharks up to 8 feet in length with this reel and have yet to be spooled. Other comparable reels are the Penn Spinfisher / Slammer 8500 – 10500, Diawa Saltist 6500, and Quantum Cabo 80 – 120. Choose a well built, durable reel that will hold up to long battles in salty, sandy conditions.
Braided line is the best option when casting for sharks; the increased capacity on the reel versus monofilament and longer casting distance are very beneficial. A leader of mono or fluorocarbon is absolutely necessary, but for most situations a braided mainline is the way to go. I recommend a minimum of 50-pound class line, and 65 or 80-pound is even better if the reel can support it. Hollowcore braided line with the leader spliced directly inside it is the best option as it eliminates the need for a knot connecting the mainline to the leader. If using traditional braid, the “slim beauty” or “uni to uni” knots work well when connecting the braid to the leader. Use what knot you are most comfortable with as mono and fluorocarbon can be more difficult to tie in heavier line classes. A setup is only as strong as its weakest link, which tends to be this connection.
A leader of 6 to 10 feet is necessary for stretch and abrasion resistance; sharks skin is like sandpaper and will easily part braided line. Monofilament and Fluorocarbon both have their separate advantages, but either material in 80 to 100-pound test works well. I prefer fluorocarbon as most brands are more rigid, have a higher abrasion resistance and less memory versus mono. In my experience, a reel spooled with 400 yards of 80-pound braid and 10 feet of 100-pound fluorocarbon leader can handle basically any shark you could possibly cast to.
I’ve played around with many styles of rigs over the years. Rigs vary depending on bottom structure, current, surf conditions, species you’re targeting, and bait selection. Regardless, they will be a combination of a sinker, swivels, wire leader, and hook.
The size and style of sinker influences how effective they will be at holding a bait in place. Spider sinkers, also called sputnik or anchor weights, are the most effective at holding in sandy bottoms. Pyramid sinkers also work well and either variety in 4 to 6-ounces should hold in moderate surf conditions. A section of wire is necessary between the weight and hook; it should be between 18 to 30-inches long. The shorter the wire, the farther the rig will cast but the chances of getting bitten off are higher. There are two styles of wire, single strand or multi-strand. Single strand has many advantages and is easy to work with. Unlike multi-strand, it can be tied using a haywire twist instead of requiring it be crimped. Single strand is a better option for beginners but should be replaced after every shark as it kinks easily.
I strongly advocate the use of circle hooks when shark fishing. They are statistically more effective than J-hooks and much safer for the shark. Circle hooks almost always catch the shark right in corner of the mouth when fished correctly, avoiding “gut hooking” which is essentially a death sentence for the shark. Circle hooks are much easier to remove, especially when barbless. I highly recommend filing down or removing the barbs from your hooks, and bringing bolt cutters with you to the beach and cutting the hook if it cannot be easily removed. Hooks do not simply “rust away” in a few days, especially heavy gauge shark hooks, so do what you can to remove them. I have removed countless old recreational and longline hooks from sharks’ jaws over the years. Additionally, the use of treble hooks is illegal when targeting sharks.
Circle hooks in the 10/0 to 14/0 size class work very well when casting 4 to 8-ounce chunks of bait. Choose hooks that are 2x or 3x strength as the light wire hooks will bend under heavy drag. Gamakatasu big eye circles, Mustad Demon perfect circles, Owner Mutu’s, and Eagle Claw Trokar offset circles are all effective choices, consider going barbless as well. I frequently sharpen my hooks razor sharp, circle hooks are basically self-setting and more effective when extremely sharp.
Remember to include at least one barrel swivel into your rig to help with movement and avoid twisting the line. Be cautious of snap swivels as they may break or pop open. Crimp protectors, electrical tape, beads, and split rings can all be helpful in creating an effective rig. Once complete, attach to the leader and your setup is ready to fish.
In many locations, sharks are prevalent beyond casting range. When targeting larger sharks, big baits are the best option and cannot be casted. No spinning gear is capable of targeting sharks over ten feet in length due to line capacity and drag limitations. Basically, this method entails deploying large baits long distances from the beach, usually via the use of a kayak. The gear used tends to be the largest and strongest equipment on the market, traditionally used for targeting giant marlin and tuna offshore. These large conventional reels are spooled with upwards of 1000 yards of heavy line and left onshore as the bait is paddled out. It is not uncommon to drop baits 600 or 700 yards from the beach and they are held in place with large surf weighs or breakaways. Whole bonita, kingfish, or stingrays are used as bait… big sharks like big baits.
This style of fishing is more of a team activity and carries a variety of risks. You should have experience with landing smaller sharks before attempting this. Dealing with an angry 500+ pound shark is always sketchy, regardless of your experience level… for you and the shark.
The most dangerous part of this process is deploying the bait. Though this sounds like a simple concept, paddling straight into crashing waves is not easy and most kayaks do not preform well in this situation. Always wear a lifejacket and do not paddle into waves you cannot handle. Wear a light if going out at night and attach another to the kayak. It’s no fun flipping a kayak hundreds of yards from the beach in the middle of the night, tangled in your leader as the paddle floats away. No fish is worth risking your life.
As mentioned before, this technique utilizes gear designed for offshore big game fishing. The rods used here are not much different than what you would use on a boat, most are 5 to 8 feet in length and built with roller guides. There are some heavy rods available that work well for this application, but certain rod builders now offer custom rods designed specifically for land based shark fishing.
Large conventional reels in the 50,80 and 130 size class are commonly used, as they put out a tremendous amount of drag and have a very high line capacity. I prefer hollow core braided line in the 100 to 200-pound class, as a long shock leader is necessary and the ability to seamlessly spice it into the mainline is beneficial. Depending on bottom type and location, 20 to 200-yard mono leaders are essential. There is really no benefit to fluorocarbon, hard mono leader material between 150 and 250-pound test is pretty durable stuff. A heavy wire leader is necessary, up to 10 feet in length, and finished off with the largest hooks available on the market. Spider sinkers up to 2 pounds are commonly used to anchor the bait, but breakaway rocks or cinder blocks attached with twine also work well. Once again, circle hooks are the way to go here, most in the 16/0 to 20/0 size category are suitable. A barbless 16/0 Mustad Demon Perfect Circle, filed razor sharp, is my personal favorite when dropping big baits. I could fill many pages on the details behind gear and terminal tackle choices, but these are the basic strategies in regards to land based shark fishing.
Once your gear is ready to go, the next step in the process is bait selection. This can be a challenge in itself, as most tackle shops don’t carry large baits. There are a few options when it comes to obtaining large baits, the most obvious being to catch it yourself. If that’s not an option try reaching out to local fishing guides or walking the docks, more often than not they’ll be willing to help you out. I’ve even had luck asking for baits at fish markets.
Try to match your bait to what the sharks are eating naturally. In most places around the Gulf of Mexico and up the east coast, baits like bonita, stingray, kingfish, jacks, ladyfish, bluefish, barracuda, mackerel and mullet work very well. Sharks have an incredible sense of smell and are designed to hone in on bloody, oily food sources. Oily baits like bonita, bluefish, kingfish and mackerel put off a pretty good slick and tend to be found quickly. Fresh bait holds up better than frozen, especially with smaller selections. When rigging baits on circle hooks it is essential that the point of the hook is exposed in order for them to work correctly.
Once the baits are set it’s basically a waiting game until something gets picked up. When dropping baits, make sure the clicker is on and drag set very loose. The goal is to have the shark run with the bait in freespool until you feel it has a solid hold on the bait, then set the hook. This tends to be anywhere from 5 to 20 seconds, depending on bait size. It takes a while to get the hang of but you’ll get the feel for a consistent, committed run. Keep in mind circle hooks aren’t “set” like traditional J-hooks and simply throwing the drag and cranking down tends to get the job done.
I prefer to keep the drag set about hand-tight when casting smaller baits for sharks. If fishing this way, make sure to really secure the sand spike or rod holder as this will put a lot of pressure on them. Sharks have large mouths and little difficulty consuming a 4 to 8-ounce bait in one bite. The circle hooks set themselves as the shark swims away and the rod will double over and start screaming drag as they make their first run. This is somewhat of a chaotic strategy but a lot of fun to witness, and highly effective.
"The first run always tends to be the hardest and can give you insight as to what you’ve hooked."
Shark species all have different game qualities when it comes to actually reeling on in, but most are very strong fighters. Additionally, they can be hundreds of pounds. Blacktips and Spinners tend to be acrobats; they fight like tarpon. Big bulls and hammers will pull off hard, impressive runs. Lemons and tigers move in a slower, deliberate fashion using their size and mass against you. It’s always exciting to speculate as to what is on the other end of the line, but you never know for sure until you see that dorsal fin break the surface. As with any form of fishing, always keep tight and maintain constant pressure as you battle the shark towards the shallows.
Be extremely cautious when landing sharks on the beach. This procedure can be dangerous, especially in rough conditions or at night. The objective here is to get a hold of the sharks tail and slide them a few feet up from the surf, just far enough to safely remove the hook. Smaller sharks are actually more difficult to deal with as they are more agile and can quickly turn back on you. Large sharks are heavy and tend to be sluggish in the surf. Time your movements with the waves, they are much easier to slide with water flowing underneath them. This process is stressful on the shark; do not move them any farther than absolutely necessary. Remove the hook as quickly as possible, pliers or arc de-hookers work well, especially with barbless hooks. If the shark is gut hooked, immediately cut the wire as close as possible to the hook and set the shark free. This whole situation tends to be very intense, be prepared and have your tools close by and ready to go. Aim to have the shark released in under two minutes. If involved with a tagging program, get accurate fork length and overall measurements then carefully insert the tag at the base of the dorsal fin. Gently guide the shark back into the water and orient them in the right direction, they sometimes appear lethargic after release but quickly regain strength once returned to the water.
If you enjoy the sport and feel confident in your abilities, consider enrolling in the National Marine Fisheries Service Apex Predator Tagging Program. This federally funded tagging program is managed by NOAA and as been going on for over 60 years. It relies on recreational and commercial fishermen tagging, measuring, and submitting data on the sharks they catch to a database of over 600,000 tagged specimens in the North Atlantic.
For more information, click here.