Friday, July 10, 2015

Sharks Part 3

Maybe the shark attacks warrant another 600 words dedicated to the phenomenon at hand. It seems to be the hot topic along with the Confederate flag and marriage equality.
But with anything that includes the internet and social media, reader beware. The insurance commercial made the following line famous, “It is on the internet, so it must be true.” That is definitely not the case though.
Several shark photos have made their rounds lately with tag lines such as “just took this photo at the beach and look at all the sharks swimming in water less than knee deep” with a photo showing dozens if not hundreds of sharks. Someone started doing a little research, and found that many are photos that are just picked up off image searches and may be several years old. One guy posted a photo making the current rounds and then supplied a link to a USA Today article from a few years back in which the photo was attached.
Now that is not saying the sharks are not on the coast in droves right now. Quite the contrary, actually. The most shark attacks along our coast in one year on record was 2010 when we had five. As of the typing of this column, we have had seven in three weeks. With the July 4th holiday weekend and even more people visiting the coast, we will likely have at least another one or two.
I wrote a story a little over two months ago in which the only thing I was catching was sharks. I caught sharks on shrimp bait. I caught sharks using croaker or spot. I caught sharks on the croaker I was reeling in. I caught sharks attacking sharks that I was fighting to get in the boat.
As with anything now-a-day though, we seem to need an explanation. Well, an explanation is not really the word. We have to have someone to blame. While there are many factors into the abundance of sharks swimming and feeding (sharks swim and feed at the same time, so if you see a shark, the shark is likely looking for food) near our shorelines, the one that best explains it is a rise in sea turtle population and a huge abundance of bait fish located within the warm water near shore.
We cannot let that go though. Again, we need more than an explanation, we need something or someone to blame. Yes, climate change has already come up as a major contributor. I think, however, climate change will be used a reason for anything that happens for now and at least the near future.
I have heard and read that commercial fishing and shrimp boats are a leading factor. While I am sure there are some experts that will bring this up, I have not heard any as of yet. The experts still seem to stick to explanation rather than the blame. But there are some among the general populace that are adamant because they have made up their mind.
I also saw the other day where a moderately sized shark, maybe five or six feet in length, was reeled in from shore while people were playing and swimming in the ocean waves nearby. The first reaction is “why would they actively fish for sharks there if people and kids are playing in the water?” I understand that reaction.
But I counter. Remember, we have had a lot of shark attacks already in the last few weeks. A surf fisherman catches a shark near kids swimming and playing. The surf fisherman did not attract the shark to the beach. The surf fisherman attracted a shark already swimming there to his bait. The shark was already swimming there. As stated before, sharks feed and swim at the same time. The sharks are swimming there because there is already food there. The angler did the beach a favor by showing the people playing in the water that sharks are right there, they are hungry, and they will eat.
Don’t blame the angler. Accept the explanation that the sharks are already at the beach because real live food not on the end of a hook is also already at the beach.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Sharks Part 2

Jaws frightened the world back in 1975. The man-eating shark thriller quickly became the highest grossing film of all time selling over 128 million tickets at the time. It was enough to make people wonder whether it was safe to go in the water during that summer, and many summers afterwards.

The iconic poster with the woman swimming on the surface of the water with the sinister shark approaching her from beneath with a head as wide as she is long had people thinking what may be down there in real life.

As the 40th anniversary of the movie has come, the real life terror has come also.

Shark attacks on the coast continues to hit the news waves after what seems to be an unusually active summer for shark/human interactions. We have had a couple lose limbs after quick attacks close to shore, and two others with what resembles a small shark bite resulting in minor injuries. There became a slight buzz since the shark attacks when Google maps showed a marker for Mid-Atlantic Shark Area off the coast of Wilmington.

So what is with all the sharks? Nothing. It is normal. They are here every year at this time. The Atlantic beaches offer warm waters and lots of prey and food. Two years ago a video went viral showing a teenage girl fishing from her pier in a coastal estuary. As she got the fish to the top of the water, a large bull shark launched from below snatching her catch from the line and sending the girl into an astonished and frightened frenzy afterwards.

Last year, another video went viral with hundreds of sharks swimming all the way up the shore to the point of writhing back and forth as the seawater washed out, then swimming away when the waves came back up again, only to do the same thing again on the next wave cycle.

If you look up shark attacks per decade, you will find each decade has more than the decade before, and the majority are along the East coast. Why? Are sharks developing a taste for humans? In simple words, no.

Just in my lifetime I can remember beaches with people as far as the eye can see donning the sand and water, but you could stake claim on a small patch and have room to throw frisbees and footballs and run around without threat of hitting someone else. Now, during peak times, you may have to walk over a mile to access the beach because of public parking spaces being exhausted, and once you get to the beach you may be stacked two, three, or even more deep from the water.

More people equals more chances for a shark to misinterpret what it is seeing splashing around. There is a reason limbs were the attached parts of the body. A person’s arms and legs, with their quick movements, resemble small prey fish. And during the shark migrations when they are near shore, they are searching for food.

As I have mentioned in a recent previous column though, you just do not know what is below you. Very large sharks do not require deep water in order to swim and feed. Last week, a friend brought in a nine foot long tiger shark while surf fishing off Oak Island. I caught a five foot long shark from the kayak that had half of its tail ripped off and a larger shark bite behind the dorsal fin that was attacked while I was fighting it. My grandfather caught a 12 foot hammerhead while surf fishing Ocracoke three decades ago.

Big fish are out there. They always have been. Sharks are out there. They always have been. The difference is we are now out there, and we have not always been out there in the numbers we are today. Sharks will likely not attack humans simply because we are big bait. Sharks attack humans due to mistaken identity.

Avoid swimming in early morning, late afternoon, or evening hours. This is when sharks are most active and searching for food. Don’t swim near someone surf fishing. The attraction of an angler’s bait for other fish increases the odds of attracting sharks to the near area. With a little thought and understanding, maybe we won’t be the next poster victim for a shark thriller movie.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Sharks Part 1

It is the time of year when the heat begins to pick up to mid-summer proportions with a humidity level  matching the temperature. It is not like that everyday, but enough days to forewarn you of the coming dog days.
And there I was, just wondering, what gave me such a fight on the coast just a few weeks ago. What was it? How big was it? Can I duplicate the scenario and possibly get that fight one more time?
The unknown is both a great motivator and a great hindrance. Unfamiliar with talking in front of large crowds? The unknown drives you away. Set up on a blind date by a friend’s friend? Escape plan is in place.
But the unknown as in the big one that got away, well, it kind of ways on your mind for a while.
So, before dedicating some time to the piedmont and mountain rivers where the water is a little cooler and the heat is not quite as bad, I had to try one more time.
The best way to get the same results is to repeat the same steps. While paddling out I dropped some bottom rigs looking for croaker, mullet and pinfish I could use as bait. After boating a couple I cut them into two strips each.
Changing poles to a heavier, stronger version with 80 pound test line, I was ready to find out what was in the depths. Two lines were dropped, one from each side. After a casual ten minute drift, I noticed some action on one of the rods. Wait. Wait. Set the hook!
The fish started to run as the rod doubled. I found a good fish, but not quite what the one was a few weeks ago. I got the fish turned and began making progress bringing it back to the kayak. Then the line went limp. The leader was cut.
I reeled in the other line as well, and switched over to steel leaders on both rods. I attached heavier gauge steel circle hooks too. With three of the four fish strips left, I dropped them to the bottom once again.
I proceeded to bring in a few sharks, each of them being on the smaller size. I fished some more for baitfish, but the sharks were taking my shrimp just as quickly. Finally, I brought in another croaker. This time though, I decided to use the whole fish as bait.
That was the right thing to do.
I hooked into another shark, but much larger. The fight was more of a tug of war than a ‘take off and run’ type battle I had a few weeks prior. He would go down, I would pull him up. He would show a burst of strength and head down, pulling drag, I would wait and tire him a little more. Just as I got him to the surface, he just let go.
I never had the hook set. He was holding on to half the fish like a puppy to a shoe. Technically, he didn’t just let go. Technically, he just decided to bite down harder, cutting my bait fish in half right behind the gills.
The fight was fun, like many of the sharks I pulled in that day, including one that was just a little too big for me to pull up in the kayak, so I looped the hook off the leader instead. But none were my mystery fish from before. None of the sharks pulled and fought the same way. Maybe that is proof enough to rule a shark out of the equation.
With the kings and cobia starting to get close to the beaches, perhaps I can stand another heat wave in order to keep searching for the one that got away.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Big Fish in the Sea

When a relationship goes sour, it is all but guaranteed someone will comment, “it will be ok, there are plenty of fish in the sea.”
And there are. The oceans and seas are full of fish. I cannot think of a time when I went fishing at the coast and did not catch anything. I may not have caught the species I was targeting, but I caught something. And even though I write about hunting and fishing, I will be the first to admit that I will never be mistaken for a professional angler.
In fact, I just wrote a column recently about how great I was at catching small fish. I would love to say it is an artform. And, as mentioned in that previous column, catching small fish is an artform in some parts of the world. But I would say I am just a magnet for the smaller of the species.
I can live with that. I enjoy catching the fish, floating on the water, and seeing the sights around me. I catch as much peace as I do fish. It may be what keeps the stress levels down enough to let me see a retirement age one day.
That brings us to this last weekend. I decided to hit the saltwater and target a species I have never caught before from the kayak, the gray trout or weakfish as it may be called. There was also word that a few blues had made their way to the nearshore and inshore areas as well.
One thing I always try to catch is croaker. Just call it my ‘priming the well’ moment. I drop a piece of shrimp and hope to bring one up. Depending on the time of year, I will find black sea bass, pinfish, mullet and spot in multitudes that drown out my croaker catches, but again, I am reeling in fish so I am happy. Occasionally I may hook into something more interesting like a toadfish or lizard fish, or maybe a puffer. When I do, I am like a kid at an aquarium show and tell. Things like that fascinate me.
But as many fish are in the sea, they are not all small. Some are big. Some are bigger than what you want to know. And regardless of how good you are at catching the small stuff, the big stuff will sometimes bite too.
I brought in a small fish early. Since the blues were potentially in the area, I used the small fish for bait on one of my rods. After an hour of drifting slowly with the current using my anchor as a drag, the rod with the fish for bait doubled over dipping the tip into the water. At first, I thought I had snagged a rock in the 20 feet of water. But I quickly realized that I was not going fast enough in the current for my rod to react that way.
I gave it a quick tug. That set everything into motion. Whatever ate my bait fish, didn’t like me tugging. The drag started screaming from the line going out. I reached around and grabbed my anchor line and pulled it in as fast as I could. I used my paddle on the other side of the kayak as a rudder to get the kayak pointed in the same direction as the fish.
I gradually tightened my drag as the kayak began to move with the pull of the fish on the rod. Eventually, the fish was no longer dragging line, rather he was dragging me in the kayak. For sure, this would tire it quickly and I could reel in whatever this behemoth monster.
He pulled me into the basin against the current. Boats were passing by me. Waves were rocking me. But as long as I felt safe and visible, I felt I could continue to wear the fish down.
“Pop!” The rod snapped back toward me as the 40 pound test monofilament broke in two. My big fish was gone.
After catching many more smaller fish, including the trout I was after, I headed to the ramp and loaded the kayak and gear into the truck. A boat which was pulled out before me was being tied down by the three men who enjoyed their day as well.
“You got a trolling motor on your kayak?” one asked.
“No sir, I paddle.”
“No, I knew you didn’t. I was referring to that fish you had hung up out there. We saw you fight it for 30 minutes.”
“It was that long? I had no idea! It was fun though,” I replied.
“Yeah, we saw you hook on. We all reeled in, grabbed a beer, and sat back to enjoy the show,” he said while the three of them laughed.
At least I was being laughed at for a big fish this time. There are a lot of fish in the sea. Sometimes though, you may not want to see just how big they are.
The word is the kings and cobia are making there way into our coast, and in all likelihood, I hooked a cobia. Not having a gaff or club, a cobia would not have been a fish to catch on a kayak in that situation. Though I was not prepared for what may have been, it was fun.