Bay sighting of shark was no lark

OUTDOORS

July 30, 1995|By PETER BAKER

The mere mention of it brought laughter from my children and a quizzical look from my wife. A neighbor agreed to go along, but he, too, was skeptical.

"A shark? In this part of the bay?" Jim Phillips said, as we boarded the boat on a sultry afternoon almost a year ago to the day. "It probably was a big bluefish that did it."

Phillips, a fly fisherman more at ease casting poxy minnows for stripers or drifting nymphs for trout, and I were going shark fishing a few hundred yards from a popular community swimming beach at the mouth of the Severn River.

Two days earlier, while casting to a school of bluefish and Spanish mackerel feeding along a sharp drop-off, one blue was hooked and, for an instant, began to take line as if it were much larger than the other fish in the school.

The line then went slack, and was reeled in -- with only the head of a bluefish hooked through the lip. The fish's body had been bitten off cleanly, just behind its gills.

And while it is not uncommon to lose a hooked fish to a larger predator, the arc of the bite was puzzling. The jaws that bit away the bluefish were large, about the size one might expect to find on a 4-foot trophy rockfish.

But it was midsummer; the big rock should have been cruising off New England, and big bluefish have been so rare in the bay in recent years that a record-sized blue marauding off the Severn seemed implausible.

For my money, the big fish had to be a shark -- a sandbar or bull shark, both of which are encountered in the Chesapeake.

"So let's go catch one to prove your point," Phillips said. "I have heard of small sharks being taken at Thomas Point, but I never have seen one and I am not sure I believe the people who tell those kinds of stories."

On that day last July, however, Phillips had me doubting myself. Nonetheless, we caught a few snapper bluefish, and set up a drift along a hard edge where the water depth went from six feet to 20 and where blues and mackerel had been feeding heavily for several days.

The bluefish were hooked through the back and live-lined along the edge.

"Got a bump," Phillips said. "At least I think I got a bump, but whatever it was is gone."

A few minutes later, a large, dull brownish-gray form brought my bluefish to the surface, rolled with the fish in its mouth, dropped the bait and disappeared.

Was it a shark? In the space of a second or two, it was impossible to be certain. But it was neither rockfish, bluefish nor ray that rolled over to bite as sharks do and then dropped the bait.

Field guides and fisheries studies indicate that sharks -- especially mature bull and young sandbars -- cruise into Maryland waters of the bay in summer, when the salinities are high and the feeding is good.

Bull sharks have been taken along the Eastern shore up as far as Love Point. Last week, in fact, Doug Outten, a part-time commercial fisherman, caught a 7-foot, 300-pound bull shark in his nets off Chlora Point in the Choptank River near Cambridge.

Sandbars use the bay as a nursery area, and farther down the bay smooth and spiny dogfish sharks school in deeper waters.

Sandbars, which in the bay are rarely larger than four feet, and the dogfish, which run from two to three feet in length, pose no danger to human.

Bull sharks, which can grow to 12 feet but more often are half that size, have attacked humans, but documented incidents have been few and the sharks often have been provoked into an attack.

Fishing techniques for sharks -- whether for makos off Ocean City, tigers and black tips off South Carolina, or sandbars off the Severn -- are basically the same everywhere, although tackle should be downsized for young sandbars.

In the bay, where a big bull shark is a remote possibility and a 3-foot sandbar more likely, a reel similar to a Penn 209 will work fine. Spool it with 15- to 20-pound test, add a two-foot wire leader and use a long-shanked, 6/0 hook.

Sharks like underwater edges, sharp contours that attract smaller fish for them to feed on -- in the bay, blues, menhaden, spot and croaker, small rockfish and crabs.

Set up over such an area, start a chum line and drift.

Live or cut baits can be used, and fresh-caught snapper blues are a good choice for live baits.

With live baits, hook them firmly through the back, just ahead of the dorsal fin. Fillets are the best cut baits, and will work best if the leading edge is rounded and the tail end is split. The rounded front will keep the bait from twisting and the split tail will give it some added action.

Set three lines at depths staggered to cover top, middle and lower ranges of the water column you are fishing. Let out staggered lengths of line, say 100 (half an ounce), 75 (quarter ounce) and 50 feet (no weight) to keep the baits separated.

Set the reel clicker, but do not engage the spool, which will allow the shark to take the bait and begin to swim away unhindered before the hook is set.

Once the clicker sounds, point the rod in the direction the line is being taken, engage the spool and set the hook firmly.

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