Toss a line into the water off a beach during summer in the southeast and there’s a good chance that the first thing that comes along to sample your bait will have sharp teeth and sandpaper-tough skin. And if you hook a shark and bring it to shore a crowd is sure to soon gather.
That’s why the small community of land-based shark fishing enthusiasts tries to confine its activities to times and places where swimmers won’t be found. In their perfect world, they would catch a large shark, bring it to shore, measure and photograph the fish and quickly release it back into the water. They don’t want the attention that often comes with landing a shark, although if someone does walk up they are more than happy to share their knowledge.
There are more than a dozen shark species swimming in South Carolina waters that a shore-based fisherman might hook into, ranging in size from the tiny Atlantic sharpnose pups that often are caught on double-hook bottom rigs to the giant 1,780-pound world record tiger shark that Walter Maxwell hauled in from the pier at Cherry Grove back in 1964.
Bryan Frazier, a biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and an expert on South Carolina’s shark fishery, said coastal sharks are parsed into two categories. Small coastal sharks include the Atlantic sharpnose, bonnethead sharks, finetooth and blacknose sharks. The larger coastal sharks include blacktips, sandbars, sand tigers, bull sharks, lemon sharks, spinner sharks, tiger sharks and nurse sharks. We also get scalloped and great hammerheads, he said.
Soon after Maxwell’s record catch in 1964, a ban was placed on shark fishing in the Myrtle Beach area. It’s banned from the Folly Beach Pier and Mount Pleasant Piers, and the town of Folly Beach recently enacted legislation that bans shark fishing from Third Street East to Third Street West. Hilton Head Island considered but eventually backed off regulation that would have prohibited fishing from the beach during the tourist season.
The land-based shark-fishing community generally breaks down into small teams of enthusiasts.
Mike Popovich, 33, of Mount Pleasant, is a member of the Requiem Fishing Team. Popovich moved to the Charleston area in 2010 for work. His father was in the Marine Corps so as a youngster Popovich moved around a lot. He learned a love for the ocean while living in southern California and a love for fishing while living in Pennsylvania.
“When I moved here, I wanted to be back on the beach. As brash as it might sound, I wanted to show my friends back in Pennsylvania, ‘This is what I’m into. While you guys are catching big trout and stuff like that, here that’s bait for me.’ I wanted to show them the teeth. That’s how I got into land-based shark fishing,” Popovich said.
He met the other members of Requiem Fishing, including founder Stan Warren, through friends and social media and they took him under their wing.
“They showed me what it takes to be a really good fisherman and from them I learned how to do it safely and how to respect the public. We get a lot of negative attention but we try not to draw attention to ourselves,” he said.
At first glance when you see land-based shark fishermen heading out to their spot you might mistake them for typical surf fishermen going after redfish, trout, bluefish or other saltwater species. They usually have a fishing cart or wagon to tote their gear but they’ll generally be pulling a kayak behind.
They don’t tackle big sharks with light spinning gear. Instead, they have stout rods and heavy lever-drag reels spooled with a thousand or so yards of line, mostly braided but often with a top-shot of heavy monofilament, a mono shock leader and a wire bite leader. They use Owner 12/0 bronze (not stainless) circle hooks. If you haven’t guessed by now, the kayak is used for deploying the large baits they use for large sharks. Even though they are fishing close to shore, you can’t cast the heavy gear that is similar to what offshore fishermen use to target billfish.
They also will use a 2-pound spider weight to help hold the bait in place in the heavy ocean inlet currents. The spider weight is a chunk of lead with four stainless steel arms that can be bent and grab the bottom like a small anchor but will straighten and allow a big shark to take the bait.
To get the proper bait, Popovich said these anglers often work their way up the food chain, catching a few mullet and cutting them up to catch species like whiting, then using that to catch rays. Or they hope they can get a boating buddy to give them a bonita.
“Without giving up our fishing spots, we get topographical maps and find deep holes, places where 20 feet off the beach the water drops to 36 feet, huge drop-offs,” Popovich said. They try to avoid beaches that would require a long paddle to drop the baits, trying to keep the baits within 50 to 75 yards of shore.
Interestingly, it’s the same technique Maxwell and his shark fishing buddies used back in 1964. But instead of a rotomolded kayak, they used canvas life rafts and paddle the baits out nearly a half mile from the pier.
“We mostly go to secluded beaches, but there are instances where people will come out on the beach,” Popovich said. “We keep the beach clean, and we mostly fish at night. We show up maybe an hour before sunset, set up all our equipment, get our sand spikes (to hold the rods) in the ground, our chairs set up, all that fun stuff.
“None of us really like to paddle out at night. We like to put our first baits out just before dark. We generally start at 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening and stay until about 4 o’clock in the morning. We leave before the sun rises and people start coming back out on the beach. The last thing we want is it to be 1 o’clock in the afternoon and have a 10-foot tiger being pulled up on a crowded beach.”
One of the lasting images from the move “Jaws” is shark fishermen ladling bloody chum into the water to attract sharks. But chumming is frowned upon by land-based sharkers and can get you ostracized.
“First of all, let me stop you right there. We do not chum. That’s a strict rule in our community, the land-based shark fishing community. Absolutely no chumming,” Popovich said. “We do our best to make sure the activities we participate in draw as little attention to ourselves as possible. The last thing we want is to be accused of chumming and somebody getting bit because of that activity. It’s something we avoid 100 percent,” Popovich said.
Even without chumming, they still manage to catch some pretty big sharks which come close to shore because of things like giant schools of mullet migrating up and down the coast.
Popovich said in recent years the Requiem team has been focusing its efforts to land big tiger sharks, even though he said they were told by a shark fishing expert they would never catch a tiger from the beach. Three years ago, he said, Warren caught a tiger shark that measured 12 feet 6 inches from the shore near Port Royal Sound. Maxwell’s record tiger measured 13 feet 10½ inches.
They have already landed a couple of big tigers this year and also caught a sand tiger that measured nearly 8½ feet, hammerheads, blacktips, lemons and sandbars, but only a few bull sharks.
The latter puzzles the Requiem team.
“Requiem has been keeping records of every shark we’ve caught since 2013, somewhere between 200 and 250, but only three have been bull sharks in South Carolina,” Popovich said.
The last thing anyone wants to see is a novice trying to handle a large thrashing shark. It’s dangerous to the angler, and dangerous to the shark.
“I remember the first shark I caught. When I was reeling this thing in all I could think was ‘How the hell am I going to get the hook out of its mouth?’ I was totally unprepared,” Popovich said.
“You cannot hit the beach without at least two, preferably three people. If you’re fairly new to the game, we’re talking three people minimum. As for our team, we all have assigned roles. The roles change depending on the angler.”
One person is the spotter, letting the angler know if the shark is going to cross over lines. He’s also the person who handles the leader when the shark gets close to the beach. When he sees the shock leader, his responsibility is to grab that and start pulling the shark closer. The other job is to put a rope around the tail to help control the shark.
“We don’t take the shark completely out of the water. We take it where it’s safe enough for us to get the hook out, measure the shark, tag it and put the shark back,” Popovich said.
“We record information like sex, identifiable markings and stuff and send it to NOAA’s apex predator program. We pull the shark back in the water and make sure it’s resuscitated properly and release it.”
Popovich said the best way to learn is the way he learned, by finding other shark enthusiasts online and on Facebook.
“The best advice I can give is to reach out to a team like that,” he said. “We’re willing to take out just about anybody as long as they bring the pizza!”