The waters along the southeast Georgia coast have long been known as having a large shark population. While this information is daunting to some, for others, it represents the most accessible large-fish angling opportunity within easy driving distance.
“Lots of people come to southeast Georgia just to fish for sharks,” said Justin Bjorneby, of Darien.
Justin is a full-time guide on the coast, and while he chases everything from whiting to tarpon, one of his favorite species is the shark.
“This time of year, the nearshore shark fishing really heats up,” said Justin. “The shrimp boats cruising the area are like magnets for sharks.”
GON Editor Brad Gill and I had the opportunity to go out with Justin in mid-June to experience this action firsthand. Brad’s 12-year-old daughter Rileigh was also aboard, and she was about to have one of the most exciting angling experiences of her life.
Justin runs his trips out of Blue N Hall Marina off Highway 99 north of Darien. At the marina, you can launch your boat and stock up on bait, tackle, drinks and snacks before you go. We left at 9 a.m. and headed out through Doboy Sound and to the ocean.
About 3 miles offshore, there was a group of shrimp boats working in about 15 feet of water. Justin slowed his center console to a crawl and watched several of the boats for activity.
“Look for boats that have birds working the surface and dolphin surfacing farther back,” said Justin. “If you see active birds and dolphin, the sharks are likely nearby.”
Justin picked a boat with plenty of bird and dolphin activity, and he went to work.
Set Up: Justin shut down the outboard about 100 yards behind an actively working shrimp boat and started putting fish pieces of bait in a chum basket that was mounted on the back of his boat. He likes to use oily fish, like mackerel, but any smelly fish will do. The slick helps to attract and better concentrate the sharks to the rear of the boat.
Hooking up two rods with pogies, he made short casts over the side, allowed the baits to drift back 30 to 40 feet and set the rods in the rodholders.
“If the sharks are here, it won’t take long,” Justin said. “If we don’t get a bite in about 15 minutes, we’ll go try another boat.”
Justin didn’t troll, but he just let the boat drift in the current. He said that trolling, even slowly, will cause the baits to rise to the surface and not look natural to the fish. Also, bait on the surface is a big temptation for a gull, and if a gull picks up your bait and gets the hook, it can be a bad day. Just sit and wait, and you will likely get bit.
The dragging of the shrimp nets creates a mud line, and the sharks will often feed along that line. Focus near the clear side of the mud line, and you should find better results.
Gear: Justin prefers heavy-action, 6-foot spinning rods to control these strong fish.
“These sharks are tough fighters, and a hefty rod can make all of the difference,” said Justin.
The rods were mounted with 6000 Penn Battle reels spooled with 80-lb. test braided line. These reels have a great drag system and can stand up to the long, hard runs that a shark will make several times during the fight.
Keep the drag as tight as you can get away with in order to keep good pressure on the fish and tire it down.
Tackle: Justin fishes float rigs and freelines, but he says his best success comes when using a float.
The float rig consists of a 3-inch egg float on a 200-lb. test mono leader of about 6 feet in length. At the terminal end is a long-shank 9/0 bait hook. The long shank helps keep the leader out of a shark’s mouth and avoids leader cuts.
Justin ties the hook to the leader with a uni knot, but you may choose to use a crimp because the stiff leader can be very hard to tie. Above the float, Justin ties a double surgeons knot on the leader to serve as a float stop.
The freeline rig is set up the same way but just doesn’t include a float. No weight is used on either rig.
Bait: We fished dead pogies, and the sharks didn’t mind a bit. Justin would keep his chum basket full but also throw net fulls of pogies out at each new stop.
“These sharks are hanging out to scoop up by-catch that is thrown overboard when the shrimpers dump their nets,” said Justin. “There is a large variety of dead fish floating on the surface, so they don’t need to be that picky. Neither should you.”
Size: While a variety of sharks can be found behind the shrimp boats, the most common species is the blacktip shark. Fish in the 50- to 75-lb. range are common, but big fish can be in excess of 200 pounds. And when you get into one of those, you’ve got a real fight on your hands.
Landing The Fish: As the photographs show, we did bring some of these fish into the boat, but this is not a good idea for the uninitiated. Bringing a big shark in the boat is dicey, and you need to know what you are doing. It is easy to get hurt, not just from the obvious masses of teeth, but the tail is strong and abrasive. One good slap can do some damage.
One thing you definitely need is a long hook remover. Justin has one that is about 2 feet in length with a v-shape on the end to push the hook out of the shark’s mouth. You don’t want to go there with pliers or a Leatherman tool.
One blacktip may be kept per boat, but that fish needs to be a minimum of 54 inches in length (fork length). Those who like eating shark steaks say they are hard to beat marinated and grilled. However, you’ll want to make sure the shark is bled out immediately after catching it. You can do this by cutting the underside of the shark between the anal fin and the tail.
Duration: This action starts at the beginning of May when the ocean temperature gets warmer than 70 degrees and the shrimp boats show up in numbers. It will continue until early October when the water temperature drops to about 70 degrees. Then the sharks move south.
Don’t Anchor: Don’t anchor around the shrimp boats. You can impede their normal troll, and they have a hard time maneuvering around you. These boats are huge, and you really don’t want to be in their way. Treat them with respect, and they will do the same for you.
Family Affair: Justin said that a large number his clients are families. This is a great way to introduce your kids to big-game fishing. There are no 50-mile offshore rides or big seas to worry about, bites are frequent, and the technique is uncomplicated. If your family goes on one of these trips, it is almost a certainty that everyone who wants to will catch a big fish.
Rileigh boated three good-sized sharks on our trip, and she fought a fish of about 125 pounds for 20 minutes, and he broke off on the surface right beside the boat. It was quite a treat to watch her battle a fish about twice her weight. And she did it all on her own.
While this can be a great outing for the serious angler or a memorable family outing, I recommend you go with someone who has experience. Catching sharks, big ones, is not something to take lightly, but it is great sport if you are set up properly.
Justin does this on a regular basis, and he’ll have you fighting a big fish in no time. Plus, he knows how to hold the sharks for great photos.
Visit Justin’s website at www.lonewolfcharterfishing.com or give him a call at (912) 222-9794, and he’ll set you up with a trip you won’t soon forget.