Photo by Scott Sommerlatte
Brutes in the Bay
If you’re looking for a fight, sharks and jack crevalle are guaranteed to make your blood boil.
By Scott Sommerlatte
About 10 years ago, when I started guiding full time, stalking redfish and large trout with a fly rod in mere inches of water was my passion and the only way I cared to fish, so I marketed to the people who shared my passion. Then, one day, a couple of years into my career, it happened. A change of heart, that is.
I had just released a nice slot-sized redfish for a client, his fifth or sixth for the day, when I heard him ask, “What are the chances of finding something bigger?”
Surprised that anyone would want to leave what was turning into a superb day of sight-casting and remembering the first rule of guiding — do not leave fish to find fish — I thought for a moment and reluctantly revealed that I had heard of some bull reds working the base of the jetties on the outgoing tide. I quickly added that I was unsure how successful we would be throwing flies at them in the deeper water. He assured me that he was pleased with the day already and wanted to try something different. I obliged.
After an hour or so of blind-casting weighted streamers along the rocks, his line came tight and a brutal struggle began. Some time later I lifted a 20-pound jack from the water. Shaking with excitement, he quickly fetched a camera from his bag and had me take about 50 pictures. It was the biggest fish he had ever caught, and he was jacked (literally and figuratively). As for me, I was trying to keep my cool, pretending it was all in a day’s work, but silently thinking to myself — I could really get into this.
Over the next couple of years, I spent my free time exploring different ways to put my customers on jacks, both in the passes and in the bays. It had become an obsession, an obsession that led to another obsession.
I had heard some of the trout guides whining about all of the 20-to-30-pound jacks they were hooking over a popular mid-bay reef. I left the dock with a 5-gallon bucket of chum with the intention of bringing some of these big fish to the surface. Just about the time I had a good slick going and my fly rod rigged with a big popper, I noticed a 5-foot shark swimming through my chum line. Not really thinking, I tossed the large popper out in front and gave it a chug. Much to my surprise, it got the shark’s attention, and it started frantically looking for the offering, with no luck. On my next cast I put it on the shark’s nose and the game was on.
Nowadays, at least in the summer and early fall, chasing jacks and sharks has become a given for me when I have time off. As for my customers, the ones that have experienced the pull of one of these brutes, well, they are ready for some more. A good example would be my friend David Sams.
Sams is mostly known for the spectacular images he produces, but few know that he is also a great angler. Well, I can assure you he is — at least until you put 30 or 40 greyhounding jacks in front of him.
A couple of summers ago, I called up Sams and Marcos Enriques of the Orvis Co. and convinced them both to make the long drive down to Port O’Connor for some fun fishing. When we left the dock it was flat calm, and we all had tarpon on the brain, so I headed to the tarpon hole and pulled to the shoreline to get rigged and ready. Once everything was ready, Sams took the bow and I found my place on the poling platform. I slowly started the track to deeper water when I saw several large bulges of water coming down the shoreline from a couple hundred yards away. I announced that we either had a school of big reds or jacks heading our way. Sams quickly exchanged the 12-weight rod for the 10 and turned his attention to the wakes heading our way.
Before he had the chance to get enough fly line off the reel to make a cast, the knifing yellow tails of jack crevalle became apparent above the glassy water, and they were closing fast and starting to feed.
“Jacks! Cast, cast, hurry up, what are you waiting for?” I yelled at Sams, who had turned rubber-legged as the school started to cross the bow at less than 50 feet, annihilating everything in their path.
The water exploded and frothed as mullet fled the voracity of the school while Sams did his best to wrap us all in the fly line as he flailed away in a clumsy attempt at what might be called fly casting.
By some miracle the popper landed close enough to the fish to be noticed. Sams started stripping the popper as fast as he could while every fish in the school tried to inhale it. Before long the whole school was erupting at the bow of the boat and one finally had the bug. Sams somehow made an awkward and miraculous hook-set by raising the rod high above his head.
I screamed from the poling platform as I imagined my fly rod exploding into pieces, but it was done. The fish had felt the hook and turned with blinding speed to join the others in the school and the reel was screaming. “This is so . . . cool!” Sams yelled with satisfaction.
After releasing the jack, the three of us sat on the boat pondering why the jack is not more respected. The truth is, the jack crevalle is often overlooked because it is of very little food value. As a result, the unappreciated, hard-fighting jack crevalle is seldom pursued by anglers in Texas.
Every April, schools of jacks start to move from the offshore waters of the Gulf, where they spawn, to the beaches, jetties and passes. A few larger fish, usually traveling in pairs, find their way into the bays, where they can sometimes be found tailing on the grass flats. For the light-tackle or fly fisherman, these fish can provide exciting sight-casting opportunities. As the water warms, the large schools of fish will begin to migrate into the larger bay systems, where wade-fisherman using topwaters for trout and redfish often encounter them.
For anglers up to the challenge of landing a jack, the real action does not heat up in the bays until late summer and early autumn. While large schools of jacks are always present, they are easiest to find this time of the year, when the bays slick off. Anglers in poling skiffs and bay boats rigged with trolling motors can pursue large schools of 20- to 30-pound jacks as they ravage schools of baitfish along shorelines and in the open bays. The key to success is to get out in front of the school and present a large, noisy bait and move it as quickly as possible. This will produce a violent strike most of the time.
As for tackle, many jacks have been landed on traditional trout and redfish outfits; however, when released, the fish is usually overstressed and seldom survives. When you hook up a jack on light tackle, sometimes it’s best to just crank down the drag and bust off the fish — otherwise the angler is looking at a burned-up reel with no line, a dead fish or even worse, all of the above.
When fishing for jacks, a medium-to- medium-heavy-action 6-foot spinning rod with a reel spooled up with 10- to 12-pound diameter (about 25- to 30-pound test) braided line with a 40-pound fluorocarbon leader is a good choice for making long casts to fast-moving schools. For those who prefer level-wind gear, it is best to use an outfit that can handle casting large topwaters with 17- to-20-pound test line. It should be light enough to cast easily but still have the backbone to whip a 25-pound fish quickly. The reel should be able to hold at least 200 yards of line.
For the fly-caster, 10- to 12-weight rigs with a floating fly-line and a 5- to 7-foot -long, 20-pound leader with a 40-pound bite tippet get the job done. Most of the action is near the surface, so a fly box loaded with large poppers and bulky streamers will do.
Whether it is with a fly or lure, a fast retrieve is the key in duping jacks on artificials. But also remember, large jacks are not the only big fish in the bay that will eat a lure.
Just about every angler in Texas knows that all that is needed to catch a shark is a trip to the beach, a heavy rod and some cut mullet, but many do not realize that sharks can be duped by a well-presented artificial lure and even a fly.
The largest of the four species to frequent the near-shore waters and bays of Texas is the bull shark. While 6- to 8-footers are common on the shallow inshore flats, 4 to 5 feet is the norm. The best way to bring one in is to chum the flats near passes and deep bay reefs. When you sight a fish in the chum line, present a shallow diving plug as close to the shark’s nose as possible. If it does not respond, reel in and cast again. Remember, because sharks usually feed by smell and by feeling the erratic movement of injured fish, they will be challenging to feed a lure to. But it can be done.
The blacktip is a very close relative to the bull, although considerably smaller at 3 to 5 feet, and it exhibits quite a few of the same habits. Fishing for them, especially in the shallows, can take on a new spin, literally. Also known as spinners, it is common for blacktips, when hooked, to launch from the water spinning in midair. For the angler, this action can create some exciting moments.
By far the easiest way to catch bulls and blacktips is to fish near the passes and jetties with heavier tackle and large-cut mullet on circle hooks. However, to fish them with lures, anglers must scale down to tackle capable of comfortably casting plugs. Level-wind reels on a medium-heavy rod with 17- to-20-pound line would be a good choice.
As for the true light-tackle enthusiast, it is hard to beat the sport provided by bonnethead sharks and Atlantic sharpnose sharks (aka sandsharks) in the surf and on the flats. These sharks seldom reach more than 3 feet and provide excellent sight-casting opportunities for anglers tossing jigs, small plugs and flies. Also look for these species behind shrimp boats culling their catch. Once you spot a fish, continue placing the bait right on its nose. The key is try to get the fish excited enough to eat.
Medium action plugging and spinning gear rigged with 12- to 14-pound test will work fine for chasing these smaller species. When choosing a lure, slow sinking or suspending plugs and jigs in bright colors produce the best results. Fly anglers should arm themselves with a 10- to 12-weight outfit, depending on the size of the sharks, and bright colored streamers.
When in pursuit of sharks, remember that they have menacing teeth. This is a particularly important thing to remember when rigging and retrieving tackle. A small section of wire leader is a plus, especially when tying a $5 plug to the line to feed to a shark. Failure to recognize this could get expensive after losing the fifth or sixth plug, but not nearly as expensive or painful as making a mistake when trying to retrieve one of those lures — a quality pair of fishing pliers and a long-handled hook-out type device are essential. A shark can attack an angler’s hand just as viciously as the plug it was caught on.
For anglers who have not experienced the violent explosion or hard run of a shark or jack, I highly recommend giving it a try. It is not fishing for the table, it is better — it is big-game fishing in the bay.