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March 17, 2014

South Florida Spinner Shark Fishing

Pick a fight with South Florida's spinner sharks.

Ever grab a stray cat? Then you have an idea what it’s like to hook a spinner shark. The battle will likely be over before you have time to read the next paragraph. At least that’s how it was before South Florida anglers figured out how to beat the odds that favored these sharks and their airborne antics. 

Shark skin is covered with tiny denticles, or toothlike scales. Combine that with the aerial gyrations ­spinners are known for, and you’ll see why fishing lines are pushed to their limit. And like that feral cat, they keep squirming as they vault their way to freedom.

Tough Package

Spinners are built like high school halfbacks: compact and muscular but not too heavy (60 to 120 pounds on ­average). Their signature moves include superfast runs made while ­tearing up the surface with spiraling leaps. Imagine the ­multiple propellers on an offshore power boat.

I remember, not so long ago, when I first tried to land spinners on light tackle. One entered the chum slick with its transmission in overdrive and grabbed the lure I’d tossed it. For the next 30 seconds, my reel blurred like a buzz saw, while the dervish took off for deeper water. I thought the run was slowing and that I had managed to curb it, then my line went slack after a final, spiraling leap. The same thing happened when I fished natural bait, and it wasn’t happening to just me. Was it possible, wondered anglers and guides alike, to actually land one? 

At first, we tried top shots and extra-long leaders, which made casting lures more difficult. We added wire leaders, but they invariably came back looking like a Slinky, minus the hook. It was only with the advent of braided lines that we started landing spinners on a regular basis. That’s with the possible exception of trendsetting fly guides, who started ­attaching their flies, joined to a short cable leader, directly to 60 to 100-pound monofilament butt sections.

Heads-Up

Even now, landing a spinner can be the worst of nightmares. Or, for aficionados, the height of nirvana. During the first few seconds, your heart pumps wildly, while the shark heads for parts unknown, leaving a trail of froth and foam. Your captain needs to stay on the lookout for double reverses, and be ready to move to keep the shark from jumping into the boat. 

I remember getting multiple hits on a single cast with a surface plug, and then having to stop reeling to avoid disaster when an unseen follower appeared, ready to launch himself at the plug on a trajectory that would have carried him into the boat. That one left me soaked from the splash. 

Spinners roam the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, from North Carolina and the northern Gulf south to Brazil. Frequently confused with its cousin, the blacktip, both are reputed to travel together. Spinners are renowned for their spawning migration that begins in late fall, which drives countless numbers into South Florida waters, specifically to the 50-plus miles of Atlantic coastline between Fort Pierce and Boca Raton inlets.

Welcome Winter

Typically they gather close to the beach, after arriving in force with the first major cold fronts of the winter. The best time to target these sharks is from December through April, when free-jumpers can be seen from the beach, and boating anglers easily spot them over the white-sand bottom. Every year the media descends on their arrival, with its breathless reporters and “eyes in the sky” newscasts, some of which even make it to national newscasts.