Captain Mike McDonald never lets his clients wash hands or dangle toes in the water. He knows the splashing can attract big sharks that prey just below the calm surface.
“They’re not after human flesh, but they will bite it,” he says.
“They come up and bite your hand off, then spit it out and tell you they’re sorry, you’ve still lost a hand.”
The owner of Gul-R-Boy Guide Service in Georgetown, McDonald has professionally fished the Winyah Bay area for 22 years. Only in the last two has he specifically targeted sharks.
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Known for stealing catches, leaving the angler reeling in nothing but a bloody fish head, the predators have long been considered a nuisance to local fishermen. But, McDonald says that perception is changing.
“Instead of calling it a trash fish or nuisance fish, we started using the resource.”
As McDonald guides his 22-foot boat across the shallow mud flats of Winyah Bay looking for the tell-tell flip of bait breaking the water, the guide theorizes the sharks have moved into the surf zone and bays, foraging for food.
“People are amazed that there are so many big sharks in here,” he says, casting his net over a flipping school of palm sized menhaden. “Anywhere you see bait jumping, you can pretty much bet there are sharks not too far away.”
Bryan Frazier, a fisheries biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources agrees that most of South Carolina’s largest sharks are in our sounds and bays for the baitfish and nutrients they provide. Frazier says that the overall shark population is trending upward, rebounding from the overfishing that occurred in the 1980s. “As these populations rebound, fishermen are going to see an increase in sharks in our waters,” he says.
Up and down the Grand Strand, fishing guides now are specifically targeting sharks in the relatively shallow, protected waters of local inlets and bays because it gives clients the chance to do battle with big fish without going out to sea.
Captain Jay Sconyers, of Aces Up Fishing in Murrells Inlet, gained some local celebrity last year when he reported that a 10-foot great white launched from the water to steal a 30-pound redfish from him at the side of the boat. That shark was less than a mile from the breakers off Surfside Beach.
Sconyers is no stranger to the hunt for big sharks. He estimates that he’s made about 30 trips this season, specifically targeting the fish. Most of Sconyer’s shark fishing is within three miles of the beach, and his clients often hook into 500-plus pound tiger and bull sharks just beyond the surf.
“They assume you have to go super far out, but they are right there on the beach,” Sconyers said. “There’s just no other fish that big that you can catch in a half-day trip.”
Anchored in six feet of water within sight of the breakers of North Inlet, McDonald sets out two heavy rods rigged with both live and cut menhaden. Then, the fisherman does something unexpected. He grabs a light-weight rod and begins firing an artificial bait to the grassy shoreline.
Almost immediately, he starts catching fish. First, a small trout skips across the surface and is quickly released with a splash. Then he hooks into a larger red fish that thrashes around the boat, throwing spray and churning up the shallow mud before it is brought to the boat. McDonald explains that catching the smaller fish is not only fun, but part of a plan. He hopes the sharks will be attracted to all the commotion.
Moments later the drag starts screaming on the rod in the bow holder, an indicator that a much bigger fish is stripping line from the reel. After a few powerful runs, McDonald has control of the fish, and a 2- to 3-foot fine tooth shark is brought boat side, its head shaking, grey eyes flat and cold.
Around 20 pounds, the fish is small by the captain’s standards, but still bigger than the captain wants to bring in the boat. McDonald keeps the shark in the water and uses a long handled tool to pry the hook from the fish’s razor sharp jaws.
“Most people have no idea how strong these animals are,” he says of the bigger bull sharks, blacktips and spinners he sometimes catches that can weigh over 300 pounds and have been known to jump in the boat with fishermen.
“They’re so strong they’ll knock the console out of the boat, knock you out the the boat, break your arm, break your leg. Not to mention the other end of him, which is a mouth full of razor blades. They’re a pretty dangerous fish.”
McDonald recommends hiring an expert to learn to catch these larger fish, and to handle them safely.
“They’re a lot of fun to catch, I just I hate it when I get them to the boat ’cause they’re dangerous. So far I got all my fingers and I don’t wanna lose any of ’em.”