Elliot Sudal was just another hardcore New England fisherman with a particular passion for catching sharks when a video of him wrestling a big sandbar shark from the Nantucket surf went viral. Millions of views later, he found himself making the rounds on national morning shows and appearing on the evening news, and was quickly given the nickname “The Shark Wrestler.”
Well before gaining his thousands of followers on Instagram, Sudal had caught, tagged, and released hundreds of sharks in the Northeast, Florida, and the Caribbean. As a licensed captain, he guided private vessels across the country and ran shark-tagging charters in the Caribbean.
He also founded the Nantucket Shark Tagging Club and worked with NOAA’s Apex Predator Tagging Program to promote shark conservation, tagging, youth education, and teaching anglers to safely catch sharks from the beach. (The club has hundreds of members and landed 130 sharks in 2014.) Furthering shark research and conservation is at the core of all his shark-fishing efforts, and he will be collaborating with shark researchers this summer on Nantucket.
Sudal is currently writing a book on land-based shark-fishing methods, which he sums up in one sentence: “Toss a big chunk of bait out on a large hook and wait for a shark to pick it up.” However, the secret to success definitely is in the details. To increase your chance of hooking up and, most importantly, releasing the shark unharmed, follow his advice for getting started with shore-based sharking.
– Kevin Blinkoff
Sandbar sharks, known locally as brown sharks, are a highly migratory species found in subtropical waters around the world. The sandbar sharks we see in southern New England likely spend the winter months near Florida, the Bahamas, and the Gulf of Mexico. They arrive in Nantucket waters at the end of June, and their numbers seem consistent through early September. The Cape and Islands is the northernmost extent of their habitat in the North Atlantic.
Old-time islanders have told me that, years ago, sandbar sharks were so numerous on Nantucket that you would frequently see schools of them cruising the beach all summer long. Unfortunately, their numbers have been greatly affected by overfishing and from being targeted for their large fins.
Like many sharks, sandbars have a slow growth rate, a long gestation period (between 8 and 12 months), and give birth to small litters of pups. As a result, they are highly vulnerable to fishing pressure. Currently, they are listed by NOAA as a prohibited species and must be released by recreational anglers.
Fishermen can help scientists gather information about sandbar shark biology and aid in their recovery by participating in the NOAA Apex Predator Tagging Program. Contact the program at sharkrecap@ noaa.gov and you’ll receive a tagging kit containing numbered tags on self-addressed return postcards for recording tagging information along with a tagging needle and instructions.
Rod and Reel Selection
The majority of the sandbars I catch are females in the 5- to 7-foot range, and the largest I’ve landed was 8½ feet and weighed around 250 pounds. They are big, powerful animals, and you need heavy tackle to land them.
There are a variety of rods suitable for shark fishing in the surf. Your setup should be able to toss at least 8 ounces 50 feet into the surf. There are plenty of surf rods that can handle such a load (even if rated for slightly less). Longer surf rods also keep your line higher and out of the weeds and waves.
I prefer using large spinning reels when targeting sandbars. The most important features you’re looking for on a spinning reel for sharks is high line capacity (300 yards of 65-pound braid is the minimum) and at least 25 pounds of drag. A quality reel is worth the investment— they last longer, perform better, and feel smoother.
Line & Leader
I believe that using braided line in this situation is highly advantageous. Reels can hold at least twice as much braid as monofilament, and the braid will have a much higher breaking strength. Braid casts farther and does not stretch, giving you a powerful hookset, and its smaller diameter cuts through the water better.
Braid comes in many colors, brands, and styles. I like high-visibility colors, so it is easier to see which direction the shark is moving. Hollowcore line is excellent because it allows you to splice leaders into it, creating a seamless connection. I would suggest 65- to 100-pound test for sandbar sharks.
Your setup is only as strong as its weakest link, and in this situation it is most likely going to be your connection between the leader and the braided main line. Unless you are using hollowcore line, you will need to attach a 4- to 6-foot section of leader material with a knot.
You can use monofilament or fluorocarbon leader material. There are many applications in fishing where the low visibility of fluorocarbon is a big advantage, but hooking sandbar sharks from murky water off the beach isn’t one of them. If you choose monofilament, use a dedicated leader material. I recommend Momoi’s Hi- Catch soft nylon mono leader, followed by Ande monofilament leader material.
The leader provides shock absorption and stretch, cushioning the shark’s headshakes and twitches. It also provides abrasion resistance. Sharkskin is essentially sandpaper, and when the shark is swimming directly away from you, the leader will be making contact with its body. Braid will definitely not hold up to this.
The absolute best connection is made with leader material spliced directly into hollowcore braid. The next best is using a Bimini twist to connect a pre-made wind-on leader, but they can be pricy. The simplest, most costeffective way is to tie your leader to your mainline. I generally use a simple uni-to-uni knot, but the slim beauty knot moves more smoothly through the guides. I use 80- to 100-pound leader material for sandbar sharks. (It is basically impossible to tie a proper knot with anything heavier.)
The rule of thumb when it comes to leaders is that they should be longer than the shark you are trying to catch. I usually shoot for 5 feet of leader, figuring there will be another 2 to 3 feet of wire.
Making your own shark rigs can be just as satisfying as tying your own flies. You can make them as simple or as ornate as you would like, so experiment with different types of wire, mono, hooks, weights, swivels, beads, and rattles.
Start with a 12- to 16-inch section of heavy mono with a weight, beads, and chafe gear strung through it. Crimp both ends with chafe tubing and a swivel. Place a sliding fishfinder swivel in the weight section, and then attach a pyramid sinker to that.
The chafe tubing and beads serve as shock absorbers from the weight banging against the crimp during a long battle. The beads clicking around underwater can also cause a curious shark to inspect your bait.
Attach a wire bite leader and hook to the weighed mono section. Singlestrand stainless steel wire is readily available, easy to use, and connects with a simple haywire twist. However, it kinks easily and needs to be replaced after most shark battles.
The amount of wire you choose to connect to your weighted mono section is a personal preference. The shorter the distance between your weight and hook, the farther you will be able to cast it. Eighteen inches of wire should be considered the minimum, and three feet would be the maximum.
Hooks in the 9/0 to 12/0 range work the best. Make sure your hooks are 3x or 4x reinforced. A tremendous amount of pressure will be focused on this small piece of metal for a long period of time, so don’t settle on a cheap, thin hook.
The two options are circle hooks and J-hooks. Circle hooks have a lower chance of gut-hooking the shark. Jhooks, if fished attentively, generally will not gut-hook them either. Go with circle hooks if leaving the rod in a sand spike.
Attach your hook to the rest of your rig with a haywire twist and attach the rig to your mainline leader with an improved cinch knot.
When your setup is rigged, give it a test. I like to hang the hook from the hitch of my truck, let out some line, pull it tight and apply pressure at various distances to test the connections and give me a sense of how much drag to set.
Sandbar sharks feed on skates, eels, bluefish, sea bass, squid, and crustaceans. I have caught almost every shark on strips of fresh bluefish. Bluefish is easy to catch, oily, and holds a hook well. Fresh bait is preferable to previously frozen, as the flesh is firmer and produces more scent. Cut the fish into strips, as opposed to chunks, and leave the skin on. A strip about 10 inches long and 3 inches thick moves nicely in the current. Push the hook through twice and try to hide it on a J-hook, but always leave the point exposed on a circle hook. Strips of false albacore rigged in the same fashion work great, and fresh, dead eels and menhaden are also productive.
Where and When
Sandbar sharks show up in southern New England when the water reaches about 60 degrees. Shallow, sandy areas warm up first in the spring. Wind direction, temperature, waves, tide, water clarity, moon phase and other weather-related factors play a big role in how willing to bite the sharks may be.
It’s an accepted belief among Northeast shark fisherman that an easterly wind turns off the bite. I have yet to find an exact reason why, but in my experience this holds true. Cold snaps, usually accompanied by northerly winds, can have a similar effect. However, the period right before a front can be incredibly productive. Waves produced by wind or offshore swells can make keeping a bait where you want it very difficult. Fishing in crashing surf is frustrating and rarely effective. Additionally, landing a shark in large, crashing waves is unsafe.
Contrary to what I have been told my entire fishing career, the shark fishing around the beaches of Nantucket seems to be just as good during the day as at night. My best luck tends to be right around sunset, but I focus more on how the tides are moving. Also, contrary to shark fishing offshore and down south, the bite is better when the tide is near slack. This may be unique to sandbar sharks off certain spots around Nantucket, but the most consistent bite for me has been during times of minimal water movement.
I also recommend fishing around slack tides because it is much easier to keep a bait in place. A weedy, fast-moving tide is frustrating to fish.
Hooking and Fighting
Getting the hang of casting heavy baits can be a bit tricky–between the lead and bait, your rig can weigh over 10 ounces. The farther you can cast it out, the better. I’ve seen sharks on Nantucket cruising right in the wash, but most of the time they seem to prefer deeper troughs between sandbars and drop-offs.
You will know pretty quickly if the amount of lead you have on your rig is sufficient to hold your bait in place. One of the advantages to using sliding swivels is the ease of changing your weight out.
I prefer to hold the rod in my hands with the bail open and the drag set heavy. I always like to feel exactly what my rig is doing, keeping moderate tension on the line. Should it drift sideways, get covered in crabs, or get picked up, I want to know as soon as possible. If you are fishing with J-hooks, you have about 3 to 5 seconds to set the hook before the shark swallows it and potentially becomes gut-hooked, so reaction time is important.
Leaving the rod in a sturdy, wellburied sand spike is an option, but only recommended with circle hooks. Set the drag as light as possible, essentially in freespool (or actually in freespool if you are using a bait-feeder or a conventional reel). On spinning reels, you will have to quickly open the bail, tighten the drag down, flip the bail back and set the hook in a matter of seconds, so be aware this can be a tricky maneuver to master.
Sandbar sharks tend to hit hard, picking up the bait and taking off. If you are holding the rod with the bail open, it’s an unmistakable feeling. Line will be rapidly spooling off your reel and you can feel the tension of the shark on the other end. With a J-hook, set the hook after about 3 seconds of consistent and committed pulling. I recommend pointing the rod tip in the direction the line is pulling, flipping the bail, and doing a drastic set as soon as line goes tight. It’s a big shark, strong line, large hook, and heavy rod, so put some muscle into the hookset.
Circle hooks don’t need to be “set,” as the exposed point will catch the corner of the shark’s mouth and become embedded as it swims away with the line tight.
Surfcasting for large sandbar sharks produces one of the most exciting battles you can have from the beach. A sandbar will pull off extraordinary runs of 200- plus yards, hunker down and hold its position, and occasionally even breach. During the battle, the most important factor is keeping tension on the line at all times. Depending on how you fight them and the amount of drag you’re comfortable putting on your setup, the fight can last from 10 minutes to an hour.
Landing and Releasing
Landing sharks on the beach can be dangerous, and no fishing experience is ever worth causing serious injury to yourself, others, or the shark. You will have to remove the hook from the shark’s jaw and return it to the water, so you will have to go into the surf and pull the shark at least partially onto the beach. Do not attempt this if the surf is rough, or if you are at all nervous about grabbing a large shark from the water. Sharks can move extremely fast and inflict injury to yourself and others, even when out of the water.
The basic idea here is to bring the shark as close in as possible and get him to coast onto the sand with an incoming wave. Once the shark is partially beached, you will need to grab it at the base of the tail and gently bring it up a few feet out of the crashing waves. Be as gentle as possible and try to slide it up as the wash from a wave comes in.
You should have long-handled pliers, wire cutters, and bolt cutters on hand. Give yourself a maximum of two minutes to remove the hook and return the shark to the water. Most large sharks are rather docile when up on the sand, but that does not mean they cannot turn on you at lightning speed. If you position yourself directly facing the shark head-on, you can lift its mouth open by gently bracing its nose and pushing upward, giving you access to the hook. If the hook is in such a position that you cannot remove it, use bolt cutters to cut the hook in half and allow it to slide out easily. If the hook has been swallowed or it’s taking you too long to get it out, snipping the wire might be the safest option for the shark. Make sure to cut the wire as close to the hook as possible, and avoid this unless absolutely necessary.
When the hook is free, quickly snap your photos and return the shark to the water. Slide it into the wash from a wave and gently bring it back into the surf. When it is in a foot or two of water, spin it so its head is pointing offshore and guide it back toward deeper water. More often than not, they will take off rather quickly once they get a little water over their gills and get reoriented.
Always be aware of how you are presenting the sport of land-based sharking. Never set up near where people are swimming. If you get a crowd of beachgoers while you’re hooked up, be respectful and ready to explain that sandbar sharks are docile scavengers that have never attacked a human unprovoked. Treat the shark with the utmost respect, and return it quickly to the water.
Sandbar sharks are a protected species and a conservation-based mindset is necessary if you are going to take part in this sport. After you have experience with landing a few sharks, consider becoming part of the Apex Predator Tagging Program. It’s a federally funded tagging program that’s been going on for over 50 years, overseen by NOAA. It contributes important data on migration and growth patterns of many shark species throughout the Atlantic. It is free to join, and is a good cause. Visit NOAA’s website to enroll.