Winter is on its way down here at the end of road in Key West. Hurricane season is over, officially, so it's time to break out the winter wardrobe - long sleeve shirts for those comfortably cool evenings! The effects of cold fronts will be felt more now these days as we continue to tilt away from the sun. The days are so short compared to just a couple of months ago, something I have always had mixed feelings about. It's great for those quick evening sunset trips and I don't have to wake up at some ungodly hour to go fishing. But I do love fishing those wee hours of the summer mornings for tarpon when they are rolling and popping baits from the surface.
Fishing the flats now is much like the early part of the year. Weather is the major factor to consider how we proceed each day. We will have plenty of warm calm days and fishing the flats for permit, bonefish and tarpon will be the primary focus. There will however be many more opportunities on the flats now as barracudas, redfish and jacks move back in to the shallows. Sharks of course will be plentiful and on a lucky day I might even run into a cobia traveling with a shark or sting ray.
On those dreary November days right before a cold front pushes through and the following cooler, windy days we may consider fishing the backcountry basins and channels for a plethora of species including jacks, sea trout, pompano and many others. Or maybe the many shallow patch reefs that will hold a variety of snappers, grouper and mackerel. There is always somewhere to fish and something to fish for in all but the worst of weather conditions.
There is a much overlooked species that roams the flats of the Florida Keys. I can't recall reading any magazine articles about this fish, except for maybe a quick mentioning and I'm sure I haven't seen any fishing shows highlighting this species. What is this mystery species? The mighty and elusive bonnethead shark! I've been wanting to write about the bonnethead for some time, but with so many opportunities to write about the big three, it has always been pushed by the wayside. So here it is, possibly one of the first articles dedicated to bonnethead sharks. Probably not but I like to think so!
The bonnethead shark is a member of the hammerhead family of sharks. Bonnetheads have a broadly shaped head much like a shovel or bonnet (thus the name) with eyes on either side of the bonnet. They are a small shark reaching probably twenty pounds at most and reaching a length of three to four feet. Being a shark their diet consists of anything dead or alive it can get a bite of, but their favorite forage are crustaceans, including crabs and shrimp. Bonnetheads are the 'baby hammerheads' you see in the research tanks during Shark Week where they show how sharks react to minute electrical impulses.
Fishing for bonnetheads is quite simple really. Any flat we fish for permit and bonefish will have bonnetheads. Since we are trying to catch permit and bonefish we usually ignore the bonnetheads. Invariably, if a bonnethead is hooked up, a permit or bonefish will swim by and the opportunity may be lost. Most days however, especially with anglers new to the flats, we'll go ahead and catch one or two. They are after all quite fun to catch and really cool looking.
Bonnetheads are pretty easy to catch. If you are using spin tackle and have rods rigged with crab or shrimp you are ready to go. The hard part of catching bonnetheads is they have the uncanny habit of switching direction just as a cast is made. The trick however to elicit a strike is to literally hit the bonnethead on its head with the bait. This is especially true for fly anglers wishing to catch one on fly. Bonnetheads have poor eyesight with their eyes stuck way out there to either side of their head, but they do possess and incredible sense of smell. When a bait or fly is placed directly in front of the bonnethead he will have a chance to possibly see it and will definitely smell and feel it as it falls toward the bottom in an attempt to flee and not be eaten.
Bonnetheads for their small stature are a great fighting fish especially on light tackle. Referred to as the poor man's bonefish, bonnetheads will make a long and fast initial run, getting into the backing on fly with the larger specimens. Most of the battle however takes place near the boat with the shark pulling hard to get away from this thing piercing it's jaw. Handling bonnetheads at the boat is fairly easy, but caution must be used. A bonnethead isn't going to take your leg off in one bite, they do have small teeth and can cause considerable damage if one was to get hold of a finger or hand. One must be quick when removing the hook and taking photos. When stressed, bonnetheads will empty the contents of their stomach all over you and the deck of the boat. It's pretty nasty and stinky. And never hold a shark by just it's tail when releasing. Bonnetheads can bite their own tail and if your hand is in the way, fishing is over and off to the hospital for some stitches.
Knock on wood, I have had only one shark encounter while in the water. I was catching lobsters and had several in my catch bag laying on the bottom. I chased after a nice hogfish with my speargun in hopes of adding to my bounty. On the way back I heard a crunching sound and thought oh crap a nurse shark has found my lobsters and is gnawing on them through my bag. When I reached my bag I see it is a bonnethead and I don't think too much of it. I swim at the shark and sort of poke him with my spear to shoo it away. The shark is defiant and really jacked up trying to get to my lobsters. I go at the shark again and this time the shark comes at me and bumps me in the chest. With that move I grabbed my lobsters and went home.