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Bonnethead Sharks: The Poor-Man's Bonefish

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On: Mon, Oct 4, 2010 at 3:22PM | By: Capt Gregg McKee

Fly fishing for sharks is a real challenge on the flats. It can be a labor intensive effort involving a lot of chum, bulky flies, and stiff, heavy rods. And big sharks are notoriously picky when it comes to feeding them a hunk of feathers. Fortunately, there’s one species that’s very user-friendly and can be caught year round throughout South Florida and especially the Keys: the bonnethead shark.

The bonnetheads, also call shovelheads in some places because of obvious shape of their nose, are the smallest of the hammerhead family. Although they rarely grow over three feet in length, what they lack in size they more than make up for in speed. These small sharks are crustacean eaters, crabs are nearly their entire diet, so you’ll find them on any shallow flat in South Florida. The bonnethead is so common and easy to catch down in the Keys that the guides there affectionately call them the “Poor-man’s Bonefish.”

Like most sharks, their sense of smell is amazing but their eyesight is comparatively poor. Cast a live crab or shrimp across the nose of a bonnethead and you’ll get an immediate reaction. The shark will frantically zigzag across the surface with its fin in the air until it tracks down the hooked bait. But getting them to eat something that doesn't produce a scent, such as an artificial lure or a fly, is a lot more difficult. That is unless you’re using the right color.

Several years ago I picked up a package of rabbit fur strips dyed in a color called crawfish-orange. It was a little too unnatural looking for my bonefish patterns but I thought the tarpon would love it. They didn’t, but one morning I asked an angler cast one of these crawfish tarpon streamers at a cruising bonnethead just for target practice. Unlike the tarpon, the shark went nuts attacking the fly. I’d never seen a bonnethead react that way to anything other than live bait.

Since bonnetheads have small mouths and like to pin their prey to the bottom, I used the fur to tie a weighted crawfish-orange shrimp pattern on a #4 hook and instantly started catching bonnetheads with ease. My anglers had a blast with these little sharks on fly and I also found out that bonefish love the color just as much.

A standard 7 or 8-weight rod is perfect for bonnethead sharks and fifteen pound fluorocarbon is as much tippet as you’ll need. Their teeth are sharp but their small mouth usually doesn’t reach the eye of the hook. Just be sure to use a pair of pliers or forceps when unhooking them. They can easily remove a nice chunk of finger tip if you’re not careful.

Bonnetheads are not a glamour species, but their “poor-man’s bonefish” nickname is actually flattering and well deserved. You can sight cast to them all year in the Florida Keys, even when it’s too hot or cold for the more popular bonefish and or permit. They don’t spook easily and will tolerate a lot of bad casts. This makes them an excellent species for beginning anglers. Ten pound bonnetheads are not uncommon and they can burn off a lot of fly line in a few seconds once hooked.

Since you can find these sharks everywhere in the Keys, even in places where the crowds and jet skis chased away the bonefish years ago, this is one species that you’ll have a realistic chance of catching without hiring a guide. Just pick a good looking flat on the downwind side of US-1 and look for the light grey dorsal fin cutting through the surface. Drop a crawfish-orange fly on a bonnethead’s nose and you’ll be off to the races.

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