When Capt. Jack Callion steered his boat onto the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida Keys, I envisioned a scene out of the movie Jaws. That’s why I was so surprised when he handed me a spinning outfit roughly the size of what I use back in Missouri to fish for largemouth bass. Ultralight fishing for sharks? Go figure. Callion smiled at the reaction of another skeptic and quickly explained.
“Most people expect a gigantic rod and reel, a heavy-action rod and a fighting chair,” said Callion, 63, who has been running Callion Fishing Charters in the Florida Keys since 1985. “But we’re not going after Jaws. There are tons of blacktips in this area, and they’re a lot of fun on light tackle.”
But a medium-heavy action spinning rod and a reel spooled with 20-pound test line? To me, that seemed like hunting big game with a BB gun. Callion proved his point moments later.
Skinny Water Sharking
Callion and his son, John, guide out of Captain Hook’s Marina and Dive Center in Marathon. He specializes in sharks, though he concentrates on tarpon in the spring and takes fishermen on multi-species trips many days. After 38 years, he knows exactly what to look for. As we cruised a shallow flat, he spotted a “mud,” a patch of off-color water in a sea of turquoise. Callion anchored the boat a long cast from that spot and dropped a bag of chum over the side.
“Ladyfish will muddy the water when they’re in here feeding,” Callion said. “Where there’s food, the sharks usually aren’t far away.” Callion relied on the current to carry the scent of the chum into the area where the ladyfish had been feeding. Then he instructed my wife Jana and me to make long casts onto the shallow flat.
The rods hadn’t been in the holders long before they bowed over. First, Jana held on as a feisty shark shot to the surface and zipped across the flat. That had to be a big fish, I thought. No, it was a blacktip that just thought it was big. By the time she got it into the boat, we determined that it was “only” about 30 pounds.
“These blacktips fight like crazy in this shallow water,” Callion said. “We’re only in 10 feet of water. They don’t have a chance to go straight down. All they can do is go straight out. And they can pull like crazy. We’re fighting for fun, they’re fighting to survive.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon catching and releasing blacktip sharks from 15 to 50 pounds. Then a bigger one moved in to test the light tackle. The moment I set the hook, the shark shot across the top with amazing speed. I fought it for a few minutes before the line suddenly went slack. Broken line? No, it straightened a strong saltwater hook.
“That tells you a lot about light-line fishing for sharks,” Callion said. “Keep that for a souvenir. That fish was 75, 80 pounds.” Such moments aren’t uncommon for Callion, known nationally for his light-line fishing. He has been featured on national television shows with such industry giants as Mark Sosin and Bill Dance.
Tools of the Light-Tackle Trade
Callion makes his own spinning rods out of graphite and fiberglass blanks, often fitted with Fin-Nor reels. He spools the reels with 20- to 30-pound monofilament or braid with a 15-foot section of heavier line as a leader. Finally, he ties a shorter wire leader to the setup to avoid having the sharp-toothed sharks from breaking the line.
That setup has been money for Callion as long as he can remember. He has fished in the Keys near where the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico come together for most of his life. It’s a stretch that gives new meaning to the phrase “shark-infested waters.” That’s especially true in the winter and spring, when the blacktips move to Florida Bay to spawn. Once they drop back into the depths of the Atlantic, light-line methods often aren’t as effective because the sharks will dive straight down when hooked.
The Keys are home to many varieties of sharks, including nurse, hammerhead, tiger, lemon and bonnethead. But the blacktips are most numerous in the waters Callion fishes. On our trip, all of the fish were released, and a few were brought into the boat for photos before letting them go. “You don’t do that with the bigger ones,” Callion said. “You don’t want the bigger ones in the boat with you.”