Historic Charleston Harbor Boasts Great Shark Fishing

Just mentioning sharks conjures up images of vicious, toothy man-eaters that can bite a person in two. While true man-eaters, such as giant tiger sharks, prowl the waters off South Carolina, anglers fishing inside Charleston Harbor chase smaller creatures, but these mighty mites can provide awesome action on light tackle.

Charleston sits on a peninsula jutting into an excellent natural harbor. The bottom varies widely from mudflats to 25 feet deep, but some holes drop to about 70 feet. A 55-foot deep ship channel connects the estuary to the Atlantic Ocean. Several rivers lined with marshes plus numerous feeder creeks merge with the Intracoastal Waterway to create a vibrant estuary system loaded with prey for sharks.

Capt. Rick Hiott of Inshore Fishing Charters shows off an Atlantic sharpnose shark he caught in Charleston Harbor, S.C. (Photos by John N. Felsher)

“Sharks are the top predators in the harbor,” said Bryan Frazier, a marine biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources in Charleston. “There are lots of crabs, shrimp, menhaden, mullet, and other fish for sharks to eat. Larger sharks are actually eating smaller sharks and rays.”

Sharks Enter The Rivers
Bull sharks regularly enter the rivers. Blacktips also prowl the brackish systems. Inside Charleston Harbor, though, most anglers catch bonnetheads and Atlantic sharpnose sharks.

“Charleston Harbor is a good area to catch bonnetheads and Atlantic sharpnose sharks, which are both pretty sporty fish,” said Capt. Rick Hiott of Inshore Fishing Charters. “I’ve caught bonnetheads bigger than 20 pounds. A 20-pounder can put up a very good fight on light spinning tackle. They grab the bait and run. A sharpnose does the same thing. It’s great fun, especially for youngsters who don’t get a chance to do much fishing. We’ve caught 30- to 40 sharks in a day until we get tired of catching them.”

From Oyster Point, where the old section of Charleston protrudes into the estuary, Confederate artillery fired upon Fort Sumter, about four miles into the harbor, to start the Civil War in April 1861. Halfway between Oyster Point and the fort, many shark anglers fish the Middle Grounds. The ship channel runs near there. Anglers fish the channel edges where an uneven bottom ranging from about 13- to 25 feet deep offer sharks many places to hunt for food.

Capt. Hiott admires a bonnethead shark he caught.

“We catch many bonnetheads in the Middle Grounds,” said Capt. Jeremy Espiritu of Shallow Thoughts Guide Service. “Sharks are probably among the best fighting fish in inshore waters. Those bonnetheads really peel off the line. Pound for pound, they rank among the best fighters and are awesome to catch on light tackle. We’ve caught some close to 28 pounds. Sometimes, we catch blacktips, sandbar sharks and bull sharks. The waters around Morris Island and Castle Pinckney also have a lot of sharks.”

Menhaden, Crab Catch Fish
To start the fishing day, most charter captains throw nets to catch oily menhaden or mullet for bait. Some also buy crabs from local commercial fishermen. To fish for sharks, captains rig multiple rods with different baits including live menhaden, cut bait or cracked crab.

“For fishing crabs, I take the top shell off and break the crab in half to get the juices flowing,” Hiott explains. “A shark can follow scent in the water a long way. Then, I break off the claw and put a 4/0 to 6/0 hook through half of the crab and out the hole where the claw was. I don’t want to hide the point so that it has to go through the shell when we set the hook. Depending upon the current, I use a 1- to 2-ounce sinker on 20-pound monofilament and fish it on the bottom.”

With the baits in the water, Hiott places rods in holders to wait for action. Usually, he doesn’t wait long. When a shark grabs a bait, it doesn’t fool around. It gulps it down and takes off with it. The angler then lifts the rod from the holder, sets the hook and the battle rages. On light tackle, even a small shark can put up a magnificent fight.

A bonnethead shark, a relative of a great hammerhead, comes to the boat in Charleston Harbor, S.C.

For bigger sharks, such as hammerheads, go to the jetties. Long, partially submerged rows of rocks, some placed there in the 1880s, separate Charleston Harbor from the Atlantic Ocean. The rocks redirect currents and provide cover for baitfish. Big predators, including great hammerheads up to 8 feet long, come in from the ocean to roam near the jetties feasting upon bountiful bait.

For booking trips, contact Hiott at 843-412-6776 or 843-554-9386; or visit www.reelfishhead.com. To contact Espiritu, call 843-509-4751 or see shallowfishing.com. For lodging, contact the Town and Country Inn at 843-571-1000. On line, see www.thetownandcountryinn.com. For area information, see www.charlestoncvb.com.

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