OUTDOOR CORNER: Are sharks a cause for alarm in the area?

Lyle Johnson
Hikers enjoy the view along the trail to Grotto Falls in the Smokies.

Have any of you ever played the game where the participants line up single file and someone starts a two or three sentence story to the first person in line and it gets passed to the next person? By the time the story gets to the end of the line, it’s nowhere near the original story and it’s usually sensationalized a little. Human nature, you know.

I’m sure we’ve all heard that kind of thing at least once in our lives and just maybe we’ve participated in embellishing a story or two somewhere down the line. I decided to slide my new Kajun Custom Kayak off the pier into the Diversion Canal for a couple of hours of bass fishing early on a Friday morning.

After fishing just down from the pier, I ran into a young man fishing in a bateau coming out of a dead end canal. We exchanged pleasantries, “Catching any?” I asked. “No man, nothing,” was the reply, and he turned his small boat around and headed back into the canal he’d just paddled out of.

As I watched  him heading back and fishing along the way, a couple of ladies walking a dog crossed over a bridge over that canal and started a conversation with the fisherman that really caught my attention. “You aren’t afraid to be paddling in that small boat,” they asked? “We heard that a bull shark bit an eight foot alligator in half. That’s why we don’t go out in our kayaks anymore.”

The conversation continued a little longer, although it was mostly one way with one of the ladies lamenting about the sad situation of not being able to be in a small craft anymore because of the possibility of shark attacks in the Diversion canal. Seems like a bit of a stretch to me but I know how it got started.

Over the past two or three years, credible stories and at least one picture of a 75 pound bull shark caught in Lake Maurepas a couple of summers ago, does lend credibility of sharks inhabiting  the little lake during the summer months. I personally know a couple of commercial fishermen that have caught a small shark or two nearly every summer for the past 10 or 12 years.

This is how the story started. For some reason or other, there’s been an influx of paddlefish or spoonbill catfish as we call them around here. They are not really a catfish at all; they are actually related to the sturgeon. Reports of folks catching them on rod and reel as well as trot lines have really been more frequent than at any other time I can remember.

The reason that catching them at all is sort of strange is the fact that they filter zooplankton and other organisms out of the water as they swim along with their extra large mouths open. So hooking one on conventional tackle or a trotline is a very unlikely accident.

Here’s the real scoop; a commercial fisherman I know accidentally hooked one on his trotline he had set out to catch and sell catfish. There was a sizeable chunk of the 40 pound spoonbill taken out of its side in the perfect shape of a shark’s mouth. This is very unusual but very possible.

The next time I heard the story; it had changed and grown in size. There were two really big spoonbill catfish snagged on some guy’s trot line that they were bitten in half by bull sharks. The number of catfish and bites doubled while the way they were eaten went from a chunk taken out to being severed in half!

A couple of weeks later, I visited www.riverratrob.com looking for a photo of the annual Lake Bash to use in one of my columns and was greeted by this rather large headline that stated; “Lake Bash cancelled due to high water and shark sightings.” Then a disclaimer stated, “I don’t write them, I just report them,” which cast a little doubt to the validity of the headline. Hey, but who am I to say that couldn’t happen?

Don’t get the idea that I’m saying there’s no possibility of sharks in Lake Maurepas or even a little closer to home. I’m on the side of knowing that sharks make a jaunt into fresh water every summer, we just don’t always see them or the results of a big bite they might take for lunch. I’m not an alarmist either; the chances of a human getting bitten by a shark in Ascension or Livingston parishes is a little on the slim side. Anybody for a swim?

This week’s column is coming live at 4:00 am sitting at the kitchen table of a cabin in the Smokey Mountains. We’ll be leaving in a couple of hours for some fly fishing for rainbow and brown trout in some local streams around Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

We’ve already done some really nice things so you’ll get a full report next week. Remember to keep the slack out and set the hook hard. Until next time, have fun in the outdoors, be safe and may God bless you.