It's that time of year again when the headlines start to pop up:
SHARKS SWARM ALONG BEACHES!!!
Yep, sharks are doing their thing now, swarming northward after the vast baitfish schools — as they have every year since there have been baitfish and sharks. With them travel all sorts of camp followers, such as king mackerel and Spanish macks, cobia and jacks, ladyfish and tarpon, and snook and lots more, all driven by instinct to follow their food.
The migration is so obvious and intense along Florida's coasts — and the water so clear — that the swarms of sharks can't be ignored. They are as much a part of spring as the migration of robins and hummingbirds, but they create much more nervous energy among those who hang around the beaches.
The northward migration typically has been from late March through April, but the warmer climate of the past decade or so has gradually slid the movement earlier, sometimes even to early March.
The peak of the run typically starts getting into Bay area waters around St. Patrick's Day (March 17) and fritters out sometime before Cinco de Mayo (May 5).
It's basically about water temperature.
The baitfish — all sorts of sardines, menhaden and blue runners and other small fish that make up vast, flashing schools of tens of millions and stretch for miles along the coasts — move north more or less behind the 68-degree curve along the beach
Wherever the mass of bait is located, there also will be the mass of predators. And when you see a school of several hundred 8-foot sharks tearing into 10,000 ladyfish leaping for their lives — just where your 4-year-old was splashing in the waves an hour earlier — it tends to focus the attention.
Indeed, a few people get bit every year.
Going into the water when sharks and bait are mixed at such intensity is much like sticking your hand into a tiger cage at feeding time. And if the water is murky, as it often is with an onshore wind in spring, the sharks can't really be blamed if they can't tell your fluttering toes from the tail of a fat mullet.
(East Coast surfers often get the worst of this, because prime time for them is when the water is rolling and therefore murky. That also happens to be the time when sharks are most likely to mistake a hand for a ham sandwich.)
According to the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, in the 130 years from 1882 to 2012, there have been 663 shark attacks in Florida and 11 fatalities. Most Florida attacks occur on the east coast, but there have been a few fatalities, usually involving bull sharks, on the Gulf coast.
Shark biologists say they are convinced the majority of shark bites, at least along eastern U.S. coasts, are the result of mistaken identity. The shark is feeding, it sees a flash, it bites, and it discovers it has bitten Roger from Rochester rather than the blue runner for which is was hoping.
Giant hammerheads have been seen chasing tarpon in among the swimmers near Sarasota, chopping the 100-pound fish in half within 50 feet of the horrified tourists, then casually swimming off with the kill, trailing blood and silver scales without paying the humans the slightest note.
The humans, on the other hand, would take the event to heart.
That's not to say a big shark won't take a bite out of you on purpose if you present yourself to him, but they're not the dedicated man eaters we used to think they were.
In any case, for the next few months, the shores of the Gulf and southern Atlantic states will be an interesting place to visit, whether you carry a fishing rod or a camera. This is one time of year when you can stand on any Gulf coast pier, cast a live 6-inch mullet into the waves and hook up with anything from a 30-pound kingfish to a cobia to a 6-foot-long tarpon to a 300-pound shark.
It's an amazing opportunity without ever setting foot in a boat.